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Floating Nuclear Power Plants: Benefits and Challenges discussed at IAEA Symposium


IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi delivers opening remarks at the International Symposium on the Deployment of Floating Nuclear Power Plants: Benefits and Challenges, held from 14-15 November 2023, at the Agency's headquarters in Vienna, Austria. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

How can we provide a reliable supply of energy far out to sea, or on an island, or in a coastal community?  The typical answer is by using fossil-fuelled generators.  But as efforts to decarbonize global energy systems expand, one of the answers could be to use a floating nuclear power plant (FNPP).

Interest is growing in installing small modular reactors (SMRs) on floating barges or platforms to provide clean electricity and heat for remote coastal locations, to decarbonize offshore oil and gas or mining activities, or even to provide grid scale electricity production, unlocking cost reductions through serial production in shipyards. At an IAEA symposium on floating nuclear power plants that took place from 14-15 November 2023 in Vienna, legal experts, nuclear and maritime regulators, and industry leaders discussed the benefits and challenges of FNPPs and exactly what role they could play in the fight against climate change and the transition to Net Zero.

Opening the meeting, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said that in many countries “there is active consideration of floating nuclear power plants”.  However, as part of discussions about their viability and potential applications, the Director General said that safeguards and the international legal and regulatory implications needed to be thoroughly analysed.

Nuclear energy has already been in use for about 60 years in naval ships and icebreakers propulsion. However, FNPPs are different since they will produce low-carbon power and heat for different applications, including district heating, desalination and hydrogen production.

Floating NPPs can be built in a factory, assembled in a shipyard and transported to a site, all of which may help to speed up construction and keep costs down. Canada, China, Denmark, South Korea, Russia and the USA are each working on marine small modular reactor designs, some are in advanced development, and Russia even has one FNPP, the Akademik Lomonosov, in commercial operation in the far east of the country. The Akademik Lomonosov FNPP has been in operation, producing electricity and district heating, since 2020. It has replaced the shut down Bilibino NPP and the aging Chaunsk coal power plant.

However, it is the very mobility of these FNPPs that raises new questions, particularly when they move across international borders or operate in international, rather than territorial, waters. For example, how does the licensing and regulation process work when a FNPP is built and fuelled in one country’s jurisdiction, and then transported to another jurisdiction?

“The IAEA is working with our Member States to determine what further guidance and standards might be needed to ensure the safety of floating nuclear power plants", IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, Lydie Evrard, said. "The IAEA’s safety standards serve as the global reference for protecting people and the environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation. There are also considerable legal and regulatory challenges that must be addressed if a truly international floating nuclear power market is to emerge,” she said.

Topan Setiadipura, the Co-Chair of the Symposium and Head of the Research Centre for Nuclear Reactor Technology (BRIN) in Indonesia said, “to some extent, floating NPPs are an interesting option for Indonesia as many power or utilities companies have floating diesel power plants or floating gas power plants”. However, acquiring more information and knowledge is essential to understanding whether embarking countries like Indonesia could use FNPPs in the future to replace fossil-fuelled floating power plants, he said.

During the symposium, discussions focused on current and future designs of FNPPs and their uses, including, for example, as a floating offshore installation for production of clean hydrogen to be converted into green ammonia for use in agriculture or as a low carbon shipping fuel. Participants also examined the specific challenges that the movability of FNPPs pose for their licensing, regulation, transportation and application of safeguards. Nuclear safety and security were discussed, including the extent to which the current standards and practices can, or cannot, be applied to FNPPs. The symposium’s concluding session identified the next possible steps to enable the deployment of floating nuclear power plants, including the establishment of a mechanism to improve communication between the nuclear and maritime industry on one hand, and regulators on the other, with focus on application of security and safeguards by design. 

“Getting to Net Zero requires the use of all clean energies available,” Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy, told the gathering. “Floating nuclear power plants are not in competition with land-based SMRs but extend the use and potential of such nuclear technology to reach our Net Zero targets.”

The symposium was organized in the frame of the Agency-wide Platform on SMRs and their Applications which aims at providing consistent and coordinated support to Member States for the development, deployment and oversight of SMRs. Through the Nuclear Harmonization and Standardization Initiative (NHSI), the IAEA also brings together policy makers, regulators, designers, vendors and operators to harmonize and standardize regulatory and industrial approaches to enable the effective global deployment of safe and secure advanced nuclear reactors.

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