On April 28, the Russian nuclear corporation Rosatom announced the official departure of its first floating nuclear power plant, Akademik Lomonosov, from Saint Petersburg, where its construction had started in 2009, to Pevek in the Arctic district of Chaunsky. In that northernmost town of Russia, Akademik Lomonosov will be connected to the grid and provide electricity for the locals through its two 35-MWe KLT-40S nuclear reactors. While touted by Rosatom as a major achievement of the Russian nuclear industry and a potential product for the nuclear export market, the deployment of Akademik Lomonosov has also caused concerns from environmental activists, citing safety risks due to the rough environment of the Arctic Ocean, where the nuclear power barge will be operated, and its limited protection features in comparison with modern land-based nuclear power plants. Although naming the barge a “Floating Chernobyl” or a “Nuclear Titanic,” as Greenpeace already did, may be premature given Russia’s decades of experiences operating nuclear-powered icebreakers, Russia’s neighbors and international organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency will still have to pay close attention to the operation of this new type of nuclear plant in order to protect Akademik Lomonosov from any safety or security incident with potential transboundary consequences.
The deployment of Akademik Lomonosov also serves as a reminder for Southeast Asian countries that China has also planned to build and operate floating nuclear power platforms in the South China Sea. In 2016, two major Chinese state-owned nuclear suppliers, the China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) and China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN), announced a plan to jointly develop the first Chinese nuclear power barge for deployment in the South China Sea by 2020, the first of a planned 20 such reactors. These reactors would not only provide much-needed electricity or desalinated water for the islands controlled by China, but also support oil and gas exploration by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) – the owner of the HYSY981 deepwater oil platform, whose the deployment to the disputed sea in 2014 caused a major political clash between China and Vietnam. More recently, the confirmation by the state news outlet People’s Daily of such plans has led to concerns that these floating nuclear power platforms, once launched to the South China Sea, could help China to accelerate its land reclamation and artificial island construction there.
Setting aside the legality and potential military dimension of the deployment of Chinese floating nuclear power plants to the South China Sea, which have been mentioned elsewhere and deserve a separate discussion, this article focuses on a more obscure issue: the safety risk to China and the Southeast Asian countries located around the South China Sea from nuclear power barges in disputed water.
The Operational Risks
First, there are serious challenges unique to regulating the operational safety of floating nuclear power plants due to the novelty of the technology, the difficult operating conditions, and the inherent safety limitations of these plants (smaller containment and a higher probability of incidents, thanks to the risk of capsizing or collision). In this regards, experts have already voiced concerns over the capability of Chinese nuclear safety regulators to keep up with the rapid expansion in terms of quantity and diversity of technology in China’s civil nuclear program. China currently has 39 operational land-based nuclear power plants of three different types of technologies (pressurized-water, pressurized-heavy-water, and fast-breeder) from multiple domestic and foreign vendors, and 18 other plants are under construction.
In 2011, the State Council Research Office of China found that the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA), China’s main nuclear regulatory body, was understaffed in comparison with similar agencies in other nuclear power countries, and the salaries of Chinese nuclear regulators are generally lower than their counterparts working for the nuclear industry. Furthermore, China has an ambitious plan to build new types of advanced reactors, including small modular reactors used for floating nuclear platforms, and export them to its neighbors, which will require the Chinese regulatory body to stretch out its workforce even more. Therefore, the NNSA and relevant organizations will face a significant challenge in ensuring the safety of China’s floating nuclear fleet against the harsh weather and collision risks from the extensive maritime traffic of the South China Sea — especially in considering the fact that, unlike Russia, China has never built a nuclear-powered icebreaker and thus does not have sufficient experience in constructing, operating, or regulating floating nuclear platforms.
As the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei once remarked, “A nuclear accident anywhere is an accident everywhere.” Should any occur with the Chinese floating nuclear power plants — whether a radioactive spill into the sea, or containment damage caused by tropical cyclones, or an accidental collision with passing ships — will have serious economic and psychological impacts not only for regional states like Vietnam, the Philippines, or Singapore, but also countries like Japan or South Korea that heavily depend on oil and gas supplied via maritime shipping routes over the South China Sea.
Nuclear Safety Cooperation in Jeopardy
Second, China’s plan to operate floating nuclear plants in the South China Sea will also create nuclear safety cooperation issues with the coastal Southeast Asian countries. Normally, to demonstrate the safety record of its civil nuclear program to the international community, a country should ratify the Convention on Nuclear Safety and participate in the review process of the Convention by submitting a national report to the triennial review meeting organized by the IAEA. Having put the Convention into force since 1996, China has frequently submitted to the review meetings its national report on nuclear safety, in which a map with China’s claims in the South China Sea has recently been included. As these reports are often made public, it is possible for third parties like the Southeast Asian countries to verify whether or not China has implemented necessary safety measures for its civil nuclear facilities.
However, they will not be able to review such safety records for China’s future floating nuclear fleet, as the Convention on Nuclear Safety is only applicable for land-based nuclear power plants. Although the countries surrounding the South China Sea can still request that China provide information in case of any accident with its floating platforms (in accordance with the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident, which covers all types of nuclear reactors and has been ratified by all Southeast Asian countries and China), it will be obviously too late for the countries that might be affected to implement any emergency response or mitigation plan once an accident has occurred.
One might argue that this safety communication issue can be improved through the development of separate bilateral or multilateral agreements between China and the Southeast Asian states. This was indeed the case when China and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on nuclear safety cooperation in November 2017 with a focus on, among other topics, information exchange and emergency preparedness and response. This MoU came not long after Vietnam looked for a better communication with China related to the safety of the Chinese nuclear power plants that have been built and operated near the Sino-Vietnamese border, including Fangchenggang, Yangjiang, and Changjiang, the first of which is located only 50 kilometers from the border between the two countries. But as the floating nuclear power plants will be deployed by China to a maritime area that is also claimed by Southeast Asian states like Vietnam or the Philippines, the conclusion of similar bilateral or multilateral agreements for these floating platforms is unlikely. These countries will not sacrifice their territorial claims for an MoU in nuclear safety.
However, without any channel to exchange information, the Southeast Asian claimants of the South China Sea islands will not be able to ensure that China will keep the highest standards of safety for its floating nuclear power plants, whereas China itself would lack an important piece of a rigorous regulatory system of nuclear safety — that is, the necessary pressure from peer reviews by other regional states.
Given such potential safety challenges facing the future Chinese floating nuclear power plants, and other problems like civil liability responsibilities in case of accidents with these platforms, or security risks from pirates or regional terrorist groups, the best-case scenario for the region would be China reconsidering the electricity supply source for its controlled islands, or at least a delay in the deployment of the fleet. But according to Chinese sources, the first demonstration prototype of a made-in-China floating nuclear reactor will likely be tested in the Bohai Sea off China’s northern coast “well before 2020.” The rapid development of the Chinese floating nuclear program makes such a best-case scenario improbable.
That means that the Southeast Asian countries — with support from ASEAN and its Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy (ASEANTOM), regional organizations and fora like the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), and other international partners with interests in the region like the United States, Japan, or South Korea — should soon seek at least a communication channel with China on how to exchange information on the safety of the fleet and the regulation of its operation, while not compromising the territorial claims of each country over the islands in the South China Sea. As the above discussion has shown, there will be no easy solution to the safety issues of the floating nuclear power plants, but finding such a solution is essential for a future South China Sea free of nuclear safety risks.
Viet Phuong Nguyen is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Nuclear and Quantum Engineering, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), where he got his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering. Dr. Nguyen’s research focuses on issues related to civil nuclear cooperation, nuclear security, and nuclear nonproliferation.