U.S. Once Planned to Build Nuclear Power Plants on Oceanic Barges

By Wesley Fenlon

Tired of nuclear power plants using river water? Let's build them off the shore, instead!

After Japan's tsunami and the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, much of the world views nuclear power with skepticism and fear. Nuclear reactors can be relatively clean, powerful sources of energy, but when something goes wrong, it goes wrong big time. Given the current climate around nuclear power, it's wild to look back at some plans the United States had for nuclear power back in the 1970s. Picture this: eight nuclear power plants arrayed near one another--floating off the New Jersey shore.

Smithsonian Mag's Matt Novak recently wrote about American plans to build nuclear power plants on the ocean's surface. A group called Offshore Power Systems, comprised of Tenneco and Westinghouse, planned to build $1.1 billion dollar nuclear installations on man-made steel islands in Jacksonville, Florida. The plants would then be towed up the coast to New Jersey and anchored offshore. The idea is, at least, based on some logic--since nuclear power plants need lots of water for cooling, they'd be in a prime location to access water without drawing from major rivers or lakes.

Image via Smithsonian Mag

So on the one hand, the plan was sound--communities don't want their river water running through nuclear plants. Why not put those plants out in the ocean where they can't hurt our freshwater sources? Well, an accident at a nuclear plant off the coast could have been even more disastrous. Novak quotes Gordon Selfridge, who wrote a paper about floating nuclear plants in 1975:

"The poisonous reactor core would melt through the barge and descend into the hydrosphere where the radioactive core would contaminate thousands of cubic miles of ocean. Some radiation would be released to the atmosphere, the rest would enter the marine food chain. Radioactive contamination of the entire northwest Atlantic food chain for hundreds of years from one meltdown is a conceivable scenario."

Perhaps it's for the best that the American public turned against the idea of nuclear power on the 70s, eventually causing Offshore Power Systems to abandon its plans. There have actually been more than 100 canceled reactor plans in the United States since the 1970s, though most of them were pretty tame compared to the floating Atlantic power plant plans. The Clinch River Breeder Reactor would have used sodium cooling in the 1970s, which would have been early days for a technology that's more commonly used in modern reactors.

Today, some countries like Singapore are investigating the possibility of burying nuclear reactors underground. Bury them deep enough,as the theory goes, and you'll be insulated from any potential leakage crisis. NewScientist writes that "Earthquake prone areas or regions with high water tables wouldn't work. The limitations would rule out much of Japan but wouldn't preclude Singapore."