Of floating nukes and northern strategies

Other countries are getting busy in the Arctic

For Yukoners who didn’t like the new liquefied natural gas generators, consider what our circumpolar friends in Siberia might have done: put a nuclear mini-reactor on a barge and tether it on the shores of Lake Schwatka.

Such a barge is currently on its way from Saint Petersburg through the Northeast Passage to Pevek in northeastern Siberia. The mini-reactor is rated for 70 megawatts, roughly the capacity of the Yukon’s three main hydro dams combined, and will power the town of Pevek as well as nearby oil and gas rigs.

The power barge is named Akademik Lomonosov after a famous Russian scientist and poet from near Archangel on the Arctic Coast, but Western environmental groups have rebranded it as either the “Nuclear Titanic” or “Floating Chernobyl.”

They were not reassured when one of the Russian officials in charge told the media that the barge was “invincible for tsunamis and natural disaster.”

Small reactors are not new. The Russians have been running nuclear submarines in the Arctic since the late 1950s. But it is innovative to moor such power units in coastal towns to provide steady baseload power.

Depending on who you believe, Russian nuclear submarines have suffered more than a dozen reactor accidents over the years. The Russian navy would probably point out that most if not all of them were prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In case you don’t keep a globe handy, Pevek and the Lomonosov will be considerably closer to the Yukon than, for example, Iqaluit. In fact, Pevek is about 2,000 kilometers from Old Crow, which is about the same distance as Whitehorse to Saskatoon.

I was an exchange student in Helsinki when the Chernobyl cloud passed overhead. I can’t say I’m reassured by a quick look at prevailing winds and ocean current maps between Pevek and Herschel Island.

But my opinion, like yours, is irrelevant. Even the most stiffly worded press release from the Yukon government is unlikely to get the attention of the Kremlin.

The Lomonosov underlines how divergent development policies are among the Arctic countries.

The Russians are also rapidly expanding natural gas production in the Arctic, and shipping it via ice-hardened tankers to Europe and Asia. One project in Yamal alone is planned to cost over C$30 billion and produce more than 15 million tonnes of gas per year.

Russia has also been making a wave of investments in its Arctic army, navy and air bases. They have built several new bases and refurbished several Soviet-era ones, upgraded air defence systems and plan to create two “Arctic brigade” combat groups. There is some debate among defense analysts about how much of this is posturing rather than a real increase in military power, but in any case these bases will be used by the Russian coast guard to support more ship traffic along the Northeastern passage.

The Norwegians are also pushing forward with major expansions of offshore drilling in the Arctic. The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate reported that a record number of wells were drilled in the Barents Sea in 2017, and industry analysts are expecting 2018 to be busy too.

As for the Trump Administration, they are pushing to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, under the urging of Alaska’s entire congressional delegation. To give you an idea of how strongly they feel about this, consider how Sen. Dan Sullivan reacted when the Canadian government lobbied senators to vote against the enabling legislation. The Alaska Journal of Commerce reports that Sullivan recounted a subsequent phone call with the Canadian ambassador in Washington, claiming that he said, “Ambassador, I’m going to do everything I can to screw your country if you don’t stand down.”

China has also been more vocal in its Arctic ambitions. It published a new Arctic strategy earlier this year, declaring itself a “near-Arctic state.” China has launched a series of ice-capable patrol vessels, and its new Xuelong 2 heavy icebreaker should hit the water next year. China has also announced a “Polar Silk Road” program to encourage trade and supporting infrastructure through the Arctic.

Canada doesn’t necessarily have to do the same as the rest of the Arctic powers. Some of their initiatives may end up as environmental disasters or costly boondoggles. Canada has a moratorium on drilling in the Arctic. Our Arctic search-and-rescue and military bases are limited. The Yukon has neither a port nor a road to its Arctic Coast, and has no plans to change that. The taxpayers of southern Canada may be content that their governments stay focused on the major population centres.

But even if we maintain the status quo, our neighbours are not. And we have to hope we aren’t reminded of this by oil spills, decimated cross-border caribou herds or radioactive clouds.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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