Checking Back in on China’s Nuclear Icebreaker

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Checking Back in on China’s Nuclear Icebreaker

Over four years after the project was announced, updates remain scarce on China’s first nuclear icebreaker.

Checking Back in on China’s Nuclear Icebreaker

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

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Teadlased_jääl

In 2018, it became known that the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) was embarking on a project to develop nuclear-powered icebreakers. The reveal came in the form of a call to tender: A newly established subsidiary, CNNC Marine Nuclear Power Development (CNNC Marine), was soliciting bids for “technical consultancy” services on a “nuclear-powered icebreaker and comprehensive support ship demonstration project.” The planned vessel will be able to break polar sea ice and open waterways for other vessels, supply electricity, as well as perform supply, and search and rescue missions.

Over four years later, information about the project remains scarce, but a handful of patents recently filed by engineers at the CNNC Marine subsidiary would seem to indicate that development is moving forward. The content of these patents may give some insight into what is potentially China’s first nuclear-powered surface vessel.

The patents filed so far are concerned mainly with nuclear engineering. One patent describes “an embedded hatch cover” for accessing the vessel’s reactor compartment. Another patent outlines a system for installing the reactor plant, as well as the dockside management of spent fuel, using both gantry cranes and floating crane barges. This system can “repeatedly serve multiple nuclear-powered ships,” the authors note. A second patent relating to fuel handling depicts a vessel in dry dock and a rail system for transferring reactor fuel to a processing facility to allow for all-weather operations and for cranes to conduct maintenance while the ship is in dry dock. A separate patent sketches out the said rail system.

Other patents reflect the planned vessel’s operational profile. For example, the design of a towing notch allows for “more efficient towing operations.” The patent authors point out that China does not yet possess the capability to conduct search and rescue operations in polar waters “under extreme conditions,” a gap this design is meant to address. Another patent describes an ice-abrasion-resistant coating. The subsidiary has also submitted the design of a valve for preventing broken-up sea ice from blocking the ship’s water intake.

Finally, the new subsidiary has filed a patent titled simply “A nuclear-powered icebreaker,” which shows a rendering of the basic design of an icebreaker, designed with one fixed centerline propeller shaft flanked by two azimuth thrusters, and outfitted with the abovementioned towing notch.

This is more or less the extent of new information to have come out since the project was first revealed in 2018. Nor is there an abundance of information available about CNNC Marine either. The subsidiary was established in late 2017 as a joint venture between CNNC, Jiangnan Shipyard, Shanghai Guosheng Group – a state-owned energy investment group – and two state-owned manufacturing companies specializing in turbines and other power generation equipment: Shanghai Electric Group, and Zhejiang Zheneng Electric Power. The joint venture was created to promote the development of “nuclear power in surface warships, offshore platforms, and in other engineering fields,” as well as “supporting military-civilian fusion in nuclear-powered ships,” according to a 2017 press release.

Today, CNNC Marine employs close to a hundred people at its offices in downtown Shanghai. Job listings for nuclear engineering positions at the company list salary bonuses for offshore work. Other job tasks include “shore-based testing and training,” with new hires first having to undergo a three-year training period.

The company’s chairman, Gu Yingbin, is listed as the primary contributor on all but two of the above patents, and, before heading CNNC Marine, looks to have held senior positions at CNNC Shandong Energy, and CNNC Jiangsu Nuclear Power. The latter company operates the Tianwan Nuclear Plant, a decades-long cooperation project between CNNC and Rosatom, the state-run Russian nuclear giant. Gu has previously spoken about his experience working with Russian colleagues at the plant. The chief engineer of CNNC Marine also has experience from the Tianwan plant.

Since late 2018, Gu has held an adjunct position at Shanghai Jiaotong University’s (SJTU) School of Naval Architecture. The university won the 2018 contract and went on to sign a “strategic cooperation agreement” with CNNC later that same year. The agreement included the creation of a joint research center on nuclear propulsion, hosted by the university. The signing ceremony was attended by several officials from the State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense. At the ceremony, a senior SJTU Communist Party official stated that the two sides were making significant progress in developing nuclear-powered vessels; “especially,” he noted, “when it comes to building our country’s first nuclear icebreaker.”

The Institute for Nuclear-Powered Vessels and Marine Equipment was inaugurated six months later as a cooperation between CNNC, SJTU, and a third partner, the Shanghai Nuclear Power Office, which coordinates the megacity’s nuclear industry. Gu recently sat on the supervisory committee for a doctoral thesis on numerical modeling of icebreaker operations in polar waters, further demonstrating the close relationship between CNNC Marine and SJTU, as well as the latter’s growing polar focus.

With this cooperation, Shanghai has emerged as the center for the ongoing icebreaker project. CNNC Marine has its offices a few kilometers south of the SJTU campus. The prestigious university has a long pedigree in both nuclear and naval engineering, and nuclear propulsion has recently become a focus. Its School of Mechanical Engineering inked its own strategic cooperation agreement in 2019 with the Wuhan Second Ship Design Institute, also known as the 719 Research Institute, to work on nuclear propulsion. There is little indication that this is related to the icebreaker project, however. The 719 Research Institute, which operates under the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), has historically been responsible for developing the country’s nuclear submarines and is a key factor when it comes to marine reactors.

In 2021, another CNNC research arm, the Nuclear Power Institute of China (NPIC), opened a new research center in the city. The institute also lists nuclear icebreakers in its research portfolio.

And further north, on Changxing Island, at the mouth of the Yangtze River, sits the Jiangnan Shipyard, a major naval and commercial shipyard and one of the stakeholders in CNNC Marine. The shipyard, also under CSSC, is one of only a few Chinese shipyards to have built polar-class vessels, having launched the Xue Long 2 polar research vessel in 2018. The fact that the shipyard is a stakeholder in the joint venture suggests that it will be involved in constructing the planned vessel.

The shipyard is no stranger to nuclear speculation. Chinese forum-dwellers have latched on to details such as the shipyard’s procurement in 2020 of a “steam boiler for quayside testing.” At the time, this was seen as a (tenuous) sign that the Fujian, China’s third conventionally powered aircraft carrier, which was launched at the shipyard last year, was going to be nuclear-powered. A year later, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment issued permits to welders at the shipyard to work on nuclear installations. Meeting minutes published on the shipyard’s social media account later that same year mentioned nuclear safety, seemingly for the first time.

Outside of Shanghai, several research institutes and universities have begun publishing research on nuclear propulsion in icebreakers. The Wuhan-based China Ship Research and Design Center, known also as the 701 Research Institute, is reportedly involved in developing nuclear icebreakers. The institute has developed many of China’s warships, coast guard cutters, and research vessels. At a maritime expo in 2019, a senior representative from the institute, Deng Aimin, presented on nuclear-powered icebreakers.

In August of last year, Deng again held a keynote where he introduced several conceptual designs for nuclear-powered icebreakers, including a massive 38,000-ton vessel able to operate in up to three meters of ice. For reference, Russia’s newest nuclear icebreaker, the Ural, launched in late 2022, has a displacement of upwards of 33,000 tons. According to Deng, CSSC is actively promoting the development of “multiple nuclear-powered icebreakers and nuclear power platform solutions for different scenarios, “ listing Arctic shipping, energy, and national security as the three “strategic demands” currently spurring on research into nuclear icebreakers in China. However, it is not clear how Deng or his institute are connected to the CNNC project, if at all.

Universities in the northeastern provincial capital of Harbin, Heilongjiang, a bastion of defense-related research, have added several new polar technology projects to their research portfolios in recent years. In the province’s 14th Five-Year Plan, adopted in 2021, these institutions were instructed to work on “designing nuclear-powered icebreakers.”

Absent from the icebreaker project, however, is the 708 Research Institute. The institute, based in Shanghai, specializes in research and survey vessels, warships, and various merchant ship types. It was closely involved in the design and construction of the Xue Long 2 and has since started designing heavy icebreakers for the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. The institute is today one of the country’s main sites of polar shipbuilding expertise.

In a newspaper article published last December, celebrating the country’s near four-decades-long history of polar seafaring, a senior engineer at the institute stated that developing new “Polar Class 1 and Polar Class 2” heavy icebreakers – referring to ships capable of operating independently year-round in all polar waters – is imperative for ensuring unfettered access to the polar regions, though the engineer did not mention nuclear power.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy has also seemingly become interested in nuclear propulsion for polar-going icebreakers. Researchers at the Naval Armaments Department, for example, noted in a 2018 paper that, in the future, marine reactors and nuclear propulsion in China will primarily be used onboard warships, to supply power to remote islands, and for icebreaking operations in polar waters. The news that the country’s state nuclear giants are working on large-scale nuclear-powered vessels has led some observers to suggest that this project and the surrounding infrastructure will serve as a stepping stone for China to develop its first nuclear warships, notably nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

This connection has not been directly made by any of the project’s stakeholders and only rarely by domestic experts discussing it. Instead, the focus has predominantly been on what this technology will mean for China’s Arctic strategy and, more generally, its access to the polar regions. Last year, a publication affiliated with the country’s Maritime Safety Administration featured an article calling for CNNC to speed up its nuclear icebreaker project, stressing that nuclear-powered icebreakers would greatly enhance China’s scientific and logistical capabilities in the Arctic Ocean, allowing for year-round Arctic shipping, and provide a robust platform for search and rescue operations in polar waters.

Wang Xun, deputy director of the Shanghai Nuclear Power Office, argued similarly in a recent op-ed that small modular reactors are becoming a key technology in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, noting that nuclear power would help boost the country’s ice-breaking capability along Arctic shipping routes. In late 2021, China’s Ministry of Transport greenlit a project to build a heavy polar icebreaker to service Arctic shipping routes, with vessel design to be completed by 2025. Again, it is unclear whether this is connected to the CNNC project.

Experts have also begun to chart the regulatory waters of getting nuclear-powered ships to the Arctic Ocean, and even to the Antarctic. Researchers affiliated with the Ministry of Natural Resources, for example, observed last year how the absence of domestic safety mechanisms is likely to hurt the country’s ability to sail nuclear vessels in foreign waters or call at foreign ports. So far, the country’s maritime safety agency has issued national guidelines for the design and construction of floating nuclear power plants. China Classification Society is reportedly in the early stages of formulating standards for offshore floating nuclear power as well. But regulations relating to civilian nuclear-powered vessels have yet to emerge.

Another less discussed aspect of China’s possible adoption of nuclear propulsion in the Arctic is Russia. The South China Morning Post reported in 2019 that China was working with Rosatom to build nuclear icebreakers. While nuclear energy has long been a major area of cooperation, there is little to suggest that the two countries are working together on such a project. Chinese shipbuilders’ lack of experience when it comes to building such vessels, coupled with a Russian strategy to build its more advanced icebreakers and polar-going tankers at home, makes such cooperation unlikely.

As an example, Russia’s Ministry of Industry and Trade disqualified Chinese shipyards in 2021 from bidding on a contract to build two conventionally powered icebreakers: “Transferring design documentation for icebreakers to China is unacceptable, as it would place Russia in competition with a partner in Arctic development,” a ministry spokesperson explained.

The CNNC project could also be construed as a challenge to Russia. Nuclear icebreakers would greatly enhance China’s ability to operate in the Arctic Ocean. A conference paper presented in 2021 by researchers from the Wuhan Institute for Shipbuilding Technology and the aforementioned 719 Research Institute sketched a route that would take Chinese nuclear icebreakers – and their charges, supposedly – from the Bering Strait, across the Arctic Ocean and to Europe, sailing just north of the Northern Sea Route, outside of Russian jurisdiction. This route would “weaken the Russian government’s governance of the [Arctic] transit of nuclear-powered icebreakers,” the authors argued.

Much has changed since then. War sanctions have largely severed Russia’s access to advanced technology. Delays in launching new icebreakers and polar carriers now risk bottlenecking some of the country’s larger northern energy projects. While China was kept at arm’s length in the Arctic prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the two countries now look to be deepening their cooperation in the region. Going forward, it is possible that Chinese shipbuilders may still have a role to play. Late last year, the Russian icebreaker design firm Iceberg unveiled the design for a nuclear-powered multi-purpose icebreaker with an operational profile similar to the CNNC project.

A more symbiotic relationship might be possible, then. This possibility was envisioned by two prominent Chinese Arctic experts in 2020: “Perhaps in the not too distant future,” they speculated, “Chinese-built nuclear icebreakers will sail on the ice-covered waterways of the Arctic, providing solid support for China’s peaceful use of the Northern Sea Route.”