Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Floating nuclear plants for cheap power and desalination

Russia has started work on the first of its floating nuclear power plants. It's a pretty simple concept; they've been using nuclear-powered icebreakers since the 1970s, and this is essentially just a nuclear-powered barge that can be hooked up to a city's power grid. It uses a newer version of the same reactors they've been using on ships for a while.

The economics of floating nuke plants are intriguing. They can be manufactured at a central location, sent out to where they're needed, and then sent back for maintenance and refueling periodically. This lets you centralize the manufacturing, scheduled maintenance, and waste management, which has traditionally happened at the site of each power plant.

Perhaps even more interesting is the cooling. It uses seawater as coolant, and the waste heat can be used to desalinate the water, making it drinkable. One of the 70 MWe Russian power boats could produce more than a million gallons of drinkable water every day, if it was equipped with desalination equipment.

Now consider the number of countries that are short on fresh water but located next to the sea. Most of the Middle East has this problem; they're more likely to fight over water than over oil. Turkey, southern Australia, and west Africa are all running dangerously low on fresh waster, despite sitting next to vast amounts of salt water. And all these regions need more electricity, preferably in small increments. Floating nuclear plants are a perfect fit.

One disadvantage here is energy security. It would put these countries' power and water supplies at the mercy of whoever owns the power boats. (Most of Europe is already dependent on Russia for their natural gas, and they're cheerfully increasing this reliance.) The obvious solution here is competition: another country, like the US or China or Japan, needs to get into the floating nuke plant market, too. All three countries are well-equipped for this. The US has a number of advanced reactor designs which would be ideal, as well as naval reactors which could be adapted to civilian power. China has a well-developed pebble-bed reactor program. Japan has a strong nuclear industry and the US would probably jump at the chance to team up with Japan to put some of those advanced reactor designs into production.

So, brief summary: floating nuclear plants can give economical power and desalination, and there will be a huge demand for them in the coming years, but we need competition.

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