China may have kicked off a research program aimed at developing nuclear reactors to power its future aircraft carriers.
A report posted on the website of the state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) on Feb. 19 stated that the Ministry of Science and Technology has formally kicked off an effort to develop nuclear power plants for ships. Interestingly, that post has been taken down after it was viewed 682 times.
Luckily for us, a cached version of the page can still be seen here. This is a (very) rough translation of the key sentence on the site:
The Ministry of Science and Technology's nuclear power shipping critical technology and safety research Project 863 and small-scale nuclear reactor generation technology and its application demonstration supporting technology project has formally been set up.
While the report doesn't say anything about aircraft carriers, CSIC is the firm that turned the hulk of the former Soviet ship Varyag into the Chinese navy's first carrier, the Liaoning. China is supposedly working to field at least two more carriers in the next decade.
It should be noted that China already has a fleet of nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines. This article in the South China Morning Post, which first reported the new reactor program, points out that building a nuclear carrier may be the next logical step for the Chinese navy. Still, Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation studies downplayed the significance of the new program, saying that Chinese engineers could simply put larger versions of their existing submarine reactors into carriers.
"They might wish to make [the reactor] more powerful, but that's easy as they don't have to shoehorn it into a submarine," Lewis told Killer Apps.
All of the U.S. Navy's aircraft carriers and submarines are nuclear powered. The key advantage of nuclear powered ships is that they don't have to refuel nearly as often as conventionally fueled vessels -- think decades rather than months. (On a side note, naval nuclear reactors tend to use highly enriched uranium, the same stuff that's key to making nuclear weapons.)
China's planed homemade carriers are said to be based on the Liaoning's design and will incorporate lessons learned from operating the "starter carrier," as she has been called. Media reports have suggested that the first two locally built carriers will be conventionally-powered and enter service around 2015, with a third nuclear-powered vessel possibly entering service around 2020.
The Liaoning was launched in Ukraine as the Varyag in 1988, but construction ceased by 1992 due to the fall of the Soviet Union. She sat in a Ukrainian shipyard for a decade, eventually gutted of engines, electrical systems, and combat equipment. China bought the hulk from Ukraine in 1999, saying that it planned on turning the ship into a casino. In 2002, the Varyag was towed from the Black Sea to China and was refitted. In 2011, she put to sea under her own power for the first time. Last November, Chinese fighters made their first landings and takeoffs from the Liaoning's deck. So much for that casino.