By Karl Grossman
It was supposed to happen to the south of Long Island and was scuttled because of skyrocketing costs, public opposition and a lack of need. But the concept of floating nuclear power plants is back, demonstrating that some bad ideas never go away.
I ran into the scheme driving down Dune Road in Hampton Bays in 1974. On the oceanfront was what looked like a weather station, but on the chain link fence surrounding the various meteorological devices was the sign: “U.S. Atomic Energy Commission—Brookhaven National Laboratory.” What was this about? I called BNL and was told that the government set up the station to study the impact of radioactive discharges from floating nuclear power plants to be placed off New Jersey. The first four plants were to go 11 miles northeast of Atlantic City, 100 miles south of Long Island.
BNL was using a 75-foot landing craft on loan from the Navy, a chartered Cessna plane and a trawler. Clouds of smoke were sent up at sea. Because prevailing winds on Long Island are from the southwest, the recipient of the discharges was mostly Long Island.
I pursued the floating nuclear plant story for years. The scheme was hatched, interestingly, while a vice president of Public Service Electric and Gas Co. of New Jersey, Richard Eckert, was taking a shower. Company literature spoke of Mr. Eckert having a revelation of the sea supplying the massive amounts of water nuclear plants need as coolant. The utility convinced Westinghouse to build floating nuclear plants. A huge facility was constructed on an island off Jacksonville, Florida with the plants to be towed into position. The project was cancelled in 1984 after $180 million was blown.
Well, the notion is back. Six weeks ago, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, launched a barge in St. Petersburg to be the base for the first of what Rosatom says will be many floating nuclear power plants to go off Russia and also sold to nations around the world.
David Lochbaum, senior safety engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is highly critical. He describes an accident at a floating nuclear power plant as “worse” than at a land-based one. “In a meltdown, a China syndrome accident, the molten mass of what had been the core would burrow into the ground and some of the radioactive material held there. But with a floating nuclear plant, all the molten mass would drop into the water and there would be a steam explosion and the release of a tremendous amount of energy and radioactive material,” he explained from Washington. “It would be like a bomb going off.” A large plume of radioactive poisons would form and “many more people would be put in harm’s way,” said Mr. Lochbaum, for 18 years an engineer in the nuclear industry and an instructor for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Nuclear experts in Europe—including Russia—are as disapproving. Other issues raised include the floating plants being sources of fuel for nuclear weapons and easy targets for terrorists. The fuel the plants are to use is weapons-grade uranium. And Rosatom has been negotiating to sell them to nations including Malaysia, Algeria and Indonesia.
A book written by a group of Russian scientists, Floating Nuclear Power Plants in Russia: A Threat to the Arctic, World Oceans and Non-Proliferation, says “one would have imagined that the Chernobyl catastrophe would have taught us to treat nuclear technologies with caution.” It notes “the idea of creating floating nuclear power plants originated in the USA” but was dropped and recommends Russia do the same.
Last week, Long Island Power Authority President Kevin Law, as he prepared to leave LIPA, unveiled an ambitious new proposal for 234 wind turbines in the Atlantic off southern Long Island. That’s a safe, clean way to harvest energy on the sea. The plan for floating Chernobyls invites disaster. We should pursue wise ways of gathering energy—and, just maybe, Russia (and other nations) will emulate safe U.S. energy ideas.