China National Nuclear Corp has put out to tender a contract for the nation’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker, according to Chinese newspaper reports.

The state-owned civil and military nuclear conglomerate has expressed interest in building a nuclear-powered icebreaker and has commenced a bidding process to outsource design, construction and maintenance works. Industry experts believe that the ambitious undertaking will lead to the formation of a consortium comprised of both private entities and other SOEs such as the shipbuilding juggernaut China Shipbuilding Industry Corp.

Russia is currently the only nation that maintains a fleet of nuclear icebreakers. They aid shipping along the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic waterways north of Siberia.

China’s new-found interest in a nuclear-powered icebreaker is a little baffling, since the nation’s northern territorial waters seldom ice up, even during harsh arctic winters.

The Beijing-based tabloid Global Times thinks it has the answer to the mystery: the interest in a nuclear icebreaker is no whim, as China has its eye on its plans for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. A lot could be learned from the process of  mounting a compact reactor in a non-military vessel.

The [proposed icebreaker’s] nuclear power unit can be replicated and applied to a carrier once updated, so it can be seen as a preparation, Chinese military observer Song Zhongping told the Global Times.

Another conceptual rendering of the future Chinese nuclear carrier. Photo: Weibo
Another conceptual rendering of the future Chinese nuclear carrier. Photo: Weibo

Analysts say China will likely take a leaf from Russia’s book in designing and building such nuclear icebreakers and judging from the specifications of the gigantic Russian vessels in service – its 50 Let Pobedy has a displacement of more than 25,000 tons – China will be “halfway to” building a mid-sized nuclear carrier once its similarly powered icebreaker is up and running.

China can also leverage hard-earned experience gained from building and operating a growing armada of nuclear submarines. Ever since the 1970s, when the Chinese Navy launched its first prototype submarine, the Han-class Type 091, it has achieved considerable breakthroughs in powertrains and in reactor miniaturization.

Earlier this year, Chinese papers also revealed novel conceptual designs by CSIC for “floating mini nuclear reactors” that can sail to the South China Sea and satisfy the growing energy needs of the many atolls and artificial islands.

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China’s plans to build nuclear carrier are still a long shot