China’s Curious Dream of Floating Nuclear Plants on the Ocean

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The family of nuclear reactors found on the seven seas is about to grow—China recently announced plans to build a floating, ship-based nuclear power plant. Construction of the ship will begin next year, and if things go to plan, it will start producing electricity by 2020.

If you’re wondering whether that’s such a good idea—you probably aren’t alone.

chinese-floating-nuclear-plant-2But nuclear reactors at sea aren’t uncommon. The US Navy alone currently has around 100 reactors powering its submarines and aircraft carriers. However, the idea of floating nuclear reactors generating energy for uses other than powering their home vessel is relatively untested.

China isn’t the only country exploring nuclear power plants at sea.

Russia’s ‘Project 20870’ involves placing two nuclear reactors on 140-meter long, 30-meter wide barges. The plan would use these nuclear barges’ 300MWt (thermal energy production) or 70 MWe (electrical energy production) to power remote cities and industrial sites throughout the Russian Arctic.

Both projects might owe inspiration to the first ship-based nuclear power station, which was decommissioned in 2014. The American MH-1A, ‘Sturgis’, was constructed back in the 1960s and towed to the Panama Canal region, where it supplied essential electricity between 1968 and 1976.

It’s estimated the MH-1A helped bring up to 15 more ships through the canal a day than would otherwise have been possible.

Concept sketch of CGN's ship-based nuclear plant. Image Credit: China General Nuclear

Concept sketch of CGN's ship-based nuclear plant. Image Credit: China General Nuclear

A flexible platform for the future?

What are the advantages of putting nuclear reactors on ships? China General Nuclear, the company behind the new project, stresses the flexible nature of a ship-based nuclear reactor.

“The 200 MWt (60 MWe) reactor has been developed for the supply of electricity, heat and desalination and could be used on islands or in coastal areas, or for offshore oil and gas exploration.”

Other potential uses could be for new, large-scale industrial installations and flexible emergency power to regions in the event of natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis.

According to Jacopo Buongiorno, an MIT professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, building smaller sea-based nuclear power plants could also help dramatically lower construction cost and time—it can take decades to build a large nuclear power plant on land.

Concept drawing of an offshore nuclear plant. The floating structure would house staff and include a helipad, like an offshore oil rig. Image Credit: MIT

Concept drawing of an offshore nuclear plant. The floating structure would house staff and include a helipad, like an offshore oil rig. Image Credit: MIT

Buongiorno and his team at MIT have suggested placing reactors on platforms similar to those used for deep-sea oil drilling. The plants would be situated between 8 and 12 miles from the coast at a depth of at least 100 meters. Power cables would run to switchyard facilities situated on land.

Being placed so far from land would help protect the plants against earthquakes and tsunami waves, which are relatively small so far out.

The MIT team describes offshore nuclear power generation as “a potential game changer” in terms of nuclear power economics as it allows for assembly-line-like production of units.

China betting on nuclear

The ocean-based nuclear power plant is one of a string of new types that was outlined in the China’s 13th five-year plan. The plan underlines that China aims to adopt innovative energy technologies, and that the country will build at least 100 new nuclear power reactors in the coming ten years.

It appears the country will use nuclear power to help reduce its current heavy reliance on coal, and in doing so, dramatically lower emissions of CO2 and air pollutants, which have reached health-threatening levels in many areas. China will invest more than a trillion dollars in nuclear energy over the coming years. In time, it’s hoping to recuperate some of that by becoming a leading global exporter of nuclear technology.

The dangers of going to sea

While there are advantages of placing nuclear power plants on water, as you might expect, the new projects are not without their critics.

Greenpeace has voiced concern about what effect massive storms could have on ocean-based nuclear reactors. Others worry ocean-based reactors would be more susceptible to terrorist attacks.

Operating nuclear reactors in an Arctic climate is complicated to say the least, and another concern is that barges like those used in the Russian project might not be as protected from earthquake or tsunamis as reactors further out at sea.

It makes plenty of sense to carefully weigh potential risks and benefits.

One use case, however, does show that disciplined operators can take nuclear to the oceans. The US Navy has logged more than 5,400 reactor years and traveled more than 130 million miles. They have sailed all the seven seas, including some of the most hostile environments, without any publicized accidents.

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Marc Prosser

Marc is British, Danish, Geekish, Bookish, Sportish, and loves anything in the world that goes 'booiingg'. He is a freelance journalist and researcher living in Tokyo and writes about all things science and tech. Follow Marc on Twitter (@wokattack1).
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Discussion — 11 Responses

  • DSM February 17, 2016 on 2:43 pm

    The success of the US Navy in regard to reactor operations has little to do with the civilian use of such reactors because the Navy is armed to the teeth and has advanced early warning systems for natural and unnatural threats.

    For civilian use a meltdown proof thorium reactor would be more appropriate and they should be submersible so that they can operate at depths that effectively protect them from many threats, while being able to fail safely by sinking to the deep ocean floor while staying in a contained state. Having them over a continental shelf is not a good idea if they are shallow seas.

    I would trust the Russians as far as their safety record indicates is appropriate, i.e. not at all.

    • Sine Arrow DSM February 17, 2016 on 7:58 pm

      DSM, The idea of highly trained and armed civilians doesn’t seem to have occurred to you. Please note that it is not only possible, but exists today, though with calibers lower than guard most military reactors. The idea that we need to deeply submerge a LFTR to protect it from storms is overkill. The need to dump a broken LFTR in an ocean trench is likewise nonexistent.

      • DSM Sine Arrow February 17, 2016 on 8:08 pm

        These theoretical “highly trained and armed civilians” are constrained by laws in ways the Navy is not.

        The idea of a floating Fukushima drifting toward built up areas and so ‘hot” you can’t get near it to stop it probably never occurred to you either. Better to have it sitting with a few billion tons of natural shielding around it and make it so it can’t melt down. Submerged it is protected from anything that can’t get close while staying at great depths. i.e. it is safe from everyone but the agents of nation states, and those threats are definitely the Navy’s responsibility.

        Do you really want to make the job easier for the likes of NK?

        • Sine Arrow DSM February 17, 2016 on 8:18 pm

          It is *not* North Korea we should worry about. It is our own we should worry about, for it is they who hate what LFTRs would do. The Norks are headed towards collapse. The Deep Ecology Movement by now controls the purse strings of “environmentalism”, and is decades farther from that than the Norks, and what we should know will resist bitterly.

          Nuclear power, much less any single implementation of it, is not their object of hatred. That object is industrial society, that lives off the energy nukes will produce, and that coal, oil, and gas now produce. When they think the lodge is tiled, they will state that openly. *Any* solution that can keep industrial society running will be bitterly resisted.

          • DSM Sine Arrow February 17, 2016 on 8:23 pm

            Nice fallacy bro. You can worry about any additional imagined threats you like, but in no way does that proves that known existing threats are not relevant. Even Iran would arrange a nasty accident for the USA if they thought they could get away with it.

  • horseshoe7 February 17, 2016 on 7:02 pm

    At the rate the Chinese are building and stringing together islands and nuclear powered ships/islands, they should be able to drive across the Pacific and parade their Army down Santa Monica Blvd by 2040.

  • Sine Arrow February 17, 2016 on 8:08 pm

    It would be far better if people who like us were doing these things. Of course, that is not kept from happening by either Russia of China, but by people like Green Peace and other opponents of industrial society. The Chinese and Russians ignore them, …so why do we pay attention? Mostly because of fear generated in academia, and expressed through NGOs with treasuries in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

    It is not curious that Russia and China are doing this. It is outrageous that we are *not* doing this. That we are not is one of the strongest indications of how deeply anti-industrial attitudes have been driven into America’s institutional mindset. First we had the government take control of all things nuclear, and then its agents became exactly the people least willing to move ahead with industrial progress.

  • andrewmartz February 18, 2016 on 5:56 am

    In line with what horseshoe has to say, this appears it could be a strategic maneuver to control central energy if / when the grid is disabled.

    Distributed energy is a resilient alternative to this.

    • horseshoe7 andrewmartz February 18, 2016 on 3:00 pm

      You know, I think you are right on the money – when PRK or Iran takes out our grid with an EMP, China can step in and rule the world from these “Nuclear Islands”… 100,000,000s of Americans will die – because we were FOOLS, who elected FOOLS. Hopefully Trump will do something about the vulnerability of the USA’s electrical grid and/or keep PRK and Iran in check.

  • Jack Everett February 20, 2016 on 10:09 am

    Military use of nuclear reactors are a small version of the civilian reactors used to generate power in large amounts.
    The military also has strictly enforced rules on replacing ans monitoring their nuclear plants and we have already sen how private companies like GE refuse to report and replace failing safety parts on their nuclear reactors.

    The Chinese lead in this nuclear technology now while the West limps behind and refuses to come up to modern technology that will support the increasing populations of the world.
    In America everything is turned into a political issue as soon as it gets to the publoic. We have egotists liker Trump and hate mongers like Cruz that never could be relied on to push this technology to it’s best use.

    The countries that can produce this kind of innovative technology at reduced cost will be the countries raking in billions of dollars selling it to other countries and the ones that solve the climat change problem.

  • Bud Santer February 22, 2016 on 6:20 am

    Or, to sum up this brilliant ‘idea’ in a single word – insane.