It could have been half-Malaysian

If anybody in Malaysia had decided to take a risk, the atomic station project could have been very promising

By DMITRY KOSYREV / Pic By BLOOMBERG

Russia has just blazed another trail in global technologies, launching the first-ever floating atomic power station. These days it’s been firmly anchored at its destination, starting trial deliveries of power to the consumers.

The year was 1998 or maybe 1999, and even Vladimir Sautov, the then and current head of Russia’s Business Council for Cooperation with Malaysia, cannot remember the exact date — 20 years is a lot of time, after all. The event was a technology fair in Kuala Lumpur, presenting dozens of Russian inventions to Malaysians.

I think I’ve been mentioning that in my previous columns, but then the ideas presented were absolutely brilliant, you cannot easily forget them. The power station has been mentioned, too. Thing is, there were some Russian nuclear submarines scrapped at the time, and they languished at some remote harbour in the Russian Far East.

Then there was a massive power failure ashore at the time, and somebody remembered that at least one submarine with an active reactor was there, wasting its energy. A cable was thrown to the shore, and a whole town got itself free energy for quite a while.

Admittedly, the Americans had tried the same trick in their Antarctic exploration years before that. But how about turning that idea into a profitable venture? What the Russian engineers wanted at the time, was getting Malaysian seed money for turning a bare idea into a coherent business project.

They all did that in another age, 20 years ago. Most of them had been working for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics military-industrial complex, devastated by “reforms”. None of them had the money, or even the basic knowledge about patenting their ideas, being very much on their own.

If anybody in Malaysia at the time decided to take a risk, the atomic station project could have been half-Malaysian today, and very promising, too. Imagine all these relatively small towns in places like Indonesia, with its thousands of islands, seaports not easily accessible from inland. To remind, atomic energy is cheaper than any other, and it’s the cleanest of them all.

So, now we have that dream becoming a reality. The project has been picked up by Rosatom, a mega-corporation with a staggering US$300 billion (RM1.26 trillion) long-term contracts portfolio, including the future 30 land-based reactors in 12 countries.

Rosatom has been working at its “project 20870” since 2002, spending maybe half a billion dollars. By now it has materialised into a ship called the Akademik Lomonosov. The name means a lot to Russia, Lomonosov was the father of the Russian Academy of Sciences (and modern science in general) in the middle of the 18th century.

The ship is an ice-breaker, since it’s currently meant for the Russian North. It was decided to deprive it of an engine, towing the bulk to its destination. The destination is, in our case, the port of Pevek in the Extreme North.

There it will stay for, maybe, all the 36 years of its expected service, but then it can be easily transferred to any other place in the world.

The Arctic Ocean is the current strategic investment battleground for several nations, but then Russia commands at least a half of its shoreline (Canada owns most of the rest). You may remember my column about the start of Russian Arctic liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments to China this summer. The Lomonosov now stands in the middle of the Arctic route used for those shipments.

A look at the map shows that building a conventional power station in a port hundreds of miles away from land-based industrial areas is a logistical nightmare.

So, towing a ready-made power station to such a place is a good solution. That may be the main reason why Russia now leads the world in that particular technology — nobody else had such an absolute need in it.

Some more details about that invention: The reactor’s capacity is 70MW, which means it can easily service every need of a town with 100,000 people, even in the Extreme North. And that floating tower can withstand a tsunami or an earthquake of any thinkable scale, even though such things have never happened in the Arctic area.

It’s been rumoured that the next model may be specifically meant for offshore oil and gas exploration, giving power to the whole flocks of oil rigs and platforms.

What we have here is a funny case of different Russian energy lobbies competing with each other. Only recently I was writing about the emergence of a fledgling LNG lobby, elbowing aside the pipeline people who used to scoff at the very idea of making gas liquid.

Now Russia has a shale lobby, too. But in all that time Rosatom — the nuclear energy behemoth — has been quietly saying that its way of producing energy is the best, and brings more money in.

  • Dmitry Kosyrev is an author of 8 novels and a book of short stories, as well as a columnist for 2 Moscow publications. Orientalist by education (Moscow University), he has a special love for Malaysia. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board