Checking in on China’s Nuclear Icebreaker

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Checking in on China’s Nuclear Icebreaker

Speculation has trailed the news that China’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker ship was in the works.

Checking in on China’s Nuclear Icebreaker

Drift ice camp in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as seen from the deck of icebreaker Xue Long.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Timo Palo

In June 2018, on the heels of China’s Arctic White Paper, The Diplomat reported on a tender issued by China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), the country’s largest nuclear operator, to build what would be China’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker. 

Calling for bids to provide technical consultancy services on a “nuclear-powered icebreaker and comprehensive support vessel demonstration project,” the tender left ample room for speculation. The bidder would provide “verification and consultancy services” throughout all stages of the project — from basic design to construction and testing — both on the vessel itself and the onboard nuclear propulsion system. 

Operational requirements included sufficient icebreaking capability to “open polar waterways.” Additionally, the ship had to be able to conduct search and rescue, and resupply missions. It would also be able to provide electricity. Among the tender’s formal requirements, the bidder would need to hold a “weaponry research and production license” as well as a “weapon systems quality certificate” — certificates necessary for civilian institutions to participate in Chinese defense industry projects. Following the announcement, several Chinese media outlets also noted that the vessel was to be built with a displacement of 30,000 tons, although that information is not found in the tender notice.

As for the reactor technology, the notice only stated that it “will be based on mature technology.” One state media outlet has since specified that it would use CNNC designs. The state-owned company is currently developing one marine reactor design — the ACP100S — for a floating nuclear power plant (FNPP) demonstration project set to launch later this year. It has, in addition to this, introduced two scaled-down versions, the ACP25S, and ACP10S.

In the end, Shanghai Jiaotong University won the contract. The university — which has a solid pedigree in both naval and nuclear engineering — has since joined forces with CNNC and the Shanghai Nuclear Power Office. In March 2019, the three partners opened the Research Institute for Nuclear-Powered Ships and Maritime Equipment in Shanghai. According to a press release, the institute will “serve the goal of becoming a great maritime power by developing nuclear icebreakers, nuclear-powered unmanned submersibles, floating nuclear reactors,” and other vessel types. Moreover, recent job listings for CNNC’s own nuclear propulsion research unit has included several openings for naval engineers. 

In July 2019, Hanhai Langshan, a seemingly well-informed Chinese blog covering domestic and foreign military technology, published new information regarding the CNNC icebreaker project. In a post discussing the industrial organization and infrastructural requirements necessary for the construction of nuclear aircraft carriers, the author identified several ongoing domestic projects involving nuclear propulsion and seagoing reactors. 

The post makes direct reference to the CNNC icebreaker project: describing the ship as being designed with a displacement of “up to 40,000 tons,” and an icebreaking capability of 3 meters (up to 4.5 meters when ramming). Although not mentioning the shipyard by name, it is likely to be built by the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, as the post states that it will be built “at the same yard that recently delivered the Xue Long 2,” the country’s first domestically-built polar icebreaker. The shipyard also holds a 10 percent stake in the China Nuclear Marine Propulsion Development joint-venture that tendered for the icebreaker last year. 

China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), which owns and operates the Jiangnan Shipyard, signed a strategic cooperation agreement with CNNC in 2016. Leading representatives from the new joint-venture apparently visited the northern Bohai Heavy Industries shipyard at Huludao in May 2018 where the icebreaker project was discussed. The Bohai shipyard is the country’s sole builder of nuclear submarines.

Unofficial media sources such as this should be read as, at best, informed speculation. Still, it is interesting to note the numbers presented: A vessel of this size would be on par with Russia’s next-generation icebreakers in terms of power. The post goes on to emphasize how this project is “particularly interesting” in the context of advancing China’s nuclear carrier building capabilities. Although not specifying power output or reactor technology, it points out that a reactor “able to power a 40,000-ton vessel through tough ice conditions would also be able to propel a significantly larger vessel in open water.” It is a carrier in terms of propulsion power, “but with a different shell,” the author observes. This, it argues, would seem to point to CSSC making efforts to amass the experience and infrastructure needed to build nuclear carriers in the future. 

Earlier this year, China General Nuclear (CGN), another state-owned nuclear operator, tendered for the construction of an “experimental ship platform.” The tender notice described a vessel 152 meters long, 30 meters wide, with a displacement of 30,000 tons. It would be designed with dynamic positioning capabilities, a top speed of 11.5 knots, and be powered by two 25MW reactors. Although the notice made no mention of either icebreaking capability nor operation in polar environments, a South China Morning Post (SCMP) article asked whether China was planning to build “the world’s biggest nuclear icebreaker.” 

Interestingly, SCMP has reported that around the time last year’s tender was published, CNNC was invited to bid on a Russian nuclear icebreaker project. The ship in question would be 152 meters long, 30 meters wide, with a 30,000-ton displacement; in other words, identical to the CGN project. It is unclear what role CNNC could realistically play in such a project. Media reporting has tended to treat the CNNC and CGN projects as one and the same, but seeing as these are two separate state-owned entities, it would be reasonable to think that these are two independent projects. 

Available information also points to CGN tendering for an FNPP. As others have observed, the specifications included in the tender are not particularly indicative of an icebreaker. The ACPR50S offshore reactor design developed by CGN was first approved in 2015 as an “experimental reactor project” to be installed on board a barge-like vessel. A reading of the tender notice gives a similar impression. A top speed of 11.5 knots leans more toward a self-propelled barge than an icebreaker, the latter typically being able to sail at speeds twice that. 

The Hanhai Langshan post supports this by describing the CGN project as a “seagoing nuclear-powered platform,” to be built at “a certain Bohai shipyard,” likely to be the aforementioned Bohai Shipyard. Also of note, artist’s impressions previously published by CGN show the ACPR50S employed on an FNPP. In contrast, CNNC has in the past showcased models of nuclear icebreakers to the public.

To compare, China Shipbuilding Industry Corp. is currently developing FNPPs with its in-house HHP25 design. The design has been developed by the 719 Research Institute, which has been instrumental in the development of China’s nuclear submarine fleet. The project was announced in 2015, and the reactor technology is described as a “military to civilian transfer.” At a maritime conference in Dalian last year, the platform was presented as being 163 meters long, 29 meters wide, displacing 29,800 tons, and having a twin reactor setup with a total output of 50MW.

It is also unclear what role CNNC would play in a Russian-led project. China-Russian exchanges in nuclear propulsion would, however, have some historical precedent: The reactors installed in China’s first nuclear submarines came, in part, from studying the OK-150 reactors used to power Lenin, the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker. Contemporary Chinese commentators have also hinted at cooperation when it comes to icebreakers; writing that, when developing its first large-scale nuclear icebreaker, China “need only knock on Russia’s door for advice.” 

The export of nuclear goods and services has become a major policy objective for Russia, and the two countries have previously initiated cooperation on small modular reactor technology: In 2014, CNNC and Rosatom signed a memorandum of intent, signaling future cooperation on the development of FNPPs based on Russian technology. A Chinese delegation has visited the Baltic Shipyard and its FNPP training center. A Rosatom press release following the memorandum also indicated that a working group would be established to move the cooperation forward. However, as can be gleaned from ongoing Chinese projects, China has so far chosen to rely on homegrown technology for its small modular reactors — at least when it comes to its FNPPs.

Nuclear for What? 

Supporting the extraction of offshore hydrocarbons and powering the constellation of Chinese military bases and island installations in the South China Sea have been the two main imperatives spurring the country’s development of civilian seagoing reactors. Yet the Polar Regions also receive frequent mention as potential areas of application. A 2017 progress report on China’s nuclear technology, for example, notes how floating reactors can “be used to develop natural resources in the Polar Regions.” And as another 2017 industry article notes, “as China develops its floating nuclear power plants, its development of nuclear icebreakers will benefit from overlapping technologies.”

As for nuclear icebreakers, then, going nuclear has previously been framed as a way to overcome the challenging conditions of polar research. Plans for a Chinese nuclear-powered icebreaker were first floated, at least publicly, when researchers from the 719 Research Institute presented a design proposal during a nuclear technology conference in 2009. The authors argued that “as the strategic importance of the Polar Regions increases, more advanced icebreakers are needed for polar scientific research.” 

In 2014, then general manager of CNNC, Qian Zhimin, attended a forum on polar icebreaker technology along with actors central to the Xue Long 2 research icebreaker project. There, he stated that his company was interested in participating in the development of China’s new icebreakers. During the conference, the director of CNNC’s Nuclear Propulsion Research Institute proposed plans for the construction of such vessels. The same year, a member of the science and technology committee of CNNC confirmed to Yicai, a Chinese news outlet, that the state-owned was, in fact, planning to build a nuclear-powered icebreaker. When pressed for a timeframe, the CNNC representative admitted that development “had only just started and that an official project was yet to be launched,” but that the basic design phase was underway. The article also quoted an unnamed source from the 719 Research Institute who stated that “the icebreaker currently under construction would use nuclear power,” though not specifying which vessel this was referring to. 

Nuclear power would significantly ease the logistical challenges of conducting research expeditions in remote areas. Chief naval architect at the Jiangnan Shipyard, Hu Keyi, has previously stated that “in the long run, nuclear power might be an option for China’s polar research icebreakers.” However, Hu also acknowledged the conflicts inherent in developing civilian nuclear power: while going nuclear might extend a ships’ range and eliminate emissions, “one still needs to consider factors such as politics, the environment, and how to manage nuclear waste.” In this respect, China has several obstacles to overcome before launching its first nuclear icebreaker, he concluded. Others have, in the context of floating nuclear reactors, likewise argued that the domestic technological base is more or less in place; instead, cost and, more importantly, the necessary human resources to safely operate and maintain nuclear vessels are now the most significant barriers. Additionally, as one industry insider pointed out in a recent interview with China Nuclear Net, the operation of nuclear-powered ships remains an organizational mess, involving several departments with overlapping interests and responsibilities. 

As human activity in the Arctic Ocean grows, scholars have come to describe the prospects of Chinese nuclear icebreakers as a wildcard. The Chinese-language outlet Military Technology recently argued that future aircraft carriers aside, nuclear icebreakers hold significant strategic importance for China as they will ease the country’s current reliance on Russian icebreakers, echoing Chinese dissatisfaction with Russia’s icebreaker escort regime along its Northern Sea Route. Others have similarly highlighted the geopolitical implications of pursuing FNPPs and nuclear icebreakers, as they would allow “China’s blue-water fleet to open Arctic sea routes and circumvent the Malacca Strait.” Or, to paraphrase another commentator, nuclear icebreakers are to the Arctic what aircraft carriers are to the Indo-Pacific.

Launching civilian nuclear-powered vessels will demand significant investments in infrastructure and human resources. Any operator would also need to face the environmental and security concerns that come with operating nuclear vessels in international and foreign waters. Moreover, although China and Russia’s new strategic partnership might open the doors for collaborations on naval reactors, it is not clear how Chinese nuclear icebreakers will fit into Russia’s currently strict administration of its Northern Sea Route.

Still, large-scale, nuclear-powered icebreakers will be vital to navigating the Transpolar Passage in the future, which largely circumvents the exclusive economic zones of the Arctic coastal states. China has previously signaled its interest in this route, most notably in its 2018 Arctic White Paper.

Nuclear icebreakers might, on the one hand, mark a convergence of China’s Arctic and broader naval ambitions. On the other hand, however, such plans are likely to produce unfavorable optics for a country eager to be seen as a benign partner in the region. Unilaterally developing ships that would give the country outsized access to the maritime Arctic runs the risk of undermining China’s desired image – that of a gentle, “near-Arctic” giant. 

Trym Aleksander Eiterjord is a research intern at The Arctic Institute. He holds an MPhil in Asia and Middle East Studies.