ST. PETERSBURG, Russia, June 30 (Reuters) - Russia on Wednesday took a big step toward the controversial creation of the world's first floating nuclear power station, putting a barge that will house the plant into the water.
Environmentalists say Russia's plan to dot its northern coastline with floating nuclear power plants is risky.
The head of Russia's nuclear agency Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko, said the plant would be "absolutely safe" and predicted "big interest from foreign customers."
Nearly a quarter-century after the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster in Soviet Ukraine, Russia is planning to expand its own network of nuclear power plants and pursuing deals to build more abroad.
The vessel housing the plant, which Kiriyenko said should be ready to operate late in 2012, was launched at the Baltiisky shipyard in Russia's Imperial-era capital on the Baltic Sea.
Kiriyenko said nuclear fuel for the plant would be loaded later in the Murmansk region, further north, and the station towed to its place of operation. It would be hauled away after 32 years of service, he said, leaving the surrounding area "the same as before the station arrives."
Environmentalists are not convinced.
"The danger begins when the reactor is installed and nuclear fuel put there," said Vladimir Chuprov, Greenpeace Russia's energy projects chief.
"If something goes wrong ... it could mean the nuclearisation of several dozen hectares of land at a minimum and tens of thousands of people evacuated from the polluted area," he said.
Critics also warily recall Soviet-era nuclear accidents and Russia's naval disasters such as the loss of the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk, which sank in the Barents Sea after explosions on board, killing all 118 crew.
Kiriyenko said the floating plant, called the Academician Lomonosov, would have the capacity to produce 80 megawatts of electricity. He said at least six potential sites for such plants have been chosen in northern Russia. (Additional reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Matthew Jones)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.