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China mulls nuclear ships for polar routes

Posting in Energy

The nuclear icebreaker club currently has only one member: Russia, which has a fleet of them. Above, the "Yamal" nuclear-powered vessel on its way to the North Pole.

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China is considering using nuclear-powered ships for polar exploration according to a military official quoted by China Daily.

"Compared with ships that use conventional propulsion, nuclear-powered ships can travel farther and are more reliable, factors that make the ships a reasonable choice for polar expeditionary missions," said Du Wenlong, a senior researcher at the People's Liberation Army's Academy of Military Science.

Du's remarks came after state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corp. said it had received funding to develop nuclear-powered ships.

The story did not provide details of the polar missions. Pure conjecture: You have to get to that Arctic oil somehow!

Presumably the ships would be icebreakers. China would then join Russia as the only country with a fleet of nuclear icebreakers.

As Arctic ice melts, it also becoming more feasible to use the Arctic Ocean to shorten transportation routes, as Russia has done in shipping natural gas to Japan via nuclear vessels - ironically to replace nuclear power in that country.

China made its first Arctic crossing last summer, when the ship Xuelong travelled 90 days from Qingdao on the Pacific Ocean to Iceland in the Atlantic. Expedition leader Huigen Yang, head of the Polar Research Institute of China, said at the time that he had expected to encounter more ice than he did.

The China Daily article points out that China could use the nuclear technology to power aircraft carriers. That's no huge surprise, since China has already indicated its intentions to build such a craft by 2020. Currently only the United States and France operate nuclear-powered carriers - the U.S. has 10, and France has one.

China is also planning a nuclear powered, hotel-like, ocean floor mining station.

Photo from Wofratz via Wikimedia.

Break through to more nuclear transportation stories on SmartPlanet:

— By on February 21, 2013, 9:44 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure