Sitting just off the coast of the Russian island Sakhalin, the Aniva Rock Lighthouse sits on a lonely bluff as a reminder of a time gone past. The island itself was uninhabited until the 1800s, but when both the Russians and the Japanese became interested in annexing the island (the Russians initially wanted it for a penal colony), the island was split pretty much in half. This lasted until around the end of WWII, when the island was claimed completely by the then-Soviet Union. The how and the why of that outcome is pretty boring (a treaty was signed, thousands of people were uprooted because of some dumb war, blah blah), but the island itself is fascinating. Read on.
The eastern stretch of Russian coastline that Sakhalin sits on is vast – thousands of miles long, in fact. Additionally, this area of the globe experiences very long polar winters. The sun only pokes above the horizon for one day per calendar year, which made ocean travel in these waters particularly challenging. As a result, the Soviet Union started building a series of lighthouses along this extensive and darkened coastline to guide ships into port. Construction and maintenance of these lighthouses proposed a fairly unique challenge – they were located hundreds of miles away from just about anyone and anything, so their operation needed to be pretty autonomous. An otherwise abandoned island off the Russian coastline isn’t exactly a commutable distance, especially when these lighthouses were designed to operate without any kind of human interference at all. That’s right – not only were they to be ghost lighthouses, but ROBOT GHOST LIGHTHOUSES. Cool.
The puzzle of how to make this fairly unique strategy of installing streetlights along its eastern seaboard work was solved by Russian engineers by creating and installing scaled-down nuclear reactors in the lighthouses. Because what could ever go wrong with an unmanned nuclear reactor? These smaller, lighter atomic fuel sources ran on an autonomous ‘independent mode’ for years, and surprisingly, not one of them ever blew up. Not even one! These reactors replaced old diesel engines that were used by the Japanese inhabitants of the island before Russia took it over completely, and to this day, there are large pieces of signage on the island displaying the word RADIOACTIVE to anyone foolish enough to get anywhere near the place. Of course, with how many pictures and first-hand accounts there are of the island, they might as well have hung a sign out front reading FREE BEER.
Today, the upkeep and operation (or lack thereof) of these seven lighthouses that dot the Russian coastline have pretty much been left up to the tests of time. The seven stories of living quarters, equipment storage, and research space in Aniva Rock lighthouse itself have all been looted and left for dead. Now that we have sonar and satellite coverage equipped on every major seagoing vessel, it’s almost sad to think that the time of lighthouses has just about come and gone. However, if you ever get the itch to visit a nuclear-powered robot ghost lighthouse, you know just which light to follow.