MOSCOW -- Russia will launch the world's first floating nuclear reactor and send it on a journey across the Arctic on Friday (August 23), despite environmentalists warning of serious risks to the region.
Loaded with nuclear fuel, the Akademik Lomonosov will leave Murmansk to begin its 5,000km voyage to northeastern Siberia.
The reactor is a simpler alternative to building a conventional plant on ground that is frozen year round, said Russian nuclear agency Rosatom, which intends to sell such reactors abroad.
Still, environmental groups have long warned of the dangers of the project, dubbing it a potential "Chernobyl on ice" and a "nuclear Titanic".
The reactor's trip is expected to last between four and six weeks, depending on the weather and the amount of ice on the way.
Work began on the 144-metre Akademik Lomonosov in Saint Petersburg in 2006.
When it arrives in Pevek, a town of 5,000 in Chukotka, Siberia, it will replace a local nuclear plant and a closed coal plant.
It is due to go into operation by the end of the year, mainly serving the region's oil platforms as Russia develops the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the Arctic.
Environmental groups have been critical of the idea of a floating reactor since the 1990s, said Rashid Alimov, the head of the energy sector of Greenpeace Russia.
"Any nuclear power plant produces radioactive waste and can have an accident, but Akademik Lomonosov is additionally vulnerable to storms," he told AFP.
The float is towed by other vessels, making a collision during a storm more likely, he said.
Because Rosatom plans to store spent fuel onboard, "any accident involving this fuel might have a serious impact on the fragile environment of the Arctic," said Alimov.
There is "no infrastructure for a nuclear cleanup" in the region, he warned.
Global warming and melting ice have made the Northeast Passage -- which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific along Russia's northern coast -- more accessible.
When AFP visited the Akademik Lomonosov in May 2018, it was a shabby brown colour. It has since been repainted in the red, white and blue colours of the Russian flag.
The vessel weighs 21,000 tonnes and has two reactors with a capacity of 35MW each, close to that of those used by nuclear icebreakers.
It has a crew of 69 and travels at a speed of 3.5 to 4.5 knots.
The project is a missed opportunity as Chukotka, a region larger than Texas with only 50,000 inhabitants, "has a huge potential for the development of wind energy", said Alimov.
"A floating nuclear power plant is a too risky and too expensive way of producing electricity," he said.
A deadly explosion this month at a military testing site in Russia's far north, causing a radioactive surge, has prompted further concerns.
The blast on August 8 occurred during a test of a nuclear-powered missile, resulting in the death of five staff members and releasing elevated radiation levels.
The blast was reportedly related to the 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, known by NATO as SSC-X-9 Skyfall.
The nearby city of Severodvinsk recorded elevated radiation levels following the accident, and panicked residents rushed to buy iodine, which can help prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radiation.
Such radioactive incidents can have long-lasting effects on the environment and security.
Rehabilitation work to clean up Soviet-era uranium sites at seven facilities in Central Asia -- three of which are situated in Kyrgyzstan -- is slated to begin in September with €85 million in financing from the European Union (EU), the KyrTag news agency reported in July.
Central Asia served as a key source of uranium in the former Soviet Union for more than 50 years, leaving behind a host of security and environmental issues.
Tajikistan, for example, has expressed concern about the presence of enough left-over uranium at its tailing dumps to enable the manufacture of "dirty bombs."
Central Asia has about 1 billion tonnes of toxic uranium tailings, according to a 2017 EU estimate.
"A large amount of radioactively contaminated material was placed in mining waste dumps and tailing sites," the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said in April.
While most of the mines were closed by 1995, Russia did little remediation before or after abandoning those milling and mining sites.