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Floating nuclear plants could prove tsunami-proof

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April 17, 2014

MIT proposes building floating nuclear power plants located 5 to 7 miles into the ocean, e...

MIT proposes building floating nuclear power plants located 5 to 7 miles into the ocean, enabling the nuclear power plants to ride out a tsunami without sustaining damage (Image: Jake Jurewicz/MIT-NSE)

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The most frightening part of a tsunami hitting a nuclear power plant is what comes after – radioactive leaks that contaminate the water around the plant are exceedingly difficult to contain. The clean up of the radioactive water around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, which was struck by a tsunami in 2011, is expected to take decades. MIT researchers have come up with an alternative; they propose building floating nuclear plants, far enough offshore to simply ride out a tsunami and emerge unscathed.

The new design proposed by Jacopo Buongiorno, Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT and his colleagues, calls for constructing sturdy floating platforms, similar to the ones that support offshore oil and gas rigs. Light-weight nuclear reactors could be built on top of these platforms in shipyards, and then towed to appropriate locations offshore. Mooring the platform to the seafloor, would, they say, ensure that the nuclear power plant remains unaffected by a tsunami's waves. A power transmission line could connect the plant to the electrical grid.

"Tsunamis and earthquakes are no longer a source of risk for the nuclear plant," explains Buongiorno. "Essentially the ocean shields the seismic waves and the tsunami waves in relatively deep water, say 100 meters (300 ft) deep, are not big, so they don't pose a hazard for the plant."

It also becomes easy to avoid the biggest issue that leads to radioactive contamination in a damaged nuclear plant, the overheating of the reactor cores that lead to a meltdown, something that would be impossible in the ocean, according to the team.

"It’s very close to the ocean, which is essentially an infinite heat sink, so it’s possible to do cooling passively, with no intervention," says Buongiorno. "The reactor containment itself is essentially underwater."

Designing the plant in such a way that the ocean water automatically cools the nuclear reactors would, the researchers claim, prevent any radioactive leaks and fuel rod meltdowns, since it is possible to remove heat indefinitely.

Cutaway view of the proposed plant shows that the reactor vessel itself is located deep un...

The whole concept has been around for a while. The floating nuclear power plant that Russian scientists have been working on for several years is expected to be operational by 2016, but their nuclear plant is being built on a barge close to the shore.

The unique advantage of the MIT team's design, lies in mooring the nuclear power plants 5 to 7 miles (8 - 11 km) into the ocean, thereby giving the power plants the ability to weather any tsunami. Another advantage the distance offers is that the people on land won't have to relocate, in the event of an accident or an emergency out in the ocean. "The biggest selling point is the enhanced safety," says Buongiorno.

Decommissioning such a power plant could just be a matter of towing it away at the end of the nuclear reactor's lifetime. Since there's no size limit, floating nuclear power plants could rival their land-based counterparts; they could range anywhere from 50-megawatt plants to 1,000-megawatt plants, according to the scientists.

Placing them a few miles offshore, out of sight of cities would enable them to supply power reliably without posing any risk or using up valuable land resources. "The ocean is inexpensive real estate," says Buongiorno.

The researchers will be presenting their work at the Small Modular Reactors Symposium, hosted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, from April 15-17, at Washington, D.C.

Check out the concept video below.

Source: MIT

About the Author
Lakshmi Sandhana When Lakshmi first encountered pig's wings in a petri dish, she realized that writing about scientists and imagineers was the perfect way to live in an expanding mind bubble. Articles for Wired, BBC Online, New Scientist, The Economist and Fast Company soon followed. She's currently pursuing her dream of traveling from country to country to not only ferret out cool stories but also indulge outrageously in local street foods. When not working, you'll find her either buried nose deep in a fantasy novel or trying her hand at improvisational comedy.   All articles by Lakshmi Sandhana
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28 Comments

This is by far the dumbest idea I have ever heard of regarding the safety and improvement of nuclear reactors. At sea level the sea is the most unpredictable, unstable, unforgiving, dangerous place to operate from on the planet and they want to put a floating nuclear reactor in it.

Try this line of questioning:

What happens if it is unable to float? Well it will sink.

Then what? well it would contaminate the entire water supply around it (ocean to oceans) and make containment much more difficult if even possible.

I have a great idea, why don't we just name it the Titanic now or better yet Oceanic Armageddon.

Dr. Robert Oppenheimer (credited as the father of the atomic bomb) said nuclear power plants are much to dangerous to have anywhere on earth. Meaning he thought all power plants should be buried underground so if there was an explosion or meltdown it would be contained immediately.

This is just plan stupid, the dumbest idea I have ever read, great going MIT. I am however very glad this was published in Gizmag because if I didn't see it I wouldn't be able to look into kill it before it has a chance to breath.

Matt Fletcher
17th April, 2014 @ 08:55 am PDT

The way to make Nuclear Power safer is to switch to Thorium Fuel

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium_reactor

Seth Miesters
17th April, 2014 @ 09:38 am PDT

You took the words from my mouth both Matt and Seth. Underground thorium plants, located underground in the places we collect the raw material from would be a good benefit for all. Thorium easily accessible in current mining operations.

The way I see it, you dig a huge hole, place a Thorium reactor in the bottom, and put a huge dome lid over the top. now you have the strongest shape nearly impervious to winds protecting a valuable resource. And please for the love of Bill Nye, stop putting them in DISASTER ZONES!

Cyberxbx
17th April, 2014 @ 10:09 am PDT

Interesting. Poor, dying industry, trying so hard.

On a side note, solar panels for electricity are now at parity with oil and even hydro power. Not yet including system costs but getting there, the curve has always pointed down since the 1950's when a watt of power from solar was ~ $1000.

Right now, one solar-electric watt costs $0.70 to $1.50 depending on who you are and how much you buy. Use that number over a life time of 15 to 20 years, daily incoming sun 4 to 8 hours and, lo and behold, one kWh costs now ~5 cents. Gee, that's where a kWh from a barrel of oil is! (...on good days!). Many utilities, even hydro ones, charge far more than that for energy. The fun part is, after 15 years when written off, solar panels keep making electricity. Try that with an oil rig.

And now comes the Tesla S, with a battery that contains enough energy to heat (!) one of these passive houses like the one in Seattle for two weeks. That car will soon have a feed-back-to-grid option. No more need to buy expensive generators for people in disaster areas, just buy a Tesla. The more one steps back to look at the bigger picture, the more incredible it gets that people would still be buying gas cars in this year A.D.2014 that we are in. Wait, 100k is expensive for an aluminum car that won't break, and will probably last 30 or 40 years? Do the math and don't forget the cost for gas, duh. And yes do include a new battery every ten years, guess what the price for that will be doing...

At the Intersolar Trade Fair in Munich, Germany, there were more than 200 companies last year offering all kinds of different industrial battery solutions, at an incredible variety of technologies. Polymer batteries, flow batteries, weird stuff I had no idea it could be done. Holy moly, things are really starting to move. Wood furniture factories using waste to power themselves and generate additional income by selling excess power back to the grid! Oups.

And as investors know, the smart money has long pulled out from nuclear and oil. Bye, bye, it was nice meeting you.

BeWalt
17th April, 2014 @ 10:11 am PDT

This really is the dumbest thing that I have ever read! This will be the first thing targeted in the event of a war. I read that Russia is building a floating nuclear reactor too...

*sigh*

Kolton Wilson
17th April, 2014 @ 10:50 am PDT

Kirk Sorensen gave a good TED talk about Thorium and he also covers some of the flaws with current reactors here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2vzotsvvkw

It wasn't really the Tsunami that caused the meltdown of the Fukushima reactor, they lost power and then Tsunami put their generators under water causing a full loss of electricity need to cool the reactor. Being hit by a Tsunami in the middle of the ocean may not be likely but a loss of electricity still could happen for various reasons.

As Kirk pointed out, reactors are pressure vessels that run at 70 to 100 atmospheres of pressure with 20 cm thick steel walls. If there is a breach that 300 degree celsius (~600 F) hot water expands to become steam and steam needs a very large container to expand into so you need a large thick structure. Taking that structure and placing it in the ocean would not prevent a meltdown within it in the event of a power loss, it would only cause it to melt down away form a populated area but it would still make a mess of the ocean water.

Because a loss of electricity = 100% chance of meltdown a floating reactor could still be in danger of something going wrong. If the hot water becomes steam and there is a hydrogen explosion the employees living on top of the thing might not last long either so might be policy to completely evacuate the platform at the first sign of trouble.

Daishi
17th April, 2014 @ 10:55 am PDT

And you think it is hard to get wind turbines placed offshore?

This is a great idea! Wait for the enviro-wackos to shut it down!

Thorium Fuel is the future of nuclear power, and safe too.

BombR76
17th April, 2014 @ 11:40 am PDT

@BeWalt I think the return on investment for a home going solar still depends heavily on tax subsidies and there are still other factors like home owner maintenance that is more of a hassle than simply using the grid. From this link it looks like solar is still a pretty expensive source for power: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_electricity_by_source

Even mega companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook don't have the same kind of money to throw around as energy companies. Some of the wealthy people in oil in Abu Dhabi or Saudi Arabia couldn't have more money if they were printing it. The $50 million salaries of some CEO's is like an expensive weekend for some of the people who control oil.

I wish Tesla all the luck with getting cars to electric. Getting the grid on clean energy is probably an easier problem than getting automobiles there.

Daishi
17th April, 2014 @ 01:04 pm PDT

Thorium is not used in nuclear reactors because thorium reactors cannot be easily converted for nuclear weapons production, and the countries that have nuclear power want to reserve this as an option.

MBadgero
17th April, 2014 @ 01:05 pm PDT

One of these babies is just begging for a terrorist to float a submersible drone right next to it and blow it to smithereens. No thanks.

RelayerM31
17th April, 2014 @ 04:20 pm PDT

BeWalt > On a side note, solar panels for electricity are now at parity with oil and even hydro power.

Batteries aren't close to being handle the intermittency‎ of solar and wind on a national level.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_the_United_States#Electrical_Energy

Germany "solved" the problem by building yet more coal power plants. Global warming be damned.

Freyr Gunnar
17th April, 2014 @ 04:23 pm PDT

@Diachi,

"Home owner maintenance"? Come off it. I've had solar panels on my roof since mid-2009. Total maintenance? A quick wash with a garden hose every 6 months or so, if the rain hasn't done it already. Hassle? In the same period I've lost power from the grid on average 3 times a year. Once for 5 days.

Those panels are now producing between 125% and 200% of the household power requirements every month, totalling just under 12 MEGAwatt hours. Purchase costs have just about halved from 2009 to 2014.

Tax subsidies? Early this week the West Australian Minister for Energy, in the lead up to the Budget, said that electricity prices were likely to rise.

"We're going to struggle to keep it at CPI on electricity prices," he said.

"We came into government 2008; the subsidies for electricity prices were in the vicinity of about $60 million. Today, this year, they're $500 million."

He'd earlier declared that over the next 4 years the electricity subsidies would be $2.2 billion.

No mention of renewable energy subsidy there.

joeblake
17th April, 2014 @ 06:39 pm PDT

Oil retrieving facilities have for the most part faired very well in deep ocean conditions despite the factors listed in the first comments. This technology and it's safely measures are already proven, the bigger question is where will this facility get it's fresh, salt-less water from. And will the cost of desalinization outweigh the benefits of being weather proof? The cooling system functionality, which is the most

Crucial component of nuclear reactors, is not mentioned at all in this article.

Zack Golden
17th April, 2014 @ 07:38 pm PDT

@Diachi > As I said, "not including system costs" but the article you linked to actually kind of proves my point, because there's only a factor of two between solar and coal, and they *do* include system costs. Coal as usual not including the thing so beautifully labeled "externalities" by economists: Long term damage to planet and inhabitants. Also known as the stuff we and our kids will pay for in the long run.

@Freyr Gunnar > You are correct, batteries can't. *Yet*. Just like solar cells couldn't, back in 1955. But batteries can be anything, including synthetic methane fed back into city gas storage tanks already in existance, as is being worked on right now in Germany and Austria. Google "Etogas". Yes I do not know what will be the best system, but I do enjoy watching the race to find the best, gearing up right now.

Everybody should also look up energy subsidies world wide on every type of energy out there, and surprise, surprise: Solar is by far not the largest chunk, it's the old stuff: coal, oil, gas and nuclear. Take all subsidies away, and solar wins tomorrow, hands down.

With solar energy and renewables in general, you either see it or you don't. It's a bit like being that guy watching the Wright brothers in 1903 and then - correctly! - stating "this whimpy wooden contraption is hardly any good for anything". Totally correct. But, oh boy, how little that guy understood what he was looking at.

BeWalt
17th April, 2014 @ 10:03 pm PDT

I agree that the idea is dumb. especially a helipad that allows a terrorist to take over the station, hold it for ransom or destroy it. at least they could have designed it to fold up like a flower to a point when not in use.

put some research and public approval behind thorium plants instead.

i see that solar cells are getting more efficient as are capacitors. ages ago a one farad capacitor was estimated to be the size of a boxcar...now look at them!

notarichman
18th April, 2014 @ 06:13 am PDT

What a great fantastic idea. With a proven record of safety from the oil and gas industry off shore platforms are definitely the way to go for the Nuclear Industry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Oil_platform_disasters

Presumably this idea also solves the 10000 year waste storage problem as the operators can just dump it in the sea like the Russians used to. http://digitaljournal.com/article/361035

matthew4506
18th April, 2014 @ 03:18 pm PDT

Floating the reactor in deep water makes them immune to earthquakes, and tsunamis. Hopefully it is desalinate water at the same time as it generates electricity.

Several reactors have sunk to the bottom of the ocean without causing a disaster.

Slowburn
18th April, 2014 @ 11:02 pm PDT

@Zack Golden, They already have a heating supply that needs to be cooled. This would be exactly when desalination becomes affordable.

Willer
19th April, 2014 @ 05:37 pm PDT

I see the resident experts in Nuclear energy once again abound...

Nuclear energy will be an important part of our future. It's not perfect, but I welcome all real development and technology improvements.

Nuclear power is still the only low carbon base load option for the forseeable future.

Now I wait for the armchair experts to shoot me down with unsubstantiated "true alternatives" like molten salts ect. Not to mention all the problems they see with nuclear energy (mostly fear mongering with little rationality attached). Lastly I expect to be firmly rebuked with the Fukishima history lesson (irrespective of it's irrelevance to modern nuclear power generation).

Meanwhile - well done to the MIT team. Such vision and engineering represents an important part of our future. I commend their commitment to resolving the energy problems of our future. They are not the ones throwing stones, rather they are building solutions.

Australian
20th April, 2014 @ 02:02 am PDT

@ Australian

The lessen from Fukushima Daiichi is to make sure your reactor uses a convection current coolant flow.

Slowburn
21st April, 2014 @ 12:04 am PDT

This does sound like the Titanic doesn't it? Besides severe storms, collision with a ship and terrorist target, what could go wrong. Let's see. Corrosion, cracked welds, metal fatigue from constant radiation exposure, and of course the big one "human error". Where else could you spread radiation leakage better than directly into the ocean? Somehow building it away from the ocean and not near a fault area sounds better to me. I liked everyone's enthusiasm for solar and wind power which has always been stymied by energy storage for peak demands. When someone comes up with a way to directly store electricity in some form of huge capacitor storage, then we will have a key piece of the puzzle. Efficiency.

Bob
21st April, 2014 @ 07:21 am PDT

Well there have been floating nuclear power stations for years. (Navy)

They seem to be going ok.

Of course they're quite well protected :)

Craig Jennings
21st April, 2014 @ 02:26 pm PDT

Gee, great idea. Bring Fukushima right to your doorstep.

ezeflyer
23rd April, 2014 @ 10:17 pm PDT

Light water, solid fuel reactors will always be unsafe no matter where they are located. I find it hard to believe that we are still using nuclear reactors that have to be pressurized, have to have power to shut down, and only use less than 1% of their fuel, the rest going out the door as waste. We have to get some kind of molten salt reactor up and running if we ever want to get rid of coal in a responsible manner. Solar and wind can reduce peak demand, but they are always going to be supplemental power. You can run thorium, plutonium left over from the cold war, or light water reactor waste in a molten salt reactor and burn 99% or better of the fuel.

kraftzion
24th April, 2014 @ 05:31 pm PDT

Great...now why don't we pollute the oceans as well? The idiot who thought this up should get a Nobel prize for stupidity and recklessness.

Reagon Ramiah
25th April, 2014 @ 02:25 am PDT

Warming of the oceans

Andrew Zuckerman
25th April, 2014 @ 06:34 pm PDT

"Well there have been floating nuclear power stations for years. (Navy)

They seem to be going ok.

Of course they're quite well protected :)"

Two points. Firstly nuclear submarines are designed to evade detection by highly sophisticated systems. This proposed power plant sits in plain sight. Secondly, you may not remember that on 12 August 2000, a Russian nuclear submarine "Kirsk" suffered an on-board fire and sank. Yes, the nuclear power plant may have been protected, but such protection does not come cheaply, and must be added onto the cost of power produced.

The Kirsk is only one of 8 nuclear submarines reported as having sunk.

joeblake
27th April, 2014 @ 09:24 pm PDT

For all those hyperventilating about nukes sinking into the sea, I would point out that there at present at 5 large, unconfined nuclear reactors sitting on the ocean floor from Cold war nuclear submarine loses. Two are US subs, the Thresher and Scorpion, and the other three (that we know of) are Soviets. The Chinese might have lost one or two as well.

Funny thing is, only two of the wrecks were ever found and they were not located by radioactivity. The Soviet sub was found because US ships heard it implode and knew it's general location. Howard Hughes built a big fake ocean mining ship to raise it. They got only part of the wreckage and no radiation.

The Scorpion was found by Robert Ballard (who found Titanic) while he was dragging a remote camera over thousands of miles of seabed pretending to look for the Bismark. The Scorpion was likely destroyed by one of her own torpedoes, then sank to "crush depth" where we she was smash like a beer can under a rednecks boot. After all that damage, and over 20 years resting on the sea floor, remote sensors around the site cannot detect the Scorpion's reactor emissions above the statistical background radiation.

If reactors in the oceans where so dangerous the 10 or more reactors (two per sub) laying in the utterly shattered wreckage of their vessels for over 30 years now would glow like beacons on the least radiological assay.

The anti-nuclear movement wasn't started by scientist and engineers but by a bunch of Marxist who blame socialized-public utility nuclear power industry for the nuclear arms race has evolved into a de facto religion. If 70+ years of real world experience can't convince someone that a technology is safe, then nothing can. An opinion about a material/technological subject that can't be changed by empirical evidence has become simply a matter of faith.

It'd be funny if it wasn't going to get us all killed from energy starvation. Fortunately, I think the Chinese or the Indians, who don't have the luxury of whining over the moral purity of their energy sources, will probably sell our grandkids the reactors they'll need to keep the lights on without melting the ice caps.

Shannon Love
30th April, 2014 @ 04:58 pm PDT
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