The construction of China’s first maritime nuclear power platform in the South China Sea is due to be completed by 2018 and put into operation the following year, the Chinese newspaper Global Times reported in April. The newspaper quoted analysts as saying that such a platform could considerably boost the efficiency of China’s ongoing construction work on islands in the South China Sea.

Liu Zhengguo, head of the general office of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), which is responsible for designing and assembling the platforms, told Global Times the CSIC is “pushing forward with the work”. He added: “The development of nuclear power platforms is a burgeoning trend. The exact number of plants to be built [by the CSIC] depends on market demand. Judging by various factors… the demand is pretty strong.” Earlier in April, it was reported that China plans to construct at least 20 maritime nuclear power platforms “in the future”.

Global Times cited Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, as saying the platforms will add to reliable power supplies for lighthouses, rescue and relief equipment as well as airports and harbours on the South China Sea Islands. “Given the long distance between the Nansha Islands and the Chinese mainland and the changing weather conditions, transporting fuel could be an issue, which is why developing the maritime nuclear power platform is of great significance,” he said.

In January, Xu Dazhe, the director of the China Atomic Energy Authority, had told reporters in Beijing China was planning to develop offshore floating nuclear power plants, linking these to China’s desire to become a “maritime power”. Xu said they “must undergo a rigorous, scientific evaluation”.

Also in January, two Chinese state-owned energy companies, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN), signed a strategic cooperation framework pact on offshore oil and nuclear power.

CGN has been developing a small modular nuclear reactor for maritime use (dubbed ACPR50S) to provide power for offshore oil and gas exploration and production. It expects to begin building a demonstration project in 2017. CGN has signed a strategic cooperation agreement with CSIC to work jointly to develop floating plants. Construction of the first floating reactor is expected to start in the same year, CGN said, with electricity generation to begin in 2020 – which would put them behind the schedule for CSIC’s plants. CGN is currently undertaking preliminary design work for a 200MWt (60MWe) demonstration ACPR50S reactor to supply electricity, heat and desalination to islands or in coastal areas, or for offshore oil and gas exploration.

China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) approved development of the ACPR50S reactor design in December as part of the 13th Five-Year Plan for innovative energy technologies. CSIC has already designed two solutions for marine nuclear power platforms: one is for a nuclear plant on a floating platform; the other for a submersible plant, CGN said.

China’s other major nuclear energy company, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is also looking to develop floating plants. In October 2015, UK-based Lloyd’s Register Energy and a CNNC subsidiary, the Nuclear Power Institute of China (NPIC), signed a “major cooperation framework agreement for a first-of-a-kind floating nuclear vessel” that will be used in Chinese waters to supply electrical power to offshore installations. Lloyd’s Register Energy said in a statement that it would assist in the design and development of a “safe and secure floating vessel” containing a small modular reactor (SMR).

The first contract under the framework agreement is to develop new nuclear safety regulations, safety guidelines and nuclear codes and standards for the plants that are consistent with offshore and international marine regulations and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear safety standards. “Lloyd’s Register Energy helps clients design, construct and operate capital intensive assets to their highest levels of safety and performance,” said nuclear director Mark Bassett. He said NPIC has asked Lloyds Register Energy to help them safely achieve this “technically challenging” offshore nuclear programme.

Melvin Zhang, Lloyd’s Register Energy’s vice-president of strategic development for Greater China, said the agreement marks the beginning of a new initiative for the Chinese nuclear industry, taking nuclear power generation offshore. He said the project will show how nuclear power can be used and applied to support sustainable power generation in both energy and marine sectors. NPIC said it believes there is “substantial opportunity” to further efforts in developing power generation for the future. This is just one example of how NPIC is seeking to innovate and apply new ways of using nuclear technology for robust power supply.

The floating plants will be based on a 100MWe marine version of CNNC’s ACP100 SMR design, an integrated pressurised water reactor with passive safety features, which has been under development since 2010. The preliminary design was completed in 2014. The ACP100 is a multi-purpose reactor designed for electricity production, heating, steam production or seawater desalination.

In June 2015 China announced plans to put a floating reactor into commercial operation by 2019. NPIC chief designer Song Danrong said the plant will have a 100MWe reactor unit of the domestic ACP100S design. The basic design will be completed in 2016, the project design will be ready in 2017 and the vessel carrying the station prepared, with the aim of completing the main component installation in 2018 and commercial operation in 2019, Song said.

The station will be used to supply power to remote offshore areas or for deep-sea oil exploration projects. The demonstration project is expected to cost in the region of CNY3.5bn (about $560 million). CNNC New Energy Corporation, a joint venture of CNNC (51%) and China Guodian Corp, is planning to build two ACP100 units in Putian county, Zhangzhou city, at the south of Fujian province, near Xiamen, as a demonstration plant.

In April 2015, CNNC signed an agreement with the IAEA for a Generic Reactor Safety Review (GRSR) of the ACP100 which will review the completely- or partially-developed safety cases of new reactor designs that are not yet at the licensing stage. The review was completed in May 2016. CNNC said it would help to accelerate the ACP100 demonstration project and also prove the technology’s worth for the international market.

US concerns

News of China’s plans led to a series of articles in the US press expressing concern about the political and environmental implications. An article by Tony Roulstone, a lecturer in nuclear energy at Cambridge University, published by CNN in April (and again in May) noted that small reactors “have all the main components inside a single large reactor vessel.” He added: “In the Chinese design for the floating plant, the reactor and turbines are mounted deep inside a sea-going large barge”. He expressed concern that “While the barge can provide similar safety systems there are many questions whether these reactors will be safe on the seas.”

He cited the dangers sinking, loss of offsite power, terrorist attack and the difficulties of maintenance in remote locations. “While the Chinese regulators may use the same safety standards as elsewhere in the world, their process is not sufficiently transparent for outsiders to be clear whether, or not, these novel floating nuclear power plants can be made as safe as modern land-based reactors,” he said.

An April article in Foreign Policy noted: “While floating nuclear power plants are hardly a novel idea, their use in the South China Sea – a typhoon-wracked hotbed of territorial disputes and increasing military rivalries – would be worrisome both for environmental and security reasons.” It quoted Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Centre for a New American Security, as saying: “Nuclear reactors afloat would give the Chinese military sustainable energy sources to conduct their full panoply of operations, from air early warning and defences and offensive fire control systems to anti- submarine operations and more.”

An analysis in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on 1st June pointed out that China was not the first country to consider vessel- mounted reactors for power production. The US built a floating plant, the USS Sturgis, which was launched in 1943 as a Navy transport ship but repurposed in the 1960s when a 10MWe reactor was installed in its hull and it became MH-1A (mobile, high power, first of its kind). It was towed to the Panama Canal Zone in 1967, and until 1975 provided electricity for pumps that operated the locks. However, it required too much maintenance, with highly skilled technicians, and it is now being dismantled in Galveston, Texas. Also, in the early 1970s, a company called Offshore Power Systems proposed mooring a floating plant to a man-made island off the coast of New Jersey’s Atlantic City. That project was dropped because of safety and environmental concerns.

Russia is preparing to commission its first floating plant – the Akademic Akademik Lomonosov – which has been under development since 2002. The project faced a series of delays, primarily because of financial difficulties, but the vessel is due to be commissioned in 2019.

Akademik Lomonosov is a self-propelled vessel equipped with two KLT-40 pressurised water reactors. It is designed to provide 70MWe of electricity to remote areas in the northern seas as well as heat, and will also desalinate seawater. Its service life is 35-40 years with refuelling every two and a half to three years. It will have a permanent crew of 69 people.

The harbour testing began on 1st July 2016 and is expected to be completed by October 2017. In September 2019 Russian nuclear utility Rosenergoatom plans to tow the plant to the city of Pevek in Chukotka, where it will be permanently moored, after which it will undergo further testing and will be formally commissioned. The necessary infrastructure is currently under construction at Pevek. It will replace the four-units at the ageing Bilibino plant which is due to be decommissioned.

The Russian connection

Originally China intended to build its floating plants with Russian assistance and cooperation on the project began in 2005. Russian industry sources told NEI the Chinese have made use of the experience gained during several years of close contacts and discussions, but without acknowledging the extent of their dependence on Russian expertise.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article noted: “China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, the country’s largest shipbuilder, is building a barge-like platform for China General Nuclear’s pilot plant. An illustration of the platform looks very similar to Russian designs, which is not surprising. Only a few years ago the Chinese were planning to build floating nuclear power plants in China using Russian technology; now the Chinese are floating their own designs.”

In 2005 a contract was signed with China for a potential loan, if needed, from the Chinese national Eximbank to support construction of Russia’s first plant, which was then facing financial difficulties. It was agreed that if the Russian government budget managed to fund the project, the loan agreement would be abandoned. Otherwise, Chinese shipyards would build the main power plant housing which would then be transported to Russia to be outfitted with the reactors. A contract was signed with Bohai shipyards of China in case the loan was activated.

This did not happen, not least because Russia’s nuclear industry was undergoing major restructuring, but mutual interest in the project continued. In August 2010, at the 14th meeting of the Russian-Chinese sub- commission on nuclear issues held in Beijing, China expressed great interest in developing floating plants, according to Sergei Kiriyenko, director general of Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom. A working group was set up to study possible cooperation. However, Kiriyenko noted Russia had decided to build its first plant independently. “It is a matter of fundamental importance, because only the so-called ‘reference technologies’ work. You can show to any partner what you have built in your country, and then proceed to a serious discussion about exports,” he said. “We are building the first station on our own. But the moment we finish, we would be interested to hold talks with potential customers,” he added.

In September 2011 a high-level meeting of Chinese and Russian nuclear leaders resulted in an agreement to develop cooperation. “Our Chinese partners have shown great interest in the Russian project,” remarked Kiriyenko, referring to the Akademik Lomonosov, which was by then under construction in St Petersburg. The first joint meeting on floating plants of relevant Russian and Chinese organisations was held in China the following December, organised by NPIC and CNNC. The Russian delegation included representatives of Rosenergoatom’s Branch, Directorate of Floating Nuclear Cogeneration Plants under Construction and OKBM Afrikantov (chief designer of the reactor).

The meeting resulted in the signing of a protocol in December 2011 to reflect “agreements of the parties regarding continuation of the dialogue on the FNPP project along with consideration of specific cooperation proposals to be formulated by the Chinese party”. Another meeting followed at which, based on the status of the Akademik Lomonosov, Rosenergoatom said it had “a full package of design documents to create a reference FNPP for China”.

In April 2013 Dzhomart Aliev, director general of Rusatom Overseas, said negotiations were continuing with CNNC and a business model on cooperation was being developed. In May 2014, during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China, Rosatom signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the possible manufacture of components in China.

The following day Chen Zhaobao, independent director and chairman of the expert board at China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corp, told journalists in Moscow that China expected floating plants based on a Russian technology to be used to supply power to its offshore territories. He noted that China “is very much in need of floating NPPs”, adding “We have many islands far away from the shore and we have problems with supplying them with electric power.”

In July 2014 Rusatom Overseas signed a memorandum of intent with CNNC New Energy Corporation and China Guodian Corporation to design and build the plants for them and to promote small reactor technologies. A Chinese delegation visited Russia’s FNPP Training Centre and the Baltiysky Zavod in St Petersburg, met with members of the construction project team and became familiar with the Akademik Lomonosov as a possible reference plant for a Chinese project. In August, Russian fuel company Tvel said its Mashinostroitelny Zavod enterprise was ready to fabricate fuel assemblies for Chinese FNPPs.

Less than a year later China announced plans to commission its own floating plant by 2019, without any assistance from Russia.