PEVEK, Russia — The water was hot, steamy and plentiful, and Pavel Rozhkov let it flow over his body, enjoying a shower that is not for the squeamish: On his bare skin, he was feeling the heat produced by an atomic reaction, pumped directly from a nuclear reactor into his home.
“Personally, I’m not worried,” Mr. Rozhkov said.
The shower was made possible by nuclear residential heating, which is still very rare and was only introduced in Pevek, a remote Siberian town, a year ago. The source is not a typical reactor with huge cooling towers but is the first of a new generation of smaller and potentially more versatile nuclear plants — in this case aboard a barge floating nearby in the Arctic Ocean.
Russia is embracing nuclear residential heating as a potential solution. It also hopes it can provide a competitive advantage, as countries from all over the world meet in Scotland this week to discuss ways to combat climate change. Companies in the United States, China and France are considering building the type of small reactors connected now to Pevek’s waterworks.
“It’s very exciting,” Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a telephone interview. These small reactors, he claimed, could also heat greenhouses and provide heat for industrial purposes. In bringing to life the new approach, he said, “the Russians are ahead.”
Residential heating that is nuclear-powered is different from running space heaters or water heaters powered by electricity from nuclear sources. Direct nuclear heating, which was tested in small areas of Russia and Sweden, circulates water from a power station to homes and transfers heat directly from fissioning the uranium atoms back to residences.
The idea of heating homes with nuclear energy has many environmental benefits, say advocates. It does not waste the heat that is normally vented as steam through the conical cooling Towers of nuclear plants. Instead, it captures it for residential heating if customers are okay with it.
Some experts remain concerned about the risks. They point to the many accidents and spillages on Soviet and Russian submarines, and icebreakers using similar small reactors. For example, nuclear submarines fell in 1989 and 2000.
“It is nuclear technology, and the starting point needs to be that it is dangerous,” said Andrei Zolotkov, a researcher with Bellona, a Norwegian environmental group. “That is the only way to think about it.”
Mr. Rozhkov’s wife, Natalia, was initially skeptical. From their kitchen window, they can see the new nuclear facility which is approximately a mile away. She said she “worried for the first two days” after their apartment was connected to one of the cooling loops of the reactors. But, the feeling went away.
“Whatever is new is scary,” Ms. Rozhkova said. Still, somebody has to be first, she suggested, adding, “We were the closest, so they hooked us up first.”
Professor Buongiorno stated that the Siberia experiment could be a crucial part of convincing other countries that nuclear power is needed for more than just electricity generation, which is the main source of nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.
“Decarbonizing the electrical grid will only get you one quarter of the way,” he said. “The rest comes from all these other things.”
But a nuclear shower? Professor Buongiorno said he would take one — but conceded that “obviously this is not going to work if people don’t feel comfortable with the technology.”
Russia is not a climate change crusader because of its nuclear heating experiment. One of the world’s heaviest polluters, it has adopted contradictory stances on global warming, of which Pevek itself is an example: At the same time it is switching its heating to nuclear power, rather than coal, it is benefiting from climate changeAs shipping lanes become more navigable, Arctic ports are being revived.
The Russians have a long history of using nuclear technology for civilian purposes that is not accepted elsewhere. The Soviet Union thought of launching atomic bombs to create open-pit mines and water canals. Russia’s icebreakers are the only civilian nuclear powered surface fleet.
Engineers connected a reactor used to make plutonium bombs to several sites during the Soviet period. The reactors continued to operate in this fashion for years, even though they were not required to make weapons.
Pevek’s nuclear facility can be found aboard the Akademik Lomonosov. It is a barge that is roughly the size of a block. The idea of small reactors does not seem new. They were a promising technology in the 1960s, just before the anti-nuclear movement gained traction. The United States operated a barge based reactor to electrify Panama Canal Zone between 1968 and 1976. Sweden used nuclear heating within a suburb of Stockholm between 1963 and 1974.
Two other sites in Russia, Pevek included, use nuclear residential heat. However, in these cases it is a byproduct from large electrical plants.
Soon, in Pevek, the town’s community steam bath, or banya, will also be nuclear-powered. Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear corporation, connected the reactors and heating pipes to one neighborhood in June 2020. It is expanding the hot-water service to the entire city, which has a population close to 4,500.
The plant’s two cores are cooled by a series of water loops. The first loop in each reactor is contaminated with radioactive particle. This water does not leave the plant. Through heat exchangers, it transfers heat — but not contaminated water — to other loops.
Pevek has one loop, which is the system of pipes, that leaves the plant and branches out to supply hot water to homes.
The company supports a variety of safety features. The plant can withstand a small aircraft crash. The vessel that holds it doubles up as a containment structure. The water that circulates through buildings is pressured higher than the cooling loop from where it gets heat, preventing radiation from spreading to towns.
Residents cannot refuse to receive nuclear-powered heat. However, they have generally welcomed the new plant. Maksim Zhurbin the deputy mayor said that no one complained at public hearings just before the barge arrived.
“We explained to the population what would happen, and there were no objections,” he said. “We are using the peaceful atom.”
Irina Buriyeva, librarian, said she appreciates the abundant heat and electricity. Of the risks of a radiation leak or explosion, she said, “We try not to think about it, honestly.”
Russia is not an exception when it comes to small civilian reactors. France’s President Emmanuel Macron was inaugurated this month. proposed an expansion of his country’s extensive nuclear sector with small reactors, as part of the solution to climate change. China is building small floating reactors that are modeled after the Russian design.
There are about 12 designs that companies in the United States have ready for testing, including Westinghouse (General Electric) and Westinghouse (Westinghouse). The U.S. military has ordered a small reactor that can fit in a shipping box. Two companies, BWXT, and X-energy are competing to deliver the miniaturized device.
Germany has chosen a different path. It decided to close all its nuclear plants following the Fukushima2011 disaster in Japan
Kirill Toropov is the deputy director at the floating nuclear power plant in Pevek. He said that the benefits of the plant were already evident locally. He cited snow that is less sullied by coal soot. “We need to note this positive ecological moment,” he said.
Mr. Rozhkov, 41, an accountant, who has been showering and bathing three children in nuclear-warmed water for a year now, said Russia’s use of small reactors in icebreakers gave him confidence in the technology.
“We aren’t worried,” he said, “that the details are still being worked out.”
His wife said they were “believers,” and added: “There are things we cannot control. I can only pray to God for our safety and the safety of our community. I say, ‘God, it is in your hands.’”