China may add a 'nuclear element' to the disputes in the South China Sea, the Pentagon is warning

Lev FedoseyevTASS via Getty ImagesA Russian floating nuclear power unit.
  • China continues to build-up on disputed islands in the South China Sea.
  • In the next few years, Beijing could deploy floating nuclear plants to power those outposts.
  • Those plants, the Pentagon says, could add “a nuclear element” to a simmering territorial dispute.

China has stopped major land-reclamation in the South China Sea but is continuing to work on facilities it has already built there, according to the US Defence Department’s annual report on Chinese military activity, which noted that China could soon add nuclear power plants to the mix.

After adding 3,200 acres of land to seven reefs and islands it occupies, China hasn’t done substantial artificial-island creation since late 2015, but at three of those outposts, the Pentagon report said, “Construction of aviation facilities, port facilities, fixed-weapons positions, barracks, administration buildings, and communication facilities at each of the three outposts was underway throughout 2017.”

“The outposts may be capable of supporting military operation in the Spratly Islands and throughout the region, but no permanent large-scale air or naval presence has been observed,” according to the report.

Other countries have disputed China’s claims in the South China Sea – through which an estimated one-third of global shipping travels – and an international tribunal has rejected China’s claims to islands there.

While China has said those projects are meant to improve the lives of personnel at those outposts, the work may be part of an effort to assert de facto control of the area and to maintain a more flexible military presence in order to boost its operational and deterrence abilities, the Pentagon report said.

“China’s plans to power these islands may add a nuclear element to the territorial dispute,” the report added. “In 2017, China indicated development plans may be underway to power islands and reefs in the typhoon-prone South China Sea with floating nuclear power stations.”

State-owned China National Nuclear Power said late last year that it had set up a joint venture with several energy and ship-building firms to boost the country’s nuclear-power capabilities as a part of Beijing’s aim to “become a strong maritime power.”

That announcement came about a year after the state-run China Security Journal said Beijing could construct up to 20 floating nuclear power plants to “speed up the commercial development” in the South China Sea.

Chinese Coast Guard South China SeaReuters TVA Chinese Coast Guard ship patrols the South China Sea about 130 miles off the coast of Vietnam.

Floating nuclear power plants could bolster China’s nuclear-energy capacity and support overseas activities by providing electricity and desalinated water to isolated outposts.

“China sees securing the ability to develop marine nuclear tech as a manifestation of its maritime power status,” Collin Koh, a military expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technology University,told The South China Morning Post last year. “It will enhance Beijing’s staying power and assert its claims, as military garrisons and civilian personnel living on those remote outposts would be able to sustain themselves better [and therefore stay longer].”

‘Nuclear Titanic’

Experts have said that the technology for floating plants, which provide about one-quarter of the energy produced by onshore plants, is not yet mature but that major powers are pursuing their development because of the mobility they provide.

Russia has already deployed its own floating nuclear reactor. In May, the Akademik Lomonsov, the first nuclear power plant of its kind, arrived at the port of Murmansk on the Barents Sea ahead of a voyage to Russia’s far east, where it is to provide power for an isolated town on the Bering Strait.

While Russia has decades of experience operating nuclear-powered icebreakers, activists have criticised the plan. Greenpeace has dubbed the plant the “nuclear Titanic” and a “floating Chernobyl.”

“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,” like a higher chance of incidents due to collisions or capsizing, Viet Phuong Nguyen, a nuclear researcher at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, wrote for The Diplomat earlier this year.

In light of civil-liability issues related to potential accidents with these plants and safety risks stemming from piracy or terrorism, “the best case scenario” for the region would be China reconsidering the plan or delaying the deployment, he wrote.

But China’s plan to test the plants at sea before 2020 makes that scenario unlikely, he said, so Southeast Asian countries “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.”

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.