Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Nuclear Energy Safety Technology, in Hefei, Anhui province, say they are developing the world's smallest NPP, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported on 10 October. The plant could fit inside a shipping container and might be installed on an island in the disputed South China Sea within five years. The research is partially funded by the People's Liberation Army.

The hedianbao – "portable nuclear battery pack" – is a small, lead-cooled reactor measuring about 6.1 metres long and 2.6 metres high. It would be able to generate 10MWt and would be capable of running for years or even decades without refuelling, and could also be used to produce electricity and for desalination, the researchers claim. The cited Professor Huang Qunying, a nuclear scientist involved in the research, as saying: "Part of our funding came from the military, but we hope – and it's our ultimate goal – that the technology will eventually benefit civilian users." The Chinese researchers admit their technology is similar to a compact lead/bismuth-cooled fast reactor that was used by the navy of the former Soviet Union to power nuclear submarines in the 1970s. However, China would be using this military technology on land.

Because it produces neither dust nor smoke, even on a small island a resident would hardly notice its existence, the researchers say. However, the project has caused environmental concerns because of fears of an accident which could release radioactivity. Huang said it would still be a challenge to convince people that the technology was safe to use.

China also has been considering building small floating power plants using conventional technology to generate electricity for the South China Sea islands.

A marine environment researcher at the Ocean University of China, in Qingdao, Shandong province, has warned that the inevitable discharge of hot, radioactive water from a nuclear plant into the ocean might alter the ecological system of an entire region around an island, the China Morning Post reported. "Many fish and marine creatures will not be able to deal with the dramatic change of environment caused by massive desalination and the rise of sea temperatures caused by a nuclear reactor," said the researcher, who declined to be named.

Before putting any NPP on a remote South China Sea island, the Chinese government should consider not only its political, military or economic benefits, but also carry out comprehensive scientific evaluations on its potential environmental impact, she said.