July 30, 2016 – China’s ambitions to become a pioneer in nuclear energy are sailing into troubled waters.
Two state-owned companies plan to develop floating nuclear reactors, a technology engineers have been considering since the 1970s for use by oil rigs or island communities. Beijing is racing Russia, which started developing its own in 2007, to get a unit into commercial operation.
In China’s case, the achievement would be tempered by concern its reactors might be sent into harm’s way to support oil exploration in the South China Sea, where Beijing faces conflicting territorial claims by neighbors including Vietnam and the Philippines. Chinese news reports say plans call for deploying 20 reactors there, though neither developer has mentioned the area.
Tensions ratcheted up after a U.N. arbitration panel ruled July 12 that Beijing’s claim to most of the sea has no legal basis. Beijing rejected the decision in a case brought by the Philippines and announced it would hold war games in the area, where its military has built artificial islands.
The floating reactor plans reflect Beijing’s determination to create profitable technologies in fields from energy to mobile phones and to curb growing reliance on imported oil and gas, which communist leaders see as a security risk.
China is the most active builder of nuclear power plants, with 32 reactors in operation, 22 under construction and more planned. It relies heavily on U.S., French and Russian technology but is developing its own.
The latest initiatives are led by China General Nuclear Power Group and China National Nuclear Corp. Both have research or consulting agreements with Westinghouse Electric Co. and France’s EDF and Areva, but say their floating plants will use homegrown technology.
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“They are keen to develop that because they have a lot of oil drilling everywhere in the South China Sea and overseas as well,” said Luk Bing-lam, an engineering professor at the City University of Hong Kong who has worked with a CGN subsidiary on unrelated projects.
“The Chinese strategy is to ensure the energy supply for the country,” said Luk. “Oil drilling needs energy, and with that supply, they could speed up operations.”
Russia’s first floating commercial reactor, the Academician Lomonosov, is due to be delivered in 2018, but the project has suffered repeated delays. The Russians have yet to announce a commercial customer.
Russia has been “aiming to launch this idea for over two decades by pitching the reactor as a plug-and-play option for fairly remote communities,” said Mark Hibbs, an expert on nuclear policy for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an email.
Russia’s target market was Indonesia and its far-flung islands, Hibbs said. That prompted concern about control over nuclear materials, leading to a recommendation Russia operate the reactor and take back used fuel.
The Chinese nuclear agency signed a deal with Moscow in 2014 to build floating power stations using Russian technology. It is unclear whether that will go ahead given the plans by CNG and CNNC to develop their own vessels.
Chinese developers can count on sales to the state-owned oil industry without going abroad.
China’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear technology has run afoul of U.S. law enforcement.
In April, a Chinese-born American engineer employed by CGN was charged with recruiting experts in the United States to help the company with reactor construction without applying for required government permission. Allen Ho, also known as Szuhsiung Ho, also was charged in federal court in Tennessee with acting illegally as an agent of a foreign government.