A nuclear expert has confirmed his "good confidence” that the world’s first purpose-built floating nuclear power plant will be working in pilot mode by this November in Chukotka, northeast Russia, according to Russian news agency TASS.

“Most probable, the full [operation] will begin in April 2020," Chukotka’s First Deputy Governor Mikhail Sobolev told TASS.

In the Arctic port town of Pevek, where the plant will be moored, “at times the air temperatures drop to minus 50 degrees, and we fear leaving the citizens without heating," Sobolev said, emphasizing the urgency. “Thus, most likely, it will begin working in spring.”

Jonathan Cobb, senior communication manager for the World Nuclear Association, said there is little reason to doubt that the timeframe would be met. “The reactors have already operated during testing at Murmansk,” he said.

According to TASS, the energy units aboard the Akademik Lomonosov floating nuclear power plant were being further tested up until the end of March.

The 70-megawatt plant, built by the Baltic Shipyard in Saint Petersburg, is due to be handed over to its developer, the Russian state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom, before July, TASS said.

The news agency added that the Akademik Lomonosov’s output would be sufficient for a city of more than 200,000, roughly four times the population of the entire autonomous region of Chukotka. Once operational, the power plant will be the world’s northernmost nuclear installation.

It is due to take the place of a coal-fired thermal plant and what is said to be the smallest nuclear power station in the world, a 36-megawatt, three-reactor complex operated by state-owned Rosenergoatom in Bilibino.

End of a lengthy development process

These two plants currently supply electricity across the Chukotka region, which is bigger than Texas. The two existing plants will be decommissioned once the Akademik Lomonosov becomes operational. The floating power plant is presently at Murmansk, near the Russian border with Norway.

It arrived there in May last year to take on board its nuclear fuel supply. The loading took from July to October. In November last year, the first of two reactors aboard the vessel achieved a sustained chain reaction, the World Nuclear Association reported.

The plant will be towed to Pevek, the most northerly city in Russia and just 53 miles across the Bering Strait from the coast of Alaska, in the coming months. Its commissioning will mark the end of a lengthy development process.

Sobolev said the idea of building floating nuclear power stations was originally mooted in 1992. The keel of the Akademik Lomonosov was laid in 2007 by the military shipbuilder Sevmash at the White Sea port of Severodvinsk.

But the building of the 470-foot vessel was interrupted when Rosatom canceled the contract and transferred the work to the Baltic Shipyard, where a new keel was built in 2009. The hull was launched in 2010 and two 35-megawatt KLT-40S icebreaker reactors were fitted in 2013.

Among the world's first operational SMRs

Despite its slow progress, the Akademik Lomonosov looks set to become one of the first small modular reactors (SMRs) in the world to begin commercial operations.

In the U.S., Portland, Oregon-based NuScale Power is hoping have the country’s first SMR hooked to the grid no sooner than the mid-2020s. SMRs are of interest partly because it is hoped they will avoid the massive upfront costs of full-scale nuclear power plants. 

Cobb said the cost of the Akademik Lomonosov was estimated to be 21.5 billion rubles ($331 million), and “costs for follow-up plants would be expected to fall.”

In addition, he said, Russia is planning to build future floating plants with newer reactors that would supply more power but weigh less, requiring smaller vessels.

Although the Akademik Lomonosov is the first purpose-built plant of its kind, he said, Russia has a long history of using reactors to power icebreakers.

Between 1967 and 1976, the Sturgis, an ex-army U.S. Liberty ship originally built in 1945 and named the Charles H. Cugle, functioned as a floating nuclear power plant on Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal Zone, said Cobb.

The Sturgis had a 10-megawatt single-loop pressurized water reactor and operated until 1977.