A research facility in a reclusive backwater deep in the rugged mountains in the western Chinese province of Sichuan may be the birthplace of a miniaturized nuclear reactor series that could propel the PLA’s new submarines and its future carriers.

Shrouded in secrecy, Base 909, said to be located somewhere in Sichuan’s Jiajiang county, was initially set up for “hydroelectric development” purposes. In past decades it has conducted vital nuclear research and development for the Chinese military. Among its results were the power plant for the Type 092 submarine, China’s first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine that entered service in 1987.

A news program aired by state broadcaster China Central Television earlier this year shed more light on Base 909’s latest research achievements.

The program contained a brief close-up of a new variant of China’s third generation Hualong-1 pressurized water reactors. Known as the HPR1000, the reactors were previously applied only to commercial power generation.

Researchers at Base 909 have reportedly developed and trialed a land-based, compact version of the Hualong-1 reactor containing 177 fuel rods. The new reactor was subsequently installed in the latest Type 095 assault submarine. The first completed vessel entered service last November, and several more are said to be under construction.

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A rare peep into the labs Base 909, including those used for the development of China’s first submarine reactor. Photos: CCTV screengrab

Taipei Times analysts once noted that Type 095 submarines could potentially act as undersea escorts for PLA aircraft carrier task forces.

Two state-owned reactor builders, the Beijing-based China National Nuclear Corp and China General Nuclear Corp in Shenzhen, were ordered to merge their third-generation designs to create the Hualong-1 in an effort to explore commercial and military uses for the reactor.

Ship-borne reactors have to undergo meticulous land-based tests and troubleshooting trials to achieve absolute reliability before they can obtain certification to propel submarines and other vessels.

Sina Military also reported that there could be several other ship-borne reactor prototypes undergoing land-based trials at Base 909, adding that researchers would have to strike a careful balance between reducing a reactor’s physical size and maintaining its power output.

The report speculates that a new reactor developed to generate propulsion and electricity for China’s future nuclear carrier could well be based on the home made Hualong-1 model.

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