Last week Russia made history by flipping the power switch on the “Akademik Lomonosov,” a cutting-edge nuclear power plant afloat in the Arctic Ocean. While the project has been highly criticized by some detractors, with some even referring to the Akademik Lomonosov program as “Chernobyl on ice,” the plant’s first week has been successfully uneventful, with the first electricity produced by the plant being used to light a Christmas tree in a symbolic gesture.
The floating plant will serve the tiny arctic city of Pevek in the northeastern Chukotka Autonomous Okrug region of Russia, which has a population of under 5,000 inhabitants and will enjoy heating from Akademik Lomonosov within the next year, no small gift in a town where “the average high temperature there is -11 Fahrenheit in January and February,” according to Forbes (emphasis added).
The Akademik Lomonosov plant was launched with the intention of phasing out coal-powered energy in the region by replacing it with zero-emissions nuclear power, in addition to replacing the aging Bilibino nuclear power plant located nearby and which serves the same power grid as the new free-floating station. Now, however, it looks like that goal has been postponed, as the Bilbino plant’s license has been extended another five years by Rosteknadzor, The Russian Federal Agency for Ecological, Technological and Nuclear Supervision, against all promises and expectations.
Just two weeks ago Forbes reported that “The new [Akademik Lomonosov] power plant will replace the technologically obsolete Bilibino nuclear power plant in the region, built in 1974 with the capacity to generate 48 megawatts. And a coal-fired power plant will also be shut down. Bilibino will be closed before the end of this year.” That reporting, while well-informed at the time of publishing, has now been proven wrong with this week’s unexpected license renewal for the “world’s most remote nuclear power plant.” Related: Big Banks Turn Bearish On Oil Next Year
According to reporting this week by Norwegian news outlet the Barents Observer, run by the Norwegian Barents Secretariat organization which aims to strengthen ties and financial cooperation between Norway and Russia, “Just one week after ‘Akademik Lomonosov’ started to produce electricity to the grid in Pevek, one of the three remaining reactors at Bilibino nuclear power plant (NPP) got a renewed five-years permission until December 31st, 2025.” The article goes on to explain that “one of the four reactors at Bilibino is already shut-down, while the other three were to follow as soon as the grid and the ‘Akademik Lomonosov’ came in place. That would likely not happen before earliest by the end of 2021.”
This is not the first time that the Bilibino nuclear power plant has been thrown a lifeline. When the plant came online in 1974, the reactors were only intended to be in operation for 30 years, but when that deadline came up in 2004, “the plant’s operational lifetime was prolonged with 15 years.” And furthermore, the Barents Observer points out, Bilibino will need additional extensions going forward, requiring “a prolonged license even if shut down by 2022, since the spent nuclear fuel most likely will stay in the reactors for a much longer period before decommissioning work can start.”
Even with the Bilbino license extended, however, the Akademik Lomonosov plant is still making major headway for development in the region as the initial stages of what Russia hopes will be ongoing growth in the northern sea. As reported by Forbes, “Russia hopes the power plant and all the development and infrastructure maintenance that surround it will create conditions for accelerated socioeconomic development of Chukotka and will become one of the key infrastructure elements in Russia’s development goals for its northern sea route.” This is all much to the chagrin of environmentalists concerned about maintainng the arctic oceans that are so essential to counterbalancing climate change and sequestering carbon.