China will start building its first floating nuclear power plant this year, Chinese papers quoted an official with the state-owned China National Nuclear Corp as saying.

Another CNNC official told Xinhua there were no technical issues standing in the way of the ocean-going reactors.

A floating nuclear power plant is a marine platform carrying a scaled-down or minuscule nuclear reactor to power islets and offshore drilling platforms that may otherwise have little or no access to the onshore grid supply.

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

Chinese papers revealed last year that a prototype was already on trial off the coast of east China’s Shandong province. The Shandong-based Qilu Evening News reported in November that the first floating nuclear power platform would cost 14 billion yuan (US$2.1 billion) and would become seaworthy and be commissioned in 2021.

Reuters also reported last year that China was getting closer to building maritime nuclear power platforms that could one day be used to support Chinese projects in the disputed South China Sea.

China has rattled nerves with its military and construction activities, including building runways on islands it occupies in the vast sea covered by conflicting territorial claims by neighboring countries.

Liu Zhengguo, the head of the general office of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corp, which is tasked with designing and building the platforms, said that positioning the floating nuclear plants would be “a burgeoning trend.”

Mobile nuclear reactors could power the many man-made islands being created in the South China Sea, while transmitting electricity from the mainland would be expensive and conventional diesel generators could not meet 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.

Observers say that as many as 20 floating nuclear stations could 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 the exploitation of oil, natural gas as well as “combustible ice,” a frozen mixture of water and concentrated natural gas found on the sea floor.

Analysts believe that because China has built miniaturized reactors to propel its submarines since the 1970s, and with the 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.