Reports that China is conducting trials on a new type of miniaturized reactor have filled speculation that the country’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier could be in service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy as early as 2025.

But the reality is that the carrier program won’t be plain sailing. It usually takes more than 10 years to start sea trials from the time a keel is laid, and it is not certain China has yet reached the design stage.

The state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corp (CSIC) dropped the first official hint that Beijing would try to build its own nuclear carrier in an article on its website in February. CSIC promised to “expedite its endeavour for breakthroughs” in building carriers, as well as an armada of next-generation nuclear submarines.

Titled CSIC’s Strategy For The New Era, the article stated that the corporation had been tasked to construct more advanced warships over the next decade to support the Chinese Navy’s transformation into a genuine blue water force. The target date it set was 2025.

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A conceptual drawing of a possible future Chinese nuclear carrier. Photo: Weibo

But observers have cautioned that while China may manage to build its own flattop by that time, it would be a stretch to have a fully-functioning nuclear propulsion system. So the nominated date of 2025 is more likely to be when the vessel’s construction will start.

Others are skeptical that Beijing even has the capacity to design its own nuclear carrier from scratch: if there is one, it is more likely to be  a copycat of the first domestically-built conventionally-propelled carrier, which was modeled closely on the Soviet-era Kuznetsov class of ships. China’s first carrier, Liaoning, was also a Kuznetsov vessel.

Some reports suggest that Beijing wanted to use blueprints from the Soviet Union’s first nuclear carrier, the 85,000-ton Ulyanovsk, which is best known for its curled-up bow. Efforts were made to get drawings from Ukraine during the turmoil over the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, but Beijing reportedly got only 40% of the content.

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The Ulyanovsk, scrapped after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Photo: WikiMediaThe Ulyanovsk’s hull was laid down in 1988 but the program was cancelled in January 1991, when construction was only 20% complete. A planned second carrier never went beyond the blueprint stage.

Veteran military commentator Andrei Chang argued in his column in the Hong Kong-based Kanwa Defense Review that a Chinese nuclear carrier would have to rely on domestic technologies developed from scratch. It would use steam-propelled or electromagnetic catapults mounted on its flight deck, as there would be no ski-jump bow.

Chang said the carrier could be of a similar size to China’s planned second homemade carrier — with 70,000 tons of displacement — which is scheduled to be built at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard by the end of the year.

Once technical barriers have been surmounted and the design finalized, the nuclear carrier will probably begin to take shape at the Bohai Shipyard at Huludao, in the northeastern province of Liaoning, where China’s first nuclear submarine was also built.