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Floating Nuclear Power Plants: A Technical Solution to a Land-based Problem (Part I)

Thomas Wellock
NRC Historian

In July, Russia announced it planned to build the world’s first floating nuclear power plant to supply 70 megawatts of electricity to isolated communities. If successful, the plan would bring to fruition an idea hatched in the United States nearly a half-century ago.

It’s not widely known, but in 1971, Offshore Power Systems (OPS), a joint venture by Westinghouse Corporation and Tenneco, proposed manufacturing identical 1,200 MW plants at a $200 million facility near Jacksonville, Fla. Placed on huge concrete barges, the plants would be towed to a string of breakwater-protected moorings off the East Coast. Using a generic manufacturing license and mass production techniques, Westinghouse President John Simpson predicted this approach could cut in half typical plant construction time and make floating reactors economical.

While Simpson touted their economic advantages, utilities wanted floating power plants to overcome mounting opposition to land-based reactors. Site selection had ground to a near halt in the Northeast and the West Coast due to public opposition, seismic worries and environmental concerns. In July 1971, a federal court complicated siting further by forcing the NRC’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, to develop thorough Environmental Impact Statements for nuclear plant projects.

In fact, West Coast utilities met defeat so often on proposed coastal power plant sites they turned inland in an ill-fated move to find acceptable arid locations. By heading out to sea, Northeast utilities hoped they could overcome their political problems.

Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.

Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.

New Jersey’s Public Service Electric and Gas Corporation (PSEG) responded enthusiastically and selected the first site, the Atlantic Generating Station, about 10 miles north of Atlantic City at the mouth of Great Bay. A PSEG spokesman said floating reactors were “the only answer to the problem of siting nuclear power plants.” Other reactor vendors, including General Electric, also studied the possibility of floating reactors.

A supportive regulatory response heartened OPS officials. The AEC’s Advisory Committee for Reactor Safeguards issued a fairly positive assessment of floating reactors in late 1972. “We think this is a very favorable letter,” a Westinghouse official said of the committee response, “and we don’t see any delay whatsoever.”

Westinghouse moved forward with its grand plan and built its manufacturing facility near Jacksonville. The facility included a gigantic crane that was 38 stories high — the world’s tallest.

It appeared to be smooth sailing ahead for floating plants with a RAND Corporation study that touted their superior ability to withstand earthquakes and other natural hazards. Spoiler alert: RAND selected for floating power plants one of the most ill-conceived yet prescient of acronyms, FLOPPS.

Exactly how the seas turned rough for floating plants will be unveiled in Part II on Thursday.

9 responses to “Floating Nuclear Power Plants: A Technical Solution to a Land-based Problem (Part I)

  1. Car Service March 28, 2014 at 7:54 am

    This does not seem a good idea, with climate changes already affecting the world, this would only add to the problems.. I do not think it is a solution in fact it creates more doubts.

  2. worli December 16, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    Remember Russia has many years of experience with naval reactors and any country that buys a “floating” nuclear plant has no need to provide any specialist. These poor countries just lease a nuclear plant with full support from Russia; with little assurance that Russia really has the needed expertise to insure nuclear safety.

  3. Bruce Behrhorst September 25, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    The problem w/ the U.S. is its energy sources distribution is corrupted to tilt toward the Hydrocarbon Industry and the ‘politcally correct’ Green Envy in underpowered scarcity politcs. I doubt Americans really understand Russia is a vast topographical area. Energy is need to process resouces in isolated areas without having the disadvantage of oil/gas fuel transport to onsite operations.
    The advantage of nuclear re-fueling a reactor takes place in 6-10 yr. cyles not 6-10 wk. cycles.

  4. Dan September 24, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    This is a joke, right? This is not good, this is very bad. Have we learned nothing about nuclear energy? Have we forgotten about Chernobyl, Fukushima or Gulf Coast Oil Disaster? We dump garbage in the sea, oil and now nuclear waste. The sea is already poisoned enough with high mercury levels, destruction of coral reef habitats, overfishing, whaling and loss of biodiversity. Is it that we don’t care because we don’t see what’s beneath the waves? Do we not care because we judge what we see what washes upon beaches? Do we not care because we blindingly think it won’t effect us? No man is an island. The fish we eat, plagued with chemicals, mercury and radiation – do you call this safe? In your heart of hearts, could you let your children eat seafood contaminated and filled with such things? Ever wonder why cancer and other diseases are becoming more common? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out. Nuclear power has no place in this world. There is no Planet B.

    • Anonymous September 25, 2013 at 1:09 pm

      FYI, there are many nuclear power plants on/in the seas which have operated for decades without any adverse affect on people or the environment, namely nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.

  5. nova9 September 24, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Small (less than 300 MWe) floating nuclear power plants far away from coastlines could be immediately successful today if they were used to manufacture ammonia through the electrolysis of water from the production of hydrogen synthesized with nitrogen extracted from the atmosphere. Nearly 130 million tonnes a year of ammonia is produced globally mostly from greenhouse gas polluting natural gas. Ammonia production though nuclear power plants, however, could be carbon neutral.

    Ammonia production could be a way to initiate the large scale manufacturing of small floating nuclear reactors which could eventually be used for the production of synthetic hydrocarbon fuels synthesized from seawater, again far away from coastlines. Carbon neutral fuels such as methanol could be produced at these floating nuclear facilities and then transported by tankers to coastal cities for peak-load or even baseload power production or conversion into gasoline or dimethyl ether for ground vehicles and ships.

    Marcel F. Williams

  6. Eugene Cramer September 24, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    }}} INSERT by amateur Nuclear Historian EN Cramer {{{{
    MH-1A: 10 MWe, plus fresh water supply to the adjacent base. Mounted on the Sturgis, a barge (no propulsion systems) converted from a Liberty ship, and moored in the Panama Canal Zone. Initial criticality at Ft. Belvoir VA (in Gunston Cove, off the Potomac River), January 24, 1967.. The MH-1A was designed by Martin Marietta Corporation. It remained moored at Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal from 1968 until 1977, when it was towed back to Ft. Belvoir for decommissioning. It was moved to the James River Reserve Fleet in 1978 for an expected 50 years of SAFSTOR. This reactor used low-enrichment uranium (LEU) in the range of 4 to 7 percent. The MH-1A had an elaborate analog-computer-powered simulator installed at the Training Division, USAERG, Ft. Belvoir. End historian’s note {{{{

    • Moderator September 25, 2013 at 9:34 am

      Yes, I should have noted that the commercial floating reactor projects by Westinghouse and the Russians were preceded by the Army’s MH-1A, which was part of their reactor development program. It did valuable duty in the Panama Canal Zone for about eight years. Thanks for reminding us.

      Thomas Wellock

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