How China could move closer to nuclear-powered aircraft carriers – with Russia’s help

The first Chinese-made icebreaker could test ship-borne nuclear reactors using Russian equipment and Arctic shipping routes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 10:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 11:35pm

Beijing is expected to use its first home-produced nuclear-powered icebreaker to develop its own nuclear reactors for future aircraft carriers, and its relationship with Russia may help its progress, military experts have said.

The state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation opens public bidding on Thursday for the nuclear-powered icebreaker ship, which will be able to break ice, open up waterways in the Arctic and provide electricity during exploration trips in the polar region.

“The nuclear-powered icebreaker project has benefited from the close joint development of the Northern Sea Route between Beijing and Russia after Moscow prioritised the development of the country’s Arctic zone,” Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military expert, said.

“It’s a good beginning, but future development depends on how much nuclear reactor technology Russia is willing to pass to China, and whether those technologies meet Beijing’s requirements.”

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Military experts and insiders believe that if nuclear tests on the icebreaker run smoothly, China will use the technology on its next-generation aircraft carrier, the Type 003.

The Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai is building the country’s Type 002 carrier, a conventionally powered vessel with electromagnetic aircraft launching systems that require more power than its previous vessels.

China began to study the Arctic Basin during expeditions in the mid-1990s. In 1994, Beijing bought Xue Long 1, a Ukraine-made 15,000-tonne icebreaker.

But the conventionally powered ship was inadequate for China’s Arctic exploration ambitions, with joint development continuing with Moscow on the Northern Sea Route.

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In March, the Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army noted that Beijing was planning to use nuclear-powered vessels – such as Xue Long 2 – for future polar research.

Xue Long 2 is expected to start her first scientific expedition to the Antarctic straight after its commissioning, expected in the first half of 2019.

The basic design of Xue Long 2 was carried out in Finland by Aker Arctic Technology, but China State Shipbuilding Corporation undertook the detailed design and its production. The ship was built at Jiangnan.

“Using an icebreaker as a floating nuclear reactor testing platform for China’s future nuclear-powered aircraft carriers is possible because it’s huge,” Zhou said. “Xue Long 2 will weigh up to 30,000 tonnes.”

Zhou added that the polar environment would give the Chinese icebreaker the experimental conditions to develop ship-borne nuclear reactors for aircraft carriers, because the icebreaker needs to keep sailing without any support ports, given the lack of these in the Arctic.

Russia is the only country in the world that operates a nuclear-powered icebreaker. It could work with China to the countries’ mutual benefit on the basis that Beijing has money while Moscow needs funds, Zhou said.

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On June 8, China and Russia signed a deal worth more than 100 billion yuan (US$15 billion) to build four Russian reactor units during a ceremony in Beijing attended by presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, in what was the biggest ever nuclear pact between the two countries.

China would finance the reactor construction, said Alexey Likhachev, chief executive of Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation, after the ceremony.

It is not clear whether that deal is related to the ship’s nuclear reactors, but one insider told the South China Morning Post that the first batch of floating ocean nuclear reactors used on the Xue Long 2 are likely to have been designed in Russia.

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“Russia is the world’s top producer of nuclear-powered icebreakers; they have produced several types of icebreakers, which are more advanced than those of the United States,” the insider said.

“China has submarine nuclear-reactor technology, but it’s not powerful enough to use on giant vessels like icebreakers and aircraft carriers.

“If Russia is willing to sell those reactors to China, it’s a good opportunity for Chinese experts to study and learn.”

Russia has 46 icebreakers in government and commercial service, with another 15 in the pipeline, according to the Congressional Research Service in the United States.

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In August 1977, the Arktika, a nuclear-powered icebreaker developed by the former Soviet Union, became the first surface vessel to reach the North Pole by sea. The Kremlin has announced that a new version of the Arktika ship is expected to be commissioned in 2019.

Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military expert, said China’s new-generation aircraft carrier should use Chinese-made nuclear reactors, not Russian ones.

“For national security reasons, China’s new generation aircraft carrier should use its own developed nuclear reactors, as a rule,” Song said.

The Arctic is an important strategic region in which the Arctic states – including Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway – as well as the European Union and other developed economies including China and Japan, all have interests.

CHINA’S PLAN FOR THE ARCTIC – AND A SHIPPING CENTRE TO RIVAL SINGAPORE

According to analysts, the Arctic makes up about 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves. Most of them are in the Russian Arctic, which accounts for 40 per cent of Arctic territory.

Just as some air routes are across the North Pole, it may be possible to create new short-cut sea routes, giving the future Northern Sea Route – being developed along the Russian Arctic coast – added strategic importance.

The Russian initiative was seen by shipping companies as an alternative route for transporting cargo between the Far East and Europe, allowing savings in fuel consumption, journey time and other costs.

Energy-hungry countries such as China welcomed the route, with China’s Belt and Road Initiative also benefiting.