After man-made islands, China to develop floating nuclear power plants

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All the radar systems, lighthouses, barracks, ports and airfields that China has set up on its newly built island chain in the South China Sea require tremendous amounts of electricity, which is hard to come by in a place hundreds of miles from the country’s power grid.

Beijing may have a solution: floating nuclear power plants.

A state-owned company, China Shipbuilding Industry Corp., is planning to build a fleet of the vessels to provide electricity to remote locations including offshore oil platforms and the contentious man-made islands, the state-run newspaper Global Times reported on Friday.

The paper quoted a company executive, Liu Zhengguo, as saying that “demand is pretty strong” for the floating power stations.

In January, Xu Dazhe, the director of the China Atomic Energy Authority, told reporters that China was planning to develop floating nuclear energy plants, saying they “must undergo a rigorous, scientific evaluation,” but also linking these to China’s desire to become a “maritime power.”

Xu said at the time that developing nuclear power-generating capacity was part of the country’s five-year economic development plan, which runs through 2020. China has more civilian nuclear power stations under construction than any other country.

China would not be the first country to employ floating nuclear power plants. In the 1960s, the U.S. Army installed a nuclear reactor inside the hull of a World War II freighter to provide electricity for the Panama Canal Zone. And nuclear power has been on vessels since 1955, when the commanding officer of the Nautilus, an American submarine, sent word that the craft was “underway on nuclear power.” Since then, nuclear reactors have provided propulsion – and electrical power – for ships.

Typhoons regularly cross the South China Sea, and ships and submarines that run on nuclear power generally have the means to quickly sail away from a storm. It is unclear how mobile or seaworthy these reactor ships will be. Safety regulations for the seaborne reactors are being drawn up and reviewed, Global Times said, quoting Tang Bo, an official at China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and the director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that in the event of a major nuclear accident at a floating barge, like a meltdown of the reactor core, winds could carry radioactivity to large population centers.

“The floating nuke accident scenario also carries with it the potential for molten parts of the reactor core burning through the bottom of the barge to reach the water below,” Lochbaum wrote in an email. “The water is good for cooling, but not good for containment.”

In the 1970s, an industry consortium called Offshore Power Systems also had plans for floating nuclear power plants in the United States. An electric utility had ordered a plant that would have been moored outside Atlantic City. The facility, which would have been built in Florida, was canceled, Lochbaum said.

The Army’s floating nuclear reactor in the Panama Canal Zone provided power during the late 1960s and into the 1970s to the grid in what was then U.S. territory. But China would be placing floating atomic power stations at islands that until recently did not exist in seas claimed by several nations.

The artificial islands built by the Chinese in the past two years in disputed waters of the South China Sea have stoked tensions with neighbors and prompted the United States to assert its right to transit the area freely by sailing Navy ships close to the islands, often shadowed by Chinese vessels.

In February, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington reported that the Chinese were probably building radar facilities on several of the islands. That is in addition to airstrips for large jets like one on Fiery Cross Reef, harbors to berth seagoing vessels, lighthouses and large buildings such as barracks.

All that requires electricity, provided now by generators and augmented by limited solar and wind power, said Gregory B Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS.

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