Thursday, January 20, 2011

Coming next: underwater nuclear plants

There seems to be between the Russian and French nuclear establishments a race to see who will design and operate the most absurd and perhaps most dangerous new type of nuclear reactor.

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with the emerging issue of the floating nuclear reactors the Russian Federation is currently building to tug, lease and/or sell in various parts of the world, in order to produce electricity in remote regions and facilitate the development of subseabed mining, water desalination and other energy-hungry activities. (For more information on this Russian scheme click on "Floating nuclear reactors" in the right-hand column)

But today I've learned in the French newspaper Le Figaro that a French engineering firm is developing underwater nuclear power plants in partnership with the French nuclear giant AREVA, the French utility company EDF and the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). Le Figaro describes the project as a "low-cost" nuclear reactor.  Of course, the one million megawatts question is whether low-cost for the operator means high-cost for  the environment.

Well, relax. According to Patrick Boissier, the President of DCNS, the engineering firm developing the project quoted in Le Figaro, there's nothing to worry about. In case of a meltdown of the reactor or radioactive leaks in the ocean, he says they'll fix the problem by pumping seawater into the reactor: "Water is a natural barrier to radiation" (sic), says Mr. Boissier.

As I found it hard to believe, I did a little search on the Internet, and found an article on the website of the French engineering magazine L'Usine Nouvelle. If you watch the video that goes with it, I recommend that you turn the sound on: the music is very cool, it should help you relax if the thought of nuclear power plants rusting on the bottom of the ocean freaked you out.

Intrigued by the promotional video, and I then visted the website of the engineering firm DCNS, where they proudly advertise the project. In addition to the lead story, you can click on "En savoir plus..." (Find out more...). There, there are three subsections: The Market - The solution (Flexblue, the brand name of these underwater nuke plants) - and What "the" experts say (the quote marks around the word "the" are mines). Three "experts" are quoted: one is the director of the engineering firm, so that does not count (biased, obviously). The other two are seemingly French academics working for a foundation and a Paris university. They're both quoted as saying that there could be merits to developing small scale nuclear reactors, but they're not saying anything about placing them on the seabed. It's hard to tell whether these two researchers are quoted out of context, or whether they're on the payroll of DCNS. Maybe both...

In their website DCNS indicate that the initial feasibility studies are going to take two years. The idea is to anchor these nuclear reactors of up to 250 MWe at depths of 60 to 100 metres, a few kilometres from the coasts. Several reactors could be towed together incrementally as local energy needs grow. French taxpayers will be thrilled, I suppose. Fishermen and French tourism operators too.