A safe reactor is a seaworthy reactor.
Or at least, it should be.
China claims its floating nuclear reactors, which will power off-shore oil rigs, can withstand “once-in-10,000-year” storms, according to an initial report from The South China Morning Post. That means hurricane-force winds, and more. To test its resilience, marine engineers subjected a model of the newly designed 60-megawatt reactors to strong winds and dangerously powerful undercurrents.
While strong storms are uncommon in the Bohai Sea, where the reactors will be used, the consequences of an accident would be so great that failure simply isn’t an option. “The ship body must not capsize under any circumstance,” said the researchers, according to the report.
China's floating nuclear reactors are a high-stakes investment
The test took place over several hours at a facility designed to simulate extreme weather. The results provided researchers at the Wuhan Second Ship Design and Research Institute with several insights into how the ship and its reactors would handle exceptionally difficult weather. Overall, the researchers reported an impressive performance, suggesting that the ship's reactors might remain operational in hurricane-speed winds. In further tests, the researchers increased the simulated wind speeds to more than 120 mph (193 k/h) and added strong waves and undercurrents. Even under that extremely unlikely scenario, the ship stayed upright, claimed the report.
Floating nuclear reactors are not a new idea. The United States military operated the world’s first floating nuclear plant in the 1960s and 70s, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In 2018, Russia launched the Akademik Lomonosov, a 70-megawatt floating power plant that detractors dubbed “nuclear Titanic”. Last year, Seaborg, a startup based in Copenhagen, announced it had raised more than $10 million to begin its effort of building thousands of relatively cheap floating reactors. Despite taking significant safety measures, the company’s CEO and co-founder said his firm is “not reducing the likelihood of an accident to zero, there will be accidents. We should avoid them as much as we can, but there will be accidents."
Floating reactors bring electricity beyond the reach of powerlines
These ocean-going power plants make it easier to provide power to places that don't have the necessary infrastructure. For example, Russia sent the Akademik Lomonosov to Pevek, a port town in the Arctic. This type of deployment may become more common as the warming climate melts ice in the far north, opening up shipping lanes and making it possible to extract deposits of oil, gas, and minerals that have remained untapped.
While Russia's reactor was controversial for environmental reasons, China's fleet of floating power plants could have far more significant geopolitical implications, according to a report from the Belfer Center at Harvard. Analyst Viet Phuong Nguyen says that despite China's claims that its floating reactors will power oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea — in addition to civilian and military communities that live there — the size of the government's planned fleet of reactors indicates the program is also meant to "help solidify China’s military foothold in this contested area."
These tests are the latest evidence of China's position as one of the world's significant industrial, economic, and military powers. The country's rapid advancements in military technology and space efforts strongly suggest that China is within striking distance of the United States' position as the most powerful and technologically advanced country.
This was a developing story about China's new claims regarding its floating nuclear reactor, and was regularly updated as new information becomae available.