China is developing the world’s smallest nuclear power plant which could be installed in one of the islands in the disputed South China Sea to supply power to households and is capable of running for up to decades without refueling, a media report said on Tuesday. Modeled on the compact lead-cooled thermal reactor used by the navy of the former Soviet Union in its nuclear submarines in the 1970s, Chinese researchers are carrying out intensive work to develop “portable nuclear battery pack” within five years, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.
Earlier, the official media reports said China will soon start assembling floating maritime nuclear power platforms. State-run Global Times had quoted China National Nuclear Cooperation (CNNC) as saying that China plans to build 20 floating nuclear power to beef up the power and water supplies on the South China Sea (SCS) islands.
China has been building infrastructure in the disputed islands as it consolidated its hold on the area after an international tribunal quashed its claims over almost all of the SCS. The strategic waters through which over USD 5 trillion of goods pass annually has rival claims over it by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. The floating nuclear power plants were aimed at providing power to the remote islands as power cannot be supplied from Chinese mainland.
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The smallest lead-cooled reactor could be placed inside a shipping container measuring about 6.1 metres long and 2.6 metres high but would be able to generate 10 megawatts of heat, which, if converted into electricity, would be enough to power some 50,000 households, the Post report said. It is also capable of running for years or even decades without refueling, and scientists say that because it produces neither dust nor smoke, even on a small island a resident would hardly notice its existence, the report said.
The research is partially funded by the People’s Liberation Army. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Nuclear Energy Safety Technology, a national research institute in Hefei, Anhui province, say they hope to be able to ship the first unit within five years.
“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,” Professor Huang Qunying, a nuclear scientist involved in the research, said. However, China would probably be the first nation to use such military technology on land, the Post report said.
While these “baby” reactors would able to generate large quantities of electricity and desalinate huge supplies of seawater for use as fresh water, they have also attracted serious environmental concerns. A marine environment researcher at the Ocean University of China, in Qingdao, Shandong province, requesting anonymity 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.