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An artist’s impression of the floating nuclear reactor, which is due to be completed next year. Image: CGN

China’s first floating nuclear reactor may withstand once-in-10,000-years weather event, engineers say

  • Testing at a simulation facility found it could endure hurricane force winds, but its mooring crane would need strengthening
  • The 60-megawatt station is being built to power oil rigs and islands off the east coast in the Bohai Sea
China’s first floating nuclear power station may be able to withstand an extreme, once-in-10,000-years weather event, according to testing by marine engineers.

But they said the ship-like facility’s mooring crane would need strengthening to avoid the entire plant breaking loose if it tried to ride out the storm at a dock.

The 60-megawatt floating reactor is being built to power oil rigs and islands off the east coast of China in the Bohai Sea, an inner sea where the waters are relatively calm.

At an extreme weather simulation facility in Hubei province, marine engineering scientist Kong Fanfu and a team with the Wuhan Second Ship Design and Research Institute put a scaled-down model of the nuclear plant through its paces.

They concluded that the power station should be able to continue producing electricity during winds of more than 37 metres per second – equivalent to hurricane force or the top level on the Beaufort scale.

A model of the floating reactor. It has many safety features but researchers warn that if it capsizes there could be dire consequences. Photo: CGN

The researchers ramped up the artificial wind speed by more than 50 per cent and added other storm conditions including extremely high waves and strong undercurrents, which rarely happen at the same time.

Throughout hours of testing, the model platform remained upright, according to the team’s paper, published in the Chinese peer-reviewed Journal of Ordnance Equipment Engineering last month. They said the platform’s central area – where the reactor is located – experienced a lot less motion than other parts of the ship.

While such extreme weather events have not been recorded in the Bohai Sea, the possibilities must be considered because “the ship body must not capsize under any circumstance”, Kong and the team wrote.

The floating reactor has many safety mechanisms – including a cooling process driven by seawater in the event of a power outage – but if it capsizes these features may not work and there could be dire consequences like a meltdown, the researchers said.

China unveils design for first waterless nuclear reactor

The 30,000-tonne floating reactor is due to be completed next year and will be the first of a fleet that China plans to build in a vast area extending from its energy-hungry east coast to the disputed South China Sea.

CGN, a Guangdong-based nuclear company, launched the floating reactor project, known as ACPR50S, in 2016 as a solution to the energy shortages that have affected the scale and reach of China’s maritime activities.

The floating plant’s mooring crane is designed to withstand 600 tonnes of stress. But an extreme weather event could put it under 2,000 tonnes of stress, according to the researchers in Wuhan. The solution could be to make the crane bigger and stronger, but they said more testing was needed.

Nuclear scientists and engineers in China have pointed to safety management as the main concern for the floating nuclear reactor programme, with malpractice or negligence caused by inadequate training the biggest risk factor.

Industry experts also cited technical challenges, public acceptance, extreme weather and security threats as concerns for the plan, according to a survey last year by the University of South China in Hengyang, Hunan province. Nevertheless, they said the project was feasible.

Another floating power plant – more than twice the size of the Bohai Sea plant – is being built for use at Yantai, Shandong province, by weapons contractor China National Nuclear Cooperation.

It will house two reactors and is set to be the world’s most powerful floating nuclear station with 250 megawatts of output. It is expected to be finished in 2023 and will provide clean energy to an industrial park where some of China’s biggest chemical plants are based. It will also be able to leave the port and operate in international waters in the Yellow Sea, according to the company.

The world’s first floating nuclear plant was a 10-megawatt reactor built by the US for its military base at the Panama Canal in the 1960s. At present, Russia is the only country with an operating sea-based nuclear power platform, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.