Posted by Mark Halper

Freezing irony. This nuclear powered icebreaker is helping to bring natural gas to Japan to replace         nuclear power.

Today’s post is an ironic salute to small nuclear reactors.

As I’ve written here recently, reactors that are much smaller than the gigawatt-plus giants that typically feed electrical grids hold great promise in moving the world onto CO2-free energy.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) can: reduce the upfront cost for a utility that wants to add capacity; provide electricity to remote off grid locations, replacing CO2-intense and expensive diesel; blast heat into industrial processes that rely on fossil fuels. They can even co-locate with renewables and provide the round-the-clock electricity that renewables cannot.

In principle manufacturers will be able to make SMRs in assembly line style, and ship them on trucks, which should lead to lower costs.

Although the planet has yet to really deploy SMRs for these various new purposes, SMRs have been around as propulsion devices for nearly 60 years, ever since the launch of the USS Nautilus nuclear submarine in 1955.


So it is here that I tip my hat to one of the latest examples of small reactors helping to literally carry things forward.

Hail Russia! The only country in the world with a fleet of atomic icebreakers has just completed an astonishing mission.

Three of its hearty vessels – powered by small pressurized reactors – have escorted a cargo of Gazprom liquefied natural gas (LNG) through the Arctic Sea along Russia’s northern coast to…get ready for the irony…Japan.

Two nukes and a tanker of gas head toward Japan (a third icebreaker is out of the picture).

Yes, Japan, the same country that has shut down 52 of its 54 nuclear reactors, is now essentially relying on nuclear power to help deliver the natural gas to help replace its nuclear power!

The gas came from Russian behemoth Gazprom. The Greek registered Ob River LNG tanker left the port of Hammerfest in Norway on Nov. 7., and arrived in Japan’s port of Tobata on Dec. 5.

Along the way, it ploughed through the icy Northern Sea Route, assisted by the nuclear powered ships 50 Years of Victory, Vaygach and Russia, according to Gazprom’s website. They’re all part of the Atomflot collection of nuclear icebreakers.

The Arctic Sea is a much better option than say, Panama or Suez for shipping gas to Japan from northern areas. That is, as long as you have access to decent nuclear-powered icebreakers.


Gazprom says that the route cuts the journey time by about 40 percent, which in turn reduces LNG loss from evaporation and cuts CO2 emissions. The northern climes also reduce the risk of pirate attack, Gazprom points out (pirates seem to like warm weather).

The irony of the nuclear delivered gas is probably not lost on Japan, where political sentiment is now shifting back to a pro-nuclear position with the election of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The country has been struggling to fill the power void and has been relying on CO2-ladened fossil fuels. It also faces potentially severe economic consequences in a non-nuclear future.

As Japan and the rest of the world grow more aware of the capabilities of small reactors – as so dramatically displayed by Atomflot – sentiment should continue to shift more in nuclear’s favour.

Photos from Gazprom

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