Engineers believe mounting nuclear plants on seaborne platforms could enable them to better withstand the types of disasters that have made the power facilities such a perilous gamble in the past.

Jacopo Buongiorno, an associate professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, believes that by mounting nuclear plants on floating platforms situated miles offshore at sea, the controversial power facilities will be able to better withstand extreme weather conditions, such as the tsunami which was responsible for the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

Jacopo Buongiorno

Jacopo Buongiorno

Buongiorno envisages nuclear plants being built in shipyards before they are towed to locations at sea around 10 kilometres from the shore. The floating plants will then be anchored to the floor of the ocean, and will convey power to land-based facilities via an underwater electrical transmission line.

While floating nuclear plants are nothing new, with Russia already in the process converting some of its nuclear fleet into seaborne power stations, Buongiorno’s plan differs in that it places the nuclear plants much further away from the shore due to safety considerations. This allows the nuclear plants to better endure severe earthquakes and storms while obviating the possibility of meltdown.

“The biggest selling point is the enhanced safety,” said Buongiorno of his design.

The platforms would be moored approximately 100 metres above the seabed and approximately 10 kilometres from land, making them impervious to earthquakes, as well as largely unaffected by tsunamis.

The location of the plants at sea also completely expunges the possibility that they will succumb to the worst of all nuclear disasters – that of overheating and meltdown, because of the vast surrounding body of water.

floating nuclear power

This illustration shows a possible configuration of a floating offshore nuclear plant, based on design work by Jacopo Buongiorno and others at MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. Like offshore oil drilling platforms, the structure would include living quarters and a helipad for transportation to the site.

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

Other advantages of the arrangement include reducing the cost of operation by removing the need for expensive oceanfront land as sites for the reactors, as well as greater ease of decommissioning, with the plants towed away to a central facility at the end of their operating lives.

floating nuclear power

Cutaway view of the proposed plant shows that the reactor vessel itself is located deep underwater, with its containment vessel surrounded by a compartment flooded with seawater, allowing for passive cooling even in the event of an accident.

The design proposed by Buongiorno facilitates ease of construction by dispensing with the use of concrete, with the plants consisting entirely of steel. It’s also highly scaleable, capable of varying in capacity from 50 to 1,000 megawatts.

Buongiorno expects floating nuclear plants to appeal strongly to Asian countries with lengthy coastlines, such as Indonesia and Japan, and believes it could also have strong potential in the African continent and Chile.