This week in nouveau-Cold War news: MIT researchers will present plans for floating nuclear reactors, adapting existing technologies towards a goal put to rest during the Ford Administration. Floating reactors might sound futuristic—or dystopian—but they're not a new idea, having been proposed first in 1971 by Offshore Power Systems (a joint venture by Westinghouse Corporation and Tenneco). That original plan combined several of the features the new MIT design hopes to capitalize on: mass producibility, increased distance from populations and use of the sea as a buffer against damage.
This new design combines modern oil rig sensibilities with light water nuclear reactors in a package that can be mass produced and towed into position five miles offshore. A crucial benefit of oceanic operation is the protection from tsunami and earthquake damage. Deep water insulates well against both seismic waves and the destructive end of tsunami swells, making it an obvious boon for growing, catastrophe-prone energy markets like Japan.
This kind of mass-produced floating reactor fleet was originally scuttled due to economic instability and raging environmental concerns. The 1979 Three Mile Island accident led to over 300,000 people evacuating their homes, and left the public with a powerfully bad taste for the energy source. Subsequent catastrophic failures and willful breaches of safety (see: Chernobyl, Hanford, Fukushima Daiichi) have perpetuated nuclear power's troubled reputation, but nuclear power development is still on the rise.
Despite continued concerns about containment in case of failure, floating reactor proponents point to the decreased impact on civilian areas. Reactors generally need a ready water source to aid in cooling, but that proximity can double as a danger to any populated areas or agriculture that rely on the same source. The use of light water reactors, rather than heavy water, also means that seawater itself can be part of the passive or emergency cooling system (it's also often a simpler, more economical design). While not an environmentally enjoyable idea, the release of radioactive gas underwater rather than into the air does pose less of an immediate threat to surrounding communities. When the time comes to decommission or retrofit a plant, the mobility really comes into play: tow the barge back to a building facility, which "would rapidly restore the site to pristine conditions." Additionally, the MIT design appears to be widely scalable—ranging from low output to the largest 1,000MW plants in use.
High quality Russian rendering
As with most dreams of a nuclear future, calling this development rock solid feels dangerously rose-tinted, yet the argument can be made that a stationary floating plant only differs slightly from the nuclear submarines and ice breakers already in use across the globe. The fact that the Ruskies are already building their own floating reactors for use in the Arctic gives the proposed plan a slight tang of "everything you can do, we can do better." If previous competitive advancements in engineering are any indication, maybe that's to our advantage.