French scientists want to submerge small nuclear power plants deep underwater as a low-cost way of supplying energy to isolated countries and islands.
While France led the way in the mass development of nuclear power stations in the 1970s, top engineers now believe that technology in nuclear submarines could be adapted for nuclear power.
A study by state-controlled submarine builder DCNS will carry out a study into whether nuclear power plants the size and shape of submarines could safely operate in the sea and provide water to land via underwater cables.
The underwater plants would be cheaper to install than standard ones and could be a breakthrough for countries that cannot afford an inland atomic plant.
The first “Flexblue” unit with a capacity of 50 to 250 megawatts (MW), compared to the 1,650MW generated by a land reactor, could be in operation by the end of 2016.
Head of DCNS civilian nuclear business unit Andre Kolmayer said he was “convinced” it was possible.
“There are about 150 nuclear submarines roaming around the world today, so putting a nuclear plant underwater is not exactly a novelty.
"DCNS has built nuclear submarines for 40 years, and we have put 18 in action. The technology we'll use for Flexblue will be carefully demilitarised, but it will evidently benefit from this experience," the atomic scientist added.
The submarine builder aims to capitalise on renewed interest in nuclear power after rapidly increasing oil prices and the effort to reduce climate-warming carbon emissions.
However anti-nuclear groups have expressed concerns over radioactivity leaks, which could spread more quickly in water than in air.
Kolmayer said an accident like the 1986 Chernobyl disaster would not be possible in theory but DCNS would conduct feasibility studies over the next two years to confirm this.
The company will build units which will be capsule-shaped, 100 metres long, 12-15 metres in diameter and weighing 12,000 tonnes.
They will be installed in groups “like wind farms” between five and 15km offshore and moored on the seabed at a depth of 100 metres.
This depth will protect them against a plane crash, thunder or a tsunami, while a metal net would protect them by making a torpedo explode at a distance.
DCNS say they can supply cities of about 100,000 inhabitants, or up to a million in emerging countries, via underwater cables and offer a standard, easy-to-assemble power production tool that is much cheaper than nuclear plants on land.
Kolmayer said Malta, Cyprus and Morocco were examples of typical countries that DCNS would target.