The Chinese floating nuclear power station

From ToxicLeaks

In January 2016, the Chinese State-owned company China General Nuclear (CGN) announced that it was going to build floating nuclear reactors. These nuclear reactor will in fact be boats and they will be used to power locations at sea or on small islands. This decision is a big source of concern. First of all because nuclear plants are all unsafe, even the ones built on solid ground, so the idea of a nuclear plant at sea is terrifying. Second, because China has a disastrous track record of environmental and technological catastrophes for the simple reason that Chinese safety regulations are not well followed. Finally, this projects is a cause for concern because it reflects one aspect of the new Chinese energy policy : China is betting heavily on nuclear and not only to meet the needs of the country but to sell its technology worldwide.

The project of the floating nuclear power station[edit | edit source]

CGN presented in January its project to build floating nuclear reactors in the upcoming years. This is actually a Russian idea : the Russian state owned nuclear company Rosatom has been building a project of naval nuclear reactor in the shipyard of Saint Petersburg for the last few years and expects to have finished it in 2017. Russia planned to sell their prototype abroad but the idea hasn't convinced many other countries despite Moscow's best efforts and this clearly underscores the doubt of the international community considering this new kind of power plant. While China is the only other country that plans on using these power plants, it went along and launched its own project. The design of its floating nuclear power station has been approved by the Chinese government and the construction will start in 2017, with the target of producing electricity by 2020. These new floating reactors are therefore part of the Chinese 13th Five-Year Plan that will be followed from 2016 to 2020 and within the plan they are categorised as “innovative energy technology”. The thing is, nuclear energy isn't really innovative technology anymore, especially the kind of reactor that the Russians and the Chinese plan to load onto their boat. The Russian prototype will use a Generation II reactor, the type that was cutting edge in the 1960' and 1970' ! So instead of betting wholeheartedly on renewable energy and a higher energy efficiency, policies that would curb pollution while limiting the risk of a technological disaster, China is investing massively in nuclear energy, with all the dangers attached to it.

The risks linked to a floating nuclear power station in itself[edit | edit source]

The presentation of this project by CGN is incredibly dismissive about the security issues of this project. And they are huge. These power stations are designed to operate at sea or close to islands. They are therefore exposed to important risks such as storms. There is actually a historical example of a floating nuclear reactor, it's the “Sturgis”, an old U.S. Army ship designed to provide the Panama canal area with power in the 1970'. Well this ship was shaken so bad by a storm on its way back to the U.S that it needed important repairs. Had the “Sturgis” sunk, it would have been a dire situation, because the nuclear waste it carried would have contaminated the ocean. That's the problem with sending a nuclear reactor sailing away. If there is a problem, it's harder to fix it, and it's impossible to contain it. The advocates of this new technology seem to believe that the example of all the nuclear warships and submarines used during the last decades is proof that having a nuclear aboard a ship is perfectly safe. That statement is very presumptuous considering that there are dozens of submarines, Russian and American, that have been lost at sea and that are resting on the ocean's' seafloor. And since no one wants to go get them, we are expected to just hope that nothing breaks them open and allows the nuclear material to leak into the seawater. So the prospect of even more ships joining them is nothing to celebrate. Oh, and what happened to the “Sturgis” ? Well nothing, actually, the ship is still in Oak Ridge, waiting for a decommissioning that no one seems to want to do. So this really illustrates the risks of building naval nuclear plants in itself. But considering that we are talking about China, the risks are even greater because of the way safety and environmental regulations are constantly overlooked, as evidenced by its track record of technological disasters.

A history of unfollowed regulations in China[edit | edit source]

China a a gruesome history of disasters, in part because it's exposed to some natural risks, like earthquakes, but mainly because safety and environmental regulations are not followed enough despite what the central government says. Less than a year ago, a horrific explosion bloodied the port of the city of Tianjin, killing 173 and wounding almost 800. The cause of the explosion was the presence of hazardous chemicals in a warehouse of the company Ruihai International Logistics. However, the company had only declared about 10% of these hazardous chemicals to the authorities thanks to a devious bribery system that involved many port and city officials. The investigation also revealed that officials on the state level had been insanely lax with security. Yang Dongliang, the director of the State Administration of Work Safety, had signed an order to loosen the regulations on the handling of dangerous chemicals in 2012, a decision that contributed to the disaster as well. This precedent and numerous other examples can only make us worry about this floating nuclear plant endeavour. How can Chinese citizens believe that all the safety measures will be taken ? The track record of the Chinese industrialisation proves that it's not a matter of whether there will be an industrial disaster, but when, where and how bad it will be. Besides, this projects also proves that the energy strategy of China relies very heavily on nuclear energy.

Part of a strategy of nuclear promotion worldwide[edit | edit source]

The floating nuclear power stations are only one part of the huge nuclear plan China is setting in motion. The Chinese government plans to spend more than $100 billion to build 7 nuclear power plants a year up to 2030, in other words, China will build 100 nuclear plants in the next 15 years. These reactors will be diverse : apart from the the floating power plants, CGN is also developing new designs of land power plants of different sizes. This strategy has several different goals. The first one is to diversify the power supply in China and stop relying on coal which still generates about 60 % of the electricity in the country. However the right path is to invest on renewable energies, that can produce electricity, and not on nuclear with all the risks involved when safety regulations are not followed. Besides, these floating nuclear power stations are designed to ease the exploration of off-shore oil and gas in the South China Sea. But this is problematic on many counts. First of all because the areas that China wishes to drill for oil and gas are currently disputed by several countries and there is a lot of tension around these maritime border issues. Second, the project of exploiting the fossil fuel in this area is not consistent with the need to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. These resources should be left alone and the astronomic investments that would be used to drill them should be reallocated to projects that won't pollute the atmosphere and threaten us all. The second goal of this strategy is to become a world leader in the nuclear sector. China hopes to show other countries that its power plants are efficient in order to sell them. The floating nuclear power plants could also be leased, sent to produce electricity for coastal areas in countries that lack the resources to build advanced infrastructure. But this is equally dangerous because it would democratize nuclear power in the world and enhance the risk of disasters for millions of people throughout the world.

The project of floating nuclear power plants is frightening news indeed. The idea of nuclear plants at sea, where they are vulnerable to storms or terrorist attacks, is enough to make anybody uneasy. But the fact that China is positioning itself as a major player in the nuclear energy sector is another concern because it will probably lead to a fast development of nuclear plants around the world and put the lives of millions of people at risk.