Universities and construction companies have come together to create floating nuclear power plants that could spell the end of the onshore energy powerhouses.
Following the nuclear disaster of Fukushima in Japan, The University of Wisconsin and Chicago Bridge and Iron (CB&I) have opened up the possibility of a nuclear reactor at sea.
Led by Jacopo Buongiorno, a Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, the concept is a nuclear power plant built on a platform similar to an offshore oil rig, which will float in the sea. The plant would be manufactured onshore and shipped out to sea where it would be anchored to the ocean floor.
According to OilPrice.com, an underwater cable would transmit electricity back to land, and there would be living quarters built into the plant, just like an offshore drilling platform. The reactor pressure vessel – the part of the reactor susceptible to overheating – would be surrounded by a containment vessel, and flooded with sea water.
Despite the risk of incidences seemingly reduced by moving plants offshore, the amount of power reactors would produce is very small in comparison - just 300 megawatts. To put this into perspective, the smallest reactor in the US produces 502 MW and the largest produces 3,937 MW - a far cry away from the energy required to overtake fossil fuel sources.
It is not the first time the concept has been thought of, in fact Russia is already two steps ahead of the R&D with plans to open their first floating nuclear reactor in 2016. However, the MIT-led prototype will be the first to combine a nuclear power plant with an oil drilling platform in its design.
Presenting the idea at recent conferences, MIT researchers say that OSMRs offer several advantages over land-based plants:
- Located in the sea means reactors will be less vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunami waves due to waves being smaller out at sea. Seismic waves would be absorbed by the ocean.
- Sea water would be employed as a coolant so the potential for meltdowns, like Fukushima would be dramatically reduced.
- Small floating reactors could be scaled up or moved around to areas considered vulnerable to tsunamis to avoid potential disasters, but also moved to support areas with limited energy resources.
While the pros of OSMRs appear to be unbeatable despite the power issue, there are some unanswered questions.
- What would happen to the surrounding marine life should an uncontained nuclear meltdown occur at sea?
- Terrorism. MIT researchers claim that offshore nukes would be harder to attack, but on the other hand, they would also be tough to defend.
Expert commentators has warned that the cons should not dampen enthusiasm for the idea. Nuclear has taken a massive hit in the public-eye for safety, but if the technology can be de-risked, surely its worth looking into more with the Russians leading the world.
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