China’s Floating Nuclear Power Plants Pose Risks in South China Sea

Floating Chinese nuclear power plants stationed in the South China Sea would help Beijing fortify its claims in a decades-old maritime sovereignty dispute, but come with environmental risks, scholars say.

China plans to power some of its claimed islets with nuclear energy, the U.S. Department of Defense recently told Congress in an annual report on Chinese military activities. Beijing had indicated last year it was planning to install “floating nuclear power stations” that would start operating before 2020, the report says.

That development would bulk up China’s maritime claim after about a decade of land reclamation in parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea and the sending of military units to some of the artificial islands, analysts say. Rival maritime claimants Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam lack similar means to electrify their holdings.

“You are literally facilitating increase of physical control of the South China Sea,” said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“I think the more immediate concerns of anyone, be they claimants, be they non-claimants, is a huge ecological risk, and taking into account that Chinese nuclear energy technology may not necessarily be one of the best in the world,” he said.

​Wait and watch

Chinese media said in 2016 their country might install as many as 20 floating nuclear power plants for commercial development. It’s not clear whether they would fuel Chinese installations in the Paracel Islands that are actively contested by Vietnam or in the Spratly archipelago further south where all six governments hold some of the islands.

Nuclear power plants on barges would technically work, said Oh Ei Sun, international studies instructor at Singapore Nanyang University.

“You have some sort of barge, that would actually be more feasible than if you had a permanent building there, because in that case you would be just like a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier,” Oh said.

Russia announced floating nuclear power stations in 2000 with a Ministry for Atomic Energy project that saw construction begin in 2007.

​Sovereignty advantage

A stable power supply would help Beijing ensure it can develop islets where it now has installations, experts say, and other claimants would keep clear of any barges to prevent accidents. China otherwise uses generators to provide electricity to its once uninhabited holdings that are more than 1,000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland, Koh said.

Beijing claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, overlapping waters that the five other governments call their own. The sea that stretches from Taiwan to Singapore is prized for fisheries, shipping lanes, oil and gas.

More than 1,000 Chinese live on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago, where China is also looking to promote tourism. China has hangars at its three major Spratly islets, Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs, that can handle bombers as well as aircraft for transport, patrol and refueling, the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies says.

The other Asian claimants probably won’t try to overturn any nuclear installation, said Jay Batongbacal, a University of the Philippines international maritime affairs professor. All are militarily weaker than China, and the Southeast Asian claimants depend to some degree on Chinese economic support.

But the United States might take nuclear power as a new cause to send naval ships into the sea and warn China, Batongbacal said. It could follow up with a “diplomatic initiative,” he added. Washington, which supports freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, has helped Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines militarily in the past.

Once China installed a nuclear barge, Batongbacal said, any protests would be too late to stop it.

“There really isn’t much (other countries) can do once China installs those things there,” he said. “Their best hope is to bring pressure to bear and discourage China from actually doing it.”

Ecological risks

China is unlikely to do an environmental impact study on any nuclear-power barges before installing them, Koh said. A “runaway reactor” could lead to a “major ecological disaster,” he said. The U.S. Defense Department report notes that the sea is prone to typhoons, during which most vessels seek shelter.

Pirates and terrorists at sea could also disrupt a nuclear power barge, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank.

“It certainly requires a different kind of infrastructure building, because it’s a floating nuclear power plant, never been doing it before, and the maritime conditions (are) putting a lot of potential risks or uncertainty in terms of maintaining such an installation,” Yang said.

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