A 500’ floating nuclear reactor will power a port town and oil rigs in Russia’s far northeast, another sign of the nation’s Arctic ambitions.

The Akademik Lomonosov, built by Baltiyskiy Zavod Shipbuilding for the Rosatom Corporation, departed from a port near St. Petersburg under tow through the Baltic Sea and then north to Murmansk, according to Rosatom officials.

At the Arctic port the nuclear barge – named for an 18th-century Russian scientist and polymath – will be fueled at the Atomflot FSUE facility which services nuclear vessels including icebreakers.

After testing it will be towed to Pevek, a town of 100,000 on the East Siberian Sea, ultimately replacing the region’s two aged nuclear and thermal power plants. Among other infrastructure the reactor will supply power to oil rigs and a desalination water plant.

It is just the first in a series of reactor vessels, and of a piece with Russia’s civil and military expansion efforts in the Arctic. With summer sea ice cover in decline and climactic changes, Russia is far ahead of other nations building new ice-capable ships, one fact prodding the U.S Congress to fund a new Coast Guard heavy icebreaker.

Rosatom touts the 70 megawatt power plant as a practical low-power solution for remote regions. The reactor “is designed with the great margin of safety that exceeds all possible threats and makes nuclear reactors invincible for tsunamis and other natural disasters,” according to a statement issued by company officials “In addition, the nuclear processes at the floating power unit meet all requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and do not pose any threat to the environment.”

Rosatom says its design is based on Russian nuclear shipbuilding, using two naval KLT-40S reactor units. In addition to 70 MW of electric energy the reactor can be part of a thermal power system to support a small city like Pevek.

The floating nuclear power unit, or FPU as Rosatom has dubbed it, has drawn plenty of criticism and concern from neighboring nations, environmental and anti-nuclear groups since work started on the project in 2009. Initial plans to fuel and test the FPU at St. Petersburg and then tow it past Scandinavian nations raised particular alarm.

“To test a nuclear reactor in a densely populated area like the center of St. Petersburg is irresponsible to say the least,” said ,” said Jan Haverkamp, a nuclear analyst for Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe, in a statement from the environmental group.

“However, moving the testing of this ‘nuclear Titanic’ away from the public eye will not make it less so: Nuclear reactors bobbing around the Arctic Ocean will pose a shockingly obvious threat to a fragile environment which is already under enormous pressure from climate change,” Haverkamp said.

Towing services along the St. Petersburg-Murmansk-Pevek route will be provided by the Marine Rescue Service of Rosmorrechflot (the Federal Agency for Maritime and River Transport of Russia). Under favorable conditions the convoy will move at 3.5 mknots to 4.5 knots, Rosatom officials said.

Russian news media have reported Rosatom has talked to nations in Asia, Africa and South America that are interested in the floating reactor concept.

“The floating nuclear power plants will typically be put to use near coastlines and shallow water. Contrary to claims regarding safety, the flat-bottomed hull and the floating nuclear power plant’s lack of self-propulsion makes it particularly vulnerable to tsunamis and cyclones,” Haverkamp said.

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.