Ships and planes could be powered by small-scale nuclear reactors under Chinese government plans

China is betting on new, small-scale nuclear reactor designs that could be used in isolated regions, on ships and even aircraft as part of an ambitious plan to wrest control of the global nuclear market.

Within weeks, the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is set to launch a small modular reactor (SMR) dubbed the ‘Nimble Dragon’ with a pilot plant on the island province of Hainan, according to company officials.

Unlike new large-scale reactors that cost upward of $10bn (£7.9bn) per unit and need large safety zones, SMRs create less toxic waste and can be built in a single factory.

A little bigger than a bus and able to be transported by truck, SMRs could eventually cost less than a tenth the price of conventional reactors, developers predict.

The global nuclear industry will require around $80bn in annual investment over the coming decade as countries strive to meet climate and clean energy goals, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) forecasts, and China is keen to get its hands on a substantial chunk of any new business.

“Small-scale reactors are a new trend in the international development of nuclear power - they are safer and they can be used more flexibly,” said Chen Hua, vice-president of the China Nuclear New Energy Corporation, a subsidiary of CNNC.

Model of nuclear reactor "Hualong One" is pictured at the booth of CNNC at an expo in Beijing

Beijing is now racing the likes of Russia, Argentina and the United States to commercialise SMRs, which include passive cooling features to improve safety.

Following the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima reactor complex in 2011, the beleaguered nuclear industry has been focused on rolling out safer, large-scale reactors in China and elsewhere.

But these so-called ‘third-generation’ reactors have been mired in financing problems and building delays, deterring all but the most enthusiastically pro-nuclear nations.

The challenges of financing and building large, expensive reactors contributed to the bankruptcy of Toshiba’s nuclear unit, Westinghouse, and to the financial problems that forced France’s Areva to restructure.

SMRs have capacity of less than 300 MW - enough to power around 200,000 homes - compared to at least 1 GW for standard reactors.

China is aiming to lift domestic nuclear capacity to 200 GW by 2030, up from 35 GW at the end of March, but its ambitions are global.

Visitors look at a model of Linglong One, a nuclear reactor developed by CNNC at an expo in Beijing

CNNC designed the Linglong, or ‘Nimble Dragon’ to complement its larger Hualong or China Dragon reactor and has been in discussions with Pakistan, Iran, Britain, Indonesia, Mongolia, Brazil, Egypt and Canada as potential partners.

“The big reactor is the Hualong One, the small reactor is the Linglong One - many countries intend to cooperate with CNNC’s ‘two dragons going out to sea’,” CNNC vice-president Yu Peigen told a briefing in May.

Others are also pursuing the technology, with around 50 different SMR designs worldwide according to the IAEA. Russia leads the way on floating plants suitable for its remote Arctic regions, and construction underway on the world’s biggest icebreaker.

Large US firms such as Westinghouse have been developing their own SMRs, along with smaller start-ups like the Bill Gates-backed Terrapower.

CNNC is now working on offshore floating nuclear plants it plans to use on islands in the South China Sea, as well as mini-reactors capable of replacing coal-fired heating systems in northern China. Company scientists are even looking at designs that could be installed on aircraft.

Elsewhere in China, Tsinghua University is building a version using a pebblebed of ceramic-coated fuel units that form the reactor core, improving efficiency. Shanghai scientists are also planning to build a pilot molten salt reactor, a potentially cheaper and safer technology where waste comes out in salt form. The success of new small-scale reactors hinges on investors seeing new large-scale plants coming online and building on those successes, said Christopher Levesque, Terrapower’s president.

“We’re not competing with those folks, we’re rooting for them,” he told an industry forum in Shanghai last month.

China has had some overseas success already with its Hualong reactor, with Pakistan currently building a plant using the technology. The Hualong is also expected to gain regulatory approval in Britain after China helped finance the $24bn Hinkley Point nuclear project there.

Last year, the uranium enrichment firm URENCO unveiled plans to develop a miniature nuclear power plant so small and cheap that it could power a single town or a factory, essentially empowering users to have their own nuclear power plant in their backyard. 

Each unit is designed to give 10 MW of thermal output, of which around 40 per cent can be converted into electricity. This provides approximately 4 MW of electricity from a single installation.

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