BEIJING — Regional tensions and competition from Russia have put pressure on China as it aims to become a pioneer in nuclear energy but struggles to get offshore reactors using homegrown technology off the ground.
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. China is racing Russia, which started developing its own in 2007, to get a unit into commercial operation.
For China, the achievement would be tempered by concern its reactors might be sent into harm’s way 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 rose after a U.N. arbitration panel ruled July 12 that China’s claim to most of the sea has no legal basis. China 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.
“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 China General subsidiary on unrelated projects.
“The Chinese strategy is to ensure the energy supply for the country,” Luk said. “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 more than 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 the two Chinese companies to develop their own vessels.
Chinese developers can count on sales to the state-owned oil industry without going abroad.
China General has signed a contract with China National Offshore Oil Corp. to support oil and gas exploration at sea. The company says it will launch its first vessel by 2020, with plans for 20 more. It declined an interview request and did not respond to written questions.
China National Nuclear Corp. plans a demonstration unit by 2019.
Luk said a floating nuclear plant probably would be too costly just to supply power but could be useful in oil and gas exploration by also providing heat and fresh water. He said China General engineers told him that their design is meant for islands or other remote sites.
Tensions with Vietnam have flared over Chinese oil and gas exploration near the Vietnamese coast. In January, Vietnam complained a Chinese oil company had towed a drilling rig into disputed waters. In 2014, the same rig was parked off Vietnam’s central coast for two months, leading to violent anti-China demonstrations and confrontations at sea as Chinese vessels rammed Vietnamese boats to prevent them from approaching the rig.
China General says its seaborne unit will have “passive safety,” or features that function without moving parts or outside power, such as control rods that drop by gravity in an emergency. No commercial reactor operates with such features.
China General wants to simplify operations by requiring refueling only once every three years instead of the industry standard of 18 months, Luk said. That would require more highly enriched fuel, with the amount of the U-235 isotope raised to as much as 10 percent from the typical 4.5 percent.
“If it were seized by terrorists or someone else, that would be a big problem,” he said.
China’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear technology has run afoul of U.S. law enforcement.
In April, a Chinese-born American engineer employed by China General 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.