China’s first mobile nuclear reactor is undergoing final tests before being welded on a specially-designed vessel at a dock jointly operated by state-owned China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) and China Shipbuilding Industry Corp in northeastern Liaoning province, recent reports by Chinese newspapers have said.

The same dock, in Huludao city near the Bohai Sea, was the birthplace of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine.

Analysts have associated these novel marine nuclear power stations to Beijing’s initiatives to militarise and “colonise” the South China Sea and turn its vast waters into a Chinese lake.

ttChina built its first nuclear submarine in 1974, at the same dock where its first floating nuclear plant is being tested. Photo: Xinhua

In August, CNNC spearheaded a 1-billion-yuan (US$151-million) scheme with four other corporate investors for a subsidiary specialised in oceanic nuclear-powered research and development.

Mobile nuclear reactors could power the many man-made islands being created in the South China Sea when transmitting electricity from the mainland would be expensive and conventional diesel generators can hardly quench the demand amid an expanding population of soldiers, constructors and residents.

The cost of diesel generation in the sea is 2 yuan per kilowatt hour, while the cost of nuclear generation could be as low as 0.9 yuan, China Business News quoted a China Atomic Energy Agency expert as saying.

Chinese vessels in waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters/File Photo
Chinese vessels in waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this image taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy on May 21, 2015. US Navy/via Reuters.

As many as 20 floating nuclear stations may be needed across the South China Sea for new chunks of land created on reefs and shoals, especially in the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos that are subject to conflicting territorial claims by China and Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan.

These reactors can also sail and power the many Chinese drilling platforms in the ocean to expedite exploitation of oil, natural gas, as well as “combustible ice” (a frozen mixture of water and concentrated natural gas found on the sea floor).

A CNNC official told Xinhua there is no technical issue standing in the way of these ocean-going reactors, but he remained tight-lipped about the specifications of these reactors.

Akademik Lomonosov, the Russian floating nuclear-power station that is nearing commercialisation, has two KLT-40 naval propulsion reactors providing 70MW of electricity or 300MW of heat, enough for a city with a population of 200,000. It could also be modified as a desalination plant producing 240,000 cubic meters of fresh water per day. China’s mobile reactors may be of a similar configuration.

Analysts believe that given China has built miniaturised reactors to propel its submarines since the 1970s, and with development of the nation’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carriers being revved up, tapping the same technology and talent pool to build sea-going nuclear-power plants is a natural move that should not surprise anyone.