China will soon start building a 30,000-tonne nuclear-powered ship described in the tender documents as an “experimental platform”.
The country does not yet have a nuclear-propelled surface vessel, although its fast-growing navy is widely believed to have nuclear aircraft carriers in the pipeline.
China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) has invited bids for the contract to build a vessel 152 metres long (498 feet), 30 metres wide and 18 metres in depth, with displacement of 30,000 tonnes (33,069 tons).
The specification is small for an aircraft carrier, but a military affairs expert said it would help develop China’s shipbuilding ability. At present, its only nuclear-powered vessels are submarines.
The deadline for interested parties to tender was Wednesday, with no bids permitted from outside mainland China.
The ship will be able to be fitted with two 25 megawatt compact pressurised water reactors with thermal power output of 200MW, which could propel the ship to a maximum speed of 11.5 knots, according to CGN’s project description.
It does not specify the use for the ship, referring to it only as “experimental ship platform”.
Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said the vessel’s size was very similar to that of Russian nuclear icebreakers.
Russia is the only country that operates nuclear icebreakers. Its two classes in service are the Taymyr-class vessel – which is 150 metres long, 29 metres wide and has 21,100 tonnes of displacement – and the Arktika-class vessel, which measures 148 metres long by 30 metres wide, and comes in at 23,000 tonnes. An even larger class of icebreakers – 173 metres by 34 metres with displacement of 33,540 tonnes – is under construction.
In June, state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) also invited bids for a nuclear-powered icebreaker project that will be powered by floating small modular reactors.
Having an icebreaker is important to China as it expands its operations in the Arctic Ocean. Its first domestically built, conventionally powered polar icebreaker, Xuelong 2, was launched last year to boost China’s polar research and expedition capacity. The ship will enter service later this year.
If experiments using icebreakers went well, the technology and experience could be used for next-generation aircraft carriers, Song said.
“This vessel can verify and experiment with the technologies,” he said.
This follows the approach that the former Soviet Union took in its development of nuclear aircraft carriers. The Soviets had built five nuclear icebreakers before cutting steel in 1988 for their first nuclear carrier Ulyanovsk, which was never completed.
China has two conventionally powered aircraft carriers: the Liaoning, a former Soviet Kuznetsov-class vessel bought from Ukraine, and the Type 001A, a domestically-made vessel based on the Liaoning and to be commissioned soon.
The reactors to be fitted on the planned CGN vessel are relatively small, which means several of them would be needed to power a carrier. In a similar case, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), the world’s first nuclear aircraft carrier, commissioned in 1961, had eight reactors of 150MW each.
By contrast, the present US Nimitz-class carriers use two reactors of 550MW each, and the Ford-class two of 700MW each.
Besides aircraft carriers, nuclear reactors can be fitted to other large surface vessels, both civilian and military. These include cargo ships, science survey ships and tracking vessels such as the Yuanwang-class ships deployed to long distances by the Chinese navy to track satellites, transmit space communications and monitor intercontinental ballistic missiles, Song said.