A top mainland research institute is developing the world's smallest nuclear power plant, which could fit inside a shipping container and might be installed on an island in the disputed South China Sea within five years.
Researchers are carrying out intensive work on the unit – dubbed the hedianbao, or "portable nuclear battery pack".
Although the small, lead-cooled reactor could be placed inside a shipping container measuring about 6.1 metres long and 2.6 metres high, it would be able to generate 10 megawatts of heat, which, if converted into electricity, would be enough to power some 50,000 households.
It is also capable of running for years or even decades without refuelling, and scientists say that because it produces neither dust nor smoke, even on a small island a resident would hardly notice its existence.
The research is partially funded by the People's Liberation Army.
Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Nuclear Energy Safety Technology, a national research institute in Hefei, Anhui province, say they hope to be able to ship the first unit within five years.
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"Part of our funding came from the military, but we hope – and it's our ultimate goal – that the technology will eventually benefit civilian users," Professor Huang Qunying,a nuclear scientist involved in the research, said.
The Chinese researchers admit their technology is similar to a compact lead-cooled thermal reactor that was used by the navy of the former Soviet Union in its nuclear submarines in the 1970s.
However, China would probably be the first nation to use such military technology on land.
While these "baby" reactors would able to generate large quantities of electricity and desalinate huge supplies of seawater for use as fresh water, they have also attracted serious environmental concerns.
If any one of them were to suffer a catastrophic problem, the radioactive waste would affect not only the countries nearby, but also spread around the world via the region's strong sea currents.
This type of reactor is often known as a fast reactor, as it uses high-speed neutrons to split the fuel atoms. A fast reactor has some significant advantages over normal reactors. The fast neurons can split the atoms of nearly all fissile materials, including the waste left over by traditional thermal power plants, thus dramatically increasing fuel efficiency.
Also, the lead-based liquid metal the reactor uses as a cooling system does not boil until it reaches a temperature of 1,400 degrees Celsius, which makes the reactor safer than any existing thermal one in commercial operation today.
However, Huang said it would still be a challenge to convince people that the technology was safe to use. A lack of public awareness about the new technology could hinder its widespread application, he added.
The lead-cooled reactor is part of China's efforts to develop new-generation reactors for its rapidly expanding nuclear energy sector. Other technological approaches, such as molten salt reactors and high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, are also under rapid development thanks to generous government funding.
China also has been considering building small floating power plants using conventional technology to generate electricity for the South China Sea islands.
A marine environment researcher at the Ocean University of China, in Qingdao, Shandong province, has warned that the inevitable discharge of hot, radioactive water from a nuclear plant into the ocean might alter the ecological system of an entire region around an island.
"Many fish and marine creatures will not be able to deal with the dramatic change of environment caused by massive desalination and the rise of sea temperatures caused by a nuclear reactor," said the researcher, who declined to be named.
"If a nuclear disaster happened in the South China Sea, it would not have an immediate effect on people living on the mainland owing to it being a great distance away," the researcher said.
"But the radioactive waste would enter the bodies of fish and other marine creatures and likely end up on our dining tables. Sea currents could also carry the waste to distant shores," she said.
Before putting any nuclear power plant on a remote South China Sea island, the Chinese government should consider not only its political, military or economic benefits, but also carry out comprehensive scientific evaluations on its potential environmental impact, the researcher said.