No obstacles prevent China from rapidly building floating nuclear power plants
Credible entities in China have begun lining up the supply chains required to produce reliable electrical power from barge mounted nuclear fission power plants. There are no technical, industrial, or regulatory hurdles that prevents the first of those machines from being in service by 2020.
China has a pressing need for the electricity those movable power plants will be able to produce; it is building artificial islands that are a long way from power lines, pipelines, and developed fuel handling port facilities. Nuclear plants, unlike all other options, can produce power 24 hours per day using fuel that can be airlifted at intervals that might be measured in years.
Many Chinese political leaders are competent engineers and scientists. They recognize that weak, unreliable energy sources like wind and sun are not capable of providing the power required to operate dredges, early warning radar systems, concrete plants, airports, and the electrical power needs for a growing population that will inhabit their brand new territory.
Russia, which has talked about building floating nuclear power plants for decades and has had a construction program underway since 2000 has yet to make any operational power plant deliveries.
China, however, has a history of follow through and task completion. They build what they say they are going to build. They manufacture some excellent products in a wide range of industries — including electronics, locomotives, ships, power plants, computers, and solar panels — that are exported all over the world.
In contrast, Russia’s export successes have been limited to oil, natural gas, vodka, military hardware and a few long-delayed nuclear power plants.
Unlike the United States, which has withheld its world-leading floating nuclear propulsion plant expertise from the commercial market for more than 60 years, China seems to understand that technology developed to propel ships can be put to valuable use in many other applications. Turbines are turbines whether they are on ships or on land. Power plants that include steam propulsion turbines can be readily adapted to drive steam turbines attached to electrical generators.
Since ship nuclear propulsion systems require robust foundations and the capability to withstand the stressful conditions of stormy weather and the possibility of nearby explosions, they are well-suited to being installed in power barges that can be moored in ports that may be in the path of typhoons. An old friend of mine who is a retired Dutch Navy engineering officer often told me that in the history of power plants, there are a number of examples of machines that made a successful transition from seaborne power to land based power, but there were few, if any, that had moved from land to sea.
In my worldview, Chinese floating nuclear power plants are not a strategic threat or safety concern. The infrastructure that they will power is another story that I won’t discuss here.
China’s manufactured islands in the South China Sea are an ideal “early adopter” customer for floating nuclear power plants. However, they are not the only or even the largest market for the machines that may begin to float out of their shipyards at an increasing rate beginning in 2020.
Those transportable plants with their lightweight supply lines will represent an economically competitive source of electricity and clean water that may find a large and lucrative market once the builders begin series production. I expect that the suppliers will engage in the relentless production cost and sales price improvements that Chinese manufacturers have been able to achieve in so many other industrial enterprises.
The planning for the decision to build power barges to supply artificial South China Sea islands became publicly known at the end of 2015 with the announcement of the National Marine Nuclear Power Demonstration Project. In January of 2016, China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation and China Guangdong Nuclear signed a strategic cooperation agreement to develop off shore nuclear installations. Though it is a bit difficult to fully understand the Google translate version of the Chinese language story, it also appears that CNOOC (China National Offshore Oil Company) is cooperating by supplying its experience in offshore construction.
CNOOC is also interested in small nuclear plants to provide electricity to its power-hungry, distant offshore drilling rigs. It may sound a bit like carrying coal to Newcastle, but oil wells are generally powered by diesel engines that require refined petroleum; they cannot burn the crude oil that they are extracting, though some are able to beneficially use the natural gas that often accompanies the oil. When rigs are not too far off shore, it’s often cost effective to power them from the onshore power grid. Distant rigs, however, are almost ideally suited to be powered by atomic generators.
When added to the coastal cities of developing countries, the island nations that continue to rely on diesel generators, and the large number of oil rigs with diesel generators, the market for floating nuclear plants is potentially in the hundreds to thousands of units. As things stand today; China might be able to rapidly establish a dominant market position that will be difficult to overcome.
Capitalizing on attention
A story on eworldship.com appeared on Wednesday, April 20 describing the partnerships that have been established and describing the initial market target of the artificial islands in the South China Sea.
That story instigated a flurry of stories in a variety of media outlets, including Global Times, Reuters, Economic Times (India), Foreign Policy, Chicago Tribune, and New York Times.
My hope is that the development stimulates a prosperity and stability-enhancing competitive race to build ever more capable machines that can provide reliable power to places that have always been hampered by the difficulty of supplying fuel for dirty, polluting generators and by the lack of access to abundant fresh water.
My concern is that the development will be seen by some as an action that requires aggressive efforts to slow progress and halt development.
That shouldn’t be America’s response; we have competitive capabilities in this arena.
After all, we were the first nation to deploy a floating nuclear plant to provide power to an important piece of our global infrastructure. Unfortunately, we were also the first to abandon the technology after making budgetary decisions that ensured Sturgis was an expensive, one-of-a-kind orphan.
We should seize the flurry of attention being paid to maritime nuclear plants as an opportunity for generating excitement about atomic energy development and a growing understanding of the benefits provided by extremely compact fuel sources.
The US Navy, my former employer, has been designing, building and maintaining superior nuclear propulsion plants and training suppliers and operators for more than two generations. With the notable exception of the 1950s vintage Shippingport project, the nuclear Navy has been more than reluctant to share its technological expertise and skills in human resource development with anyone else.
Shippingport was a qualified success; it enabled a commercial nuclear industry that grew rapidly for 20 years and produced machines that have supplied a large, consistent supply of clean electrical power for the past four decades. Unfortunately, that first nuclear power plant construction industry had growing pains and ran into a number of obstacles. By the mid 1980s it had faded to a mere shadow with no new construction starts during a 35 year period.
Now is the right time for another effort to commercialize the investment that we’ve made in maritime nuclear energy. Maybe this time, it will point the way to an industry that doesn’t stop growing until all customers who can use the power are economically served.
I’m positive that my suggestion to selectively share more capability will not be well-received in certain offices in the Navy Yard — I’ve checked within the past week. I can only hope that my old friends there will think deeply and remember what we were taught long ago. It’s no good for the Navy to operate beautiful, esthetically amazing nuclear power plants if the ships they propel go down.
Extending that idea a bit, it’s not a sound national strategy for the United States Navy to so carefully protect useful but not militarily unique nuclear knowledge to the point of allowing the country that paid for that knowledge to experience a preventable economic decline.
Great post Rod! The Chinese development, inspired by Russia’s own product line of floating nuclear power plants, is something that had great ‘market potential’. These reactors run from 30 to 100MWs in output, not to mention the ability to power RO desalination. Think of all the developing countries in Africa that could have an “instant 100MWs” by having one of these nuclear barges park at an ocean or riverside dock? In a way, these could be considered Small Modular Reactors especially if they are production line built, as I’m sure the Chinese are going to start doing.
The U.S.’ own navy nuclear propulsion program had developed some of the most advanced LWRs in the world, with almost *instant* load following and neutron poison control these reactors can be fueled with 30 years of HEU. Designs and production is then actually made less expensive since getting into the core every few years for refuel no longer necessary. But it’s all shrouded in secrecy. Even a commercial version of one these reactors (or several) on a large boat, with 20% LEU would be an amazing asset to any country willing to invest in one of them.
I developed a back of the envelope idea during the heyday of LFTR scuttlebutt and working with coal2nuclear.com the idea of using our 200 year old shipyards, much of which is idle, to build barges like this for LFTR, or transferable, to any high-density SMR. Dig out a caisson near a coal plant, float the sucker in next to a coal plant, close the sucker in, hook up power and water, and let her rip! Shutdown the coal plant and phasing out coal could be, effectively, QED.
My idea (having worked around 5 years at both the Brooklyn Navy Yard (the nation’s oldest) and National Steel and Shipbuilding company in San Diego) was that the barge could be built from the keel up, and the reactor from to top down. Shipyards, as the Chinese know, are perfectly designed for heavy component assembly. Modern ships are build modularly know and the giant 100+ ton gantry cranes would be ideal for lowering in the modules and other components.
But that would take a truly national consensus something the US hasn’t had since the Apollo missions.
I also worked on small modular reactors aboard a floating nuclear power plant complex with desalination capability. The USS Enterprise is now being scrapped. I thought it would be an outstanding coastal disaster relief asset. Flight Deck, Hospital, Communications Systems, not to mention the 18 Fire Pumps and Shore Power connections.
Maybe we can work really hard to successfully instill your idea into the conversation to be adopted for the Nimitz when here useful life as an operational warship is over.
The components that take the highest stress and are the first to wear out beyond economical repair/replacement are associated with launching and recovering attack and fighter aircraft. Landing helos for disaster relief is a lot easier on the equipment. I’d esimate that a 50 year old aircraft carrier could serve for another 50 years as a highly capable disaster relief platform.
The operating costs might be the hurdle, but if those can be addressed or explained, we might have a winner.
I’d gladly train young Job Corps / Ameri Corps folks on the care and feeding of Navy Reactors. Might also benefit from reservist participation.
When I heard CVN 65 was being scrapped, I wondered how many thousands of tsunami victims in Indonesia could have been helped by a US flagged relief ship.
The evaporators ALONE can save lives by the thousand in a disaster.
Here’s a link to an excellent review of various Ocean Nuclear technologies:
Markets: (beyond the Spratly Islands) Island nations; coastal cities; offshore oil rigs. To this could be added: using the same or similar reactors for Chinese naval vessels; and for Chinese freighters (for which Cosco has previously expressed an interest). It seems that there is a vast geo-political significance to China “cornering the market” in all of these spheres. Already, the US is losing out geopolitically to Russia’s aggressive export strategy for large, VVER pressurized water reactors; and to a growing extent, to China’s exports of Hualong One PWR. And now, the US Congress, Navy and presidential administration seems to be asleep at the wheel in response to another potent blow to US worldwide influence. “Casey Jones you better, watch your speed. Trouble ahead…”
(One might also suspect that China will use these initiatives in small modular reactors in offshore applications, as a springboard to putting large reactors onto offshore rigs, as per the MIT suggestions. See the excellent link Marcel posted. This seems to potentially promise nuclear plants at half the cost. Another US geopolitical failing, big time, is brewing. And aside from losing political-economic influence in the world, the seizing of yet another major industrial market, involving shipyard mass production, is also a big deal.)
“Russia’s export successes have been limited to oil, natural gas, vodka, military hardware and a few long-delayed nuclear power plants.”
Dunno Rod. But for a vendor sandbagged by overruns and delay, Rosatom sure has an enviable collection of design wins.
Winnings contract isn’t the same as delivering a product.
From Michael Forsythe’s NYT piece:
“David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and the director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that in the event of a major nuclear accident at a floating barge, like a meltdown of the reactor core, winds could carry radioactivity to large population centers.
“The floating nuke accident scenario also carries with it the potential for molten parts of the reactor core burning through the bottom of the barge to reach the water below,” Mr. Lochbaum wrote in an email. “The water is good for cooling, but not good for containment.”
I mean yes — with a RPV beneath the waterline and far, far from the ultimate heat sink, anything could happen!
But probably won’t. One would hope Mr. Lochbaum has read NRC’s AP1000 Design Control Document: In-Vessel Retention of Molten Core Debris. Not certain about their relationship with CGN, but China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) also plans to build a demonstration floating nuclear power plant based on its ACP100S small reactor by 2019. CNNC owns the AP-1000’s under construction at Sanmen; one suspects they are familiar with NRC’s safety review.
Last, nuclear attack submarines USS Thresher and USS Scorpion both failed far more catastrophically than is possible for a surface vessel (in peacetime). Neither released any significant radiation; their nuclear fuel remains intact:
USS Thresher Search and Recovery
USS Scorpion Environmental Concerns.
Natural Circulation still works. Heat Exchangers submerged in seawater is not a new idea.
It would probably be economically viable today to use electricity from floating nuclear reactors for the offshore production of ammonia.
Approximately 1% of global energy use is utilized to produce ammonia.
And, of course, the US Navy’s new synfuel from seawater technology could use floating nuclear power plants to produce carbon neutral methanol, gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel.
Nothing wrong with nuclear barges. Specially if you design them to use the surrounding sea water as a heat sink in case of emergencies.
What’s wrong if china uses them to solidify its false territorial claims by placing them on contested islands
Rod,do you have much info on nuke battery size “reactor”…like a home size version of the NASA electric cars using general heat units with either plutonium or americium heat of decay .Running maybe steam instead of Seebeck thermo couple.Nasa is working with sterling to improve efficiency beyond 7% for Seebeck. As an Aircraft mechanic,I use modifed Gas turbines instead on my steamcar/motorcycle project…
As member of the Steamcar Club of America &Britain /Northwest Steam Society/International Steamsociety ….Hobby steam looking at home sized steamplants….mostly Victorian.Though some like myself try to build modern steam…mostly waste heat recovery turbines for the Victorian piston engine.Most of my steam turbine works like a Kalina turbine(less the ammonia).And an off the shelf radioscopic generator looks more realistic for a reactor in the backyard. Assuming there is
a point in time,when news of a reactor in your backyard ,didn’t scare folks into mass exits from the nieghbor or????.
Also work with combined cycle with my brayton cycle turbines.By my thinking the powerplant should be with the larger energy user,your transportation.which goes out 100kw in driving conditions.By contrast a home would average 2500watts ….
Which would be 2 thermo radioscopic generators idling turbines fast enough to power the home when you are not driving on fossil fuel.
Refueling would probably not be done onsite for these units. Instead, sail a new floating unit in next to the old one, hook it up, and ramp up the new unit as the old one ramps down. Then unhook the old unit and sail it back to a centralized refueling center.
Island nations would be *perfect* markets for these units. Right now, island nations are in a real bind: no oil, no gas, all energy imported, mostly diesel, at very high (and unstable) prices. Solar works but is pricey, and wind destroys the view tourists come for.
Wouldn’t a lot of islands (not all of course), be good candidates for geothermal power also, seeing as they generally sit on top of active volcanoes? Of course, I do know, some islands weren’t formed by volcanoes, and some that were, the volcanoes are no longer underneath them (because of plate tectonic drifting – the volcanic hotspot literally drifted out from underneath them).
Google “Geothermal Power Hawaii”. Here is Hawaii Electric Company’s page. They have 30 MW Puna plant on the big island, and are permitted for 22 MW more. Oahu has little geothermal potential for the reason you mention, and undersea electric transmission is not cost-competitive with oil.
Unrelated, but I came across this 2012 NBC News piece listing the ten states whose emission-free power has the highest proportion of nuclear. First number is percentage emission-free power from nuclear, second is percentage of total electricity from nuclear:
Mississippi: 100% 18%
New Jersey: 100% 50%
Virginia: 100% 36%
Florida: 99% 11%
Michigan: 98% 26%
Connecticut: 97% 50%
Ohio: 97% 11%
South Carolina: 97% 50%
Illinois: 95% 48%
Pennsylvania: 95% 34%
According to this article, Illinois is responsible for one-tenth total US nuclear generation. Both South Carolina Senators are on the Senate Committee for Energy and Natural Resources. One, Lindsey Graham (R-SC), has today introduced with nine co-sponsors a resolution as an amendment to an amendment made by the other, Lamar Alexander R-SC with Dianne Feinstein D-CA. The Graham Amendment is the Senate’s equivalent to the House Gibson resolution recognizing global warming, humankind’s responsibility therefor, and the US responsibility to take constructive action.
Graham’s amendment speaks eloquently of the need for Clean Energy and government’s role. It will come up for vote within the next few days; Citizen’s Climate Lobby urges all to phone their senators in support. CCL lists the text and gives directions for contacting your senator here.
Very surprised that (as of 2012) the top 10 list did not include Vermont.
Don’t know Vt. specifically, but for 2014 ISO-NE reported 34% generation from nuclear, 8% hydro, ~2% wind. Good nuclear, but that amount of hydro and wind would put them pretty far down this particular ranking.
Here it is:
Renewable Energy Vermont provides the following summary: “Presently Vermont has 84 operating hydroelectric plants (that) have a total generating capacity of 190 megawatts (MW), and produce on average 12 percent of Vermont’s kWh load”
Even when VY supplied two-thirds Vt generation, that was a mere 84% of its emissions-free power.
What are the possible environmental impacts if one of these nuclear barges sinks? Would these be based upon light-water reactor tech with ceramic fuel pellets? If one was in an accident and sank, how likely is it that radioactive material could escape the reactor core? As long as the core is submerged underwater, would it, I presume, be able to naturally cool itself from the surrounding water, thus avoiding an internal meltdown?
Such appears to be the case, see my comment above.
Note our submarine losses were not due to reactor failure per se, although Thresher may have been negatively impacted by being unable to restart promptly after a scram. (Her design called for seven minutes where she had but one.) Reliable power is actually a Good Thing.
Core melt can occur only after an extended Loss-Of-Coolant-Accident, the design basis worst-case being a Large Break in the return leg of the same coolant loop containing the pressurizer, sensors and valves fail, and the pressurizer flushes all coolant from the reactor until near-ambient pressure is attained and Emergency Core Cooling System can re-flood the core. ECCS re-flood is supposed to occur before the core can actually melt.
Neither TMI nor Fukushima Daiichi were LBLOCA’s. TMI was due to undetected sensor and relief-valve valve failure after a routine trip. However, the TMI containment did hold. FD’s Gen II cooling systems were actively controlled, predicated upon the availability of electric power, any electric power — grid, standby diesel, emergency battery, anything — to operate. But that all washed away.
AP1000’s ECCS is passive, and pressure vessel and containment designed so that if “all else fails”, the containment holding the pressure vessel is flooded, and even molten fuel will not have enough decay heat to melt through the pressure vessel whose surface has that amount of external cooling. China is building AP1000’s and has licensed the technology for their own CAP1400 design, so they know all about this and presumably have taken it into consideration.
China’s proposed floating nuclear reactors are one tenth and one twentieth the power of AP1000. It will be interesting to see what safety mechanisms they incorporate when they license them for export. If not a State Secret, they might even share such details beforehand.
From Russian Times’ propaganda sheet on floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov:
“Each ship will have two modified KLT-40 naval propulsion reactors together providing up to 70 MW of electricity or 300 MW of heat — take that Rod Adams — For export purposes, the floating power plant can also be modified as a desalination plant able to produce 240,000 cubic meters of fresh water on a daily basis.
“The manufacturer stresses that the process of fuel enrichment on the vessels complies with the regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) dealing with nonproliferation of nuclear arms.
“Like every atomic station the floating power plant is designed with a safety margin, exceeding any possible threats, which makes the reactors invulnerable to tsunami waves or crashes with other ships or on-land structures.
“The power-generating unit is to be replaced by a new one after 40 years, with the used reactor returned to a specialized facility for re-utilization.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
240,000 cubic meters a day… (long slow whistle). Say: I wonder how far up the Sacramento we could push one of these babies?
“Each ship will have two modified KLT-40 naval propulsion reactors together providing up to 70 MW of electricity or 300 MW of heat — take that Rod Adams…”
What am I supposed to be taking? Have there been any delivered units yet?
Deliverables, deliverables! What’s this obsession with deliverables? A. Lamonosov started construction in 2007; she’ll be launched Real Soon Now! 🙂
Seriously though, the RT article does mention financing problems, and resulting delays. All is not rosy in the People’s Paradise.
Gee, I don’t know why anyone would prefer to focus on performance over promises.
It’s been almost 20 years since I first started writing about Russia’s announced plans to mount KLT-40 reactor plans, derived from their well-proven icebreaker propulsion plants, on barges destined to power remote areas near the sea.
My point is that Russia isn’t the formidable power in nuclear that it pretends to be. It is much better at delivering oil and gas to Europe and enriching select members of its ruling class than it is in following through to deliver promised projects, especially when compared to China.
Sounds like a < 23% thermal efficiency … nothing to write home about, especially considering that these plants should have an excellent heat sink to work with.
Reliability and cost trump efficiency when the heat is that cheap.
Reliability and cost? You’re sticking this thing on a boat! There has to be some hits to both reliability and cost versus having it on land.
But at least a boat is surrounded by a really good, really reliable heat sink (i.e., a large body of water). I would have thought that efficiency would be one of the selling points of this concept.
You’re trading space constraints for the ability to mass-produce. Smaller SGs, turbines and condensers will trade off thermal efficiency.
Well, so what? If the fuel cost goes from 0.7¢/kWh to 1.0¢/kWh, does it matter when you’re competing against oil at at least 6-7¢/kWh? The capital cost is going to be the big factor.
I think this is going to be attractive because of the sheer ability to move the thing. If it’s having problems, it can just be towed away so it doesn’t affect the client. If the clients stop paying, ditto. This beats building land-based plants in e.g. S. Africa, where the Zuma government can’t even collect from its customer base… or won’t, because corruption is just part and parcel of the society.
This article got me thinking – new technologies, typically, come in and initially, because the production levels of the new tech are small, and economies of scale are not yet in place, usually try to find the *highest value uses* of the technology and sell it to those customers who can profit off those high value uses, at a premium cost initially, with marketing gradually targeting lower-value use cases/markets over time as the scale of production goes up and the cost of production goes down.
This is sort of econ/business 101 stuff, I think (never taken business classes, but seems like how the world works – this pattern repeats all the time across all different types of products and services).
For example, when computers first were invented, they were bought by governments, large financial and engineering companies – because they have extremely high value uses for those computers. Over time they got cheaper and were bought my midsize and smaller businesses, and by large businesses as desktop computers for their workers.
So, what is the highest value uses for Nuclear energy?
I suspect that large-market (most of the US) land-based electricity generation isn’t the highest value use – because of low priced competition from hydro, fossil fuels, and renewables. A few of the use cases I’ve heard nukes mention in the past is for production of shale oil in Canada and elsewhere (nuclear, even at a premium price, might by cheaper than burning a significant fraction of their product, or buying natural gas, to produce the shale oil), island and other isolated communities (very rural places like small towns in Alaska, or even some places in the contiguous US) as a combined heat and power co-generation facility, or combined desalination and power co-generation facility in droughted places, especially developing nations.
Are there any other very-high value use cases where nuclear would have an advantage over fossil fuels and renewables? Those are the markets small new nuclear companies should target first.
Commercial cargo ships, specifically container ships with relatively high power needs, burning low sulfur heavy fuel oil, or LNG.
“In contrast, Russia’s export successes have been limited to oil, natural gas, vodka, military hardware and a few long-delayed nuclear power plants.”
I think Rod forgot a few things in that list. . .
Polonium-210, Ukrainians, and dead airline passengers. . . :-p
I love this. Engineer-Poet has it right: mobility is what makes this a game changer. If the Chinese could buy San Onofre and move it, I’ll bet they would.
I’m reminded of the story where in the 1930s the USS Lexington (or maybe her sister the Saratoga) provided the city of Tacoma with electricity for 2 weeks after some kind of storm knocked out the main power plant…they tied her up and plugged her in. How about the use case of an emergency power supply to disaster areas? Park it next to a de-sal ship…(how about that counter narrative in NE Japan? Tidal wave hits, and nuclear power saves the day as mobile power ships converge on the coast and get the lights and fridges turned back on)
Or how about a fleet of power ships simply moving between high demand markets as the seasons change to meet shifting market conditions? How about putting plants on river barges?
Rod I was sitting in the restaurant eating lunch when it dawned on me that the Chinese floating nuclear plant is what my crowd source funding for nuclear needs to round out the homeowner going 100% fossil fuel free. See the last page of my report http://egpreston.com/PrestonFeb2016.pdf in which a homeowner purchases 1 kW of nuclear power 24/7 to compliment the rest of their home microgrid. Rather than build a new nuclear plant that would take a million customers to fund, instead contract with the Chinese for a 70 MW floating nuclear plant. This requires only 70,000 customers to sign up for 1 kW each which is much easier to accomplish. 70 MW is almost nil power on the grid so there will be no transmission problems. The only thing standing in the way is the development of the home micro grid so it can take advantage of this concept and all the legal loops to jump through. I’m sure the money is out there so that if we were ready to plug and play we could have it working tomorrow.
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