Russian state nuclear company Rosatom says the plant is safe and can serve as a new power source for the planet's most isolated communities, but environmentalists have voiced concerns over the risk of nuclear accidents.
Russia's first floating nuclear power plant set sail on Friday from the Arctic port of Murmansk to provide power to one of the country's most remote regions, sparking environmental concerns.
Developed by the Russian state nuclear company Rosatom, the plant, known as "Akademik Lomonosov," set off on a 5,000 km journey through Arctic waters to reach the Chukotka region, which lies across the Bering Strait from Alaska.
The plant, loaded with nuclear fuel, will replace a coal-fired power plant and an ageing nuclear power plant supplying more than 50,000 people with electricity.
Rosatom says the plant is safe and can serve as a new power source for the planet's most isolated communities, but environmentalists have voiced concerns over the risk of nuclear accidents and called it a potential "Chernobyl on ice."
Greenpeace has called it the "nuclear Titanic."
"We think that a floating nuclear power plant is an excessively risky and costly way of obtaining energy," Rashid Alimov of Greenpeace Russia told Reuters news agency.
He added the unit had not been built with the purpose of fulfilling the energy needs of Chukotka, but rather to serve as a model for potential foreign buyers.
Rosatom did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
The plant's voyage comes at a time of heightened concern over nuclear energy, following a deadly blast this month in northern Russia during a weapons system test that caused a spike in radiation levels in a nearby city.
5 reasons why a floating nuclear power plant in the Arctic is a terrible idea #NuclearTitanic #FloatingChernobylhttps://t.co/TA2HFdBTgf— Greenpeace NZ (@GreenpeaceNZ) August 7, 2019
Work began on the 144-metre Akademik Lomonosov in Saint Petersburg in 2006.
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.
New nuclear industry
Global warming and melting ice has 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 of the Russian flag.
The vessel weighs 21,000 tons and has two reactors with a capacity of 35 megawatts 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.
Alimov said the project was a missed opportunity as Chukotka, a region larger than Texas, "has a huge potential for the development of wind energy."
"A floating nuclear power plant is a too risky and too expensive way of producing electricity," he said.
The nuclear industry, seeking to reinvent itself in a gloomy market, is developing smaller, cheaper reactors to attract new customers.
They follow the examples of submarines, icebreakers and aircraft carriers, which have long used nuclear power and are intended for isolated areas with little infrastructure.