Why floating nuclear power plants might actually be a good idea

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A Russian nuclear-powered ice-breaker ship
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A Russian nuclear-powered ice-breaker ship

Russia wants nuclear power-generating ships by 2016. It's not as crazy as it sounds

At first, the idea of floating nuclear plants seems kind of dangerous, especially after an earthquake and tsunami knocked out the coastal Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan in 2011.

Russia's biggest shipbuilder, however, plans to have one ready to operate by 2016. Is this a brilliant solution to the country's energy problems or a recipe for floating Chernobyls?

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Proponents of wind, solar, and other sources of clean energy may not be too happy. Not only is there the question of Russia's less-than-stellar record of nuclear waste disposal, there is also the fact that the floating power plants are being designed to power offshore oil-drilling platforms in the Arctic, according to RT.

Still, the barges themselves don't seem to be any more dangerous than Russia's nuclear-powered ice-breaker ships, which use the same KLT-40 naval propulsion reactors. The reactor-equipped barges would hold 69 people, and would have to be towed to their locations. They would also be able to power 200,000 homes, and could be modified to desalinate 240,000 cubic meters of water per day.

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Each barge's set of two KLT-40 reactors would produce 70 megawatts of electricity — nothing to laugh at, but far less than the 3,937 megawatts produced at America's largest nuclear power plant in Palo Verde, Ariz. Russia's Rosenergoatom, the state-owned builder of the floating power plants, says it will keep the enrichment levels far below the weapons-grade threshold established by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Of course, no nuclear reactor is completely safe. Back in 2010, when a prototype was tested near St. Petersburg, experts fretted to TIME about whether the shipbuilder would skimp on containment structures and auxiliary safety systems.

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There is also the concern that terrorists could seize one of the boats — either in Russia or in the territory of a proposed customer like China or Indonesia — and either steal radioactive material or blow up the reactor.

Still, those risks are already present in ships that exist today. Indeed, environmentalists may be more concerned about the floating nuclear power plants opening up the Arctic — home to 13 percent of the world's untapped oil reserves — to increasingly aggressive drilling operations.

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