China Poses Nuclear Threat in Sea..

Nonetheless, the deployment of floating nuclear power plants FNPPs in the South China Sea is probably just a matter of time and, in all likelihood, remains a priority. China’s floating nuclear power plant programme serves two purposes—first, it is aimed at diversifying its energy sources and extending its energy infrastructure to remote regions and offshore operations; and second, it bolsters China’s control over the artificial islands and rock formations in these contested waters on which Beijing has already constructed dual-use facilities. The FNPPs can support China’s oil and gas exploration activities and offer energy to islands and regions that lack access to traditional power grids. These include island territories with growing energy needs, offshore oil drilling platforms, and military bases. Reliable energy will also facilitate advanced surveillance and rapid-response capabilities. The floating nuclear reactors could also supply energy for China’s underwater mining operations and deep-sea logistical naval bases. FNPPs reduce reliance on traditional power sources and imports. These floating platforms are mobile and can be towed to different locations mounted on barges or ships, providing energy flexibility. These “baby” reactors can operate for years or even decades without needing refuelling and have the dual capability to produce significant amounts of electricity and desalinate large volumes of seawater for freshwater supplies. Land-based nuclear power plants (NPPs) have inherent limitations requiring extensive land, complex infrastructure for grid connectivity, and a continuous supply of cooling water. Floating NPPs are seen as a practical alternative for power, heating, and water desalination in remote coastal towns and small islands. The team responsible for developing floating reactors invested over a decade in research, believing that these offshore reactors would be more publicly acceptable, given their reduced land impact. They were expected to offer reliable power for both military and civilian activities on remote islands in the South China Sea. The ACPR50S, for instance, is designed with multiple safety features for marine environments, and its development was approved by China’s National Development and Reform Commission for inclusion in the nation’s 13th Five-Year Plan, marking a significant technological milestone for CGN in advancing small offshore reactors. The ACPR50S reactor has an annual power capacity of 200 MW, far less than the latest commercial nuclear reactors but sufficient for offshore oil and gas production, island development, and seawater desalination. Another larger floating plant was also reportedly under construction in Yantai, Shandong, by China National Nuclear Cooperation, a weapons contractor. With two reactors and a 250-megawatt output, it will be the world’s most powerful floating nuclear station, expected to supply energy to an industrial park and operate in international waters. However, China’s deployment of FNPPs in the South China Sea is expected to have significant environmental and safety concerns. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is criticised for discharges from its land-based nuclear plants and has faced scrutiny for exceeding expected levels of radioactive isotope tritium. China has a dubious safety record and has been criticised for environmental degradation in the region through the militarisation of reefs and expansive territorial claims, which were dismissed by an international tribunal in 2016. Experts emphasise that FNPPs pose significant environmental risks, especially in fragile marine environments where severe weather, sabotage, or accidents could lead to a catastrophe with serious implications for marine life and regional stability. The potential risks of accidents, especially at sea, necessitate robust safety measures to prevent environmental contamination. Another challenge is that China’s FNPPs will not be covered by the Vienna or Paris Conventions, which govern civil liability for land-based nuclear installations. The only relevant international agreement, the 1962 Brussels Convention on the Liability of Operators of Nuclear Ships, is not yet in force. Even if the Vienna or Paris Conventions applied, issues would remain unresolved since China hasn’t signed any international conventions on nuclear accident liability or established comprehensive domestic legislation, particularly for cross-border nuclear accidents. While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) aims to establish safety standards for floating nuclear reactors, China has reportedly delayed this process, allegedly seeking to influence the IAEA toward sless stringent regulations.

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