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A research institute in China is developing the world’s “smallest nuclear power plant”, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. The plan is to install it in the South China Sea, where China has for long been locked in a dispute with nearby nations and the US.

What is China building?

According to the South China Morning Post, the Institute of Nuclear Energy Safety Technology at Hefei has been tasked with developing the power station. The report says work on the unit, dubbed the “hedianbao” or the “portable nuclear battery pack”, will be partially funded by the country’s Army.

How big is the ‘smallest’ reactor?

The lead-cooled reactor, 6.1 metres long and 2.6 metres high, roughly the size of a mini-bus, is said to be “small enough to fit inside a shipping container.” It is expected to generate around 10 megawatts of electricity to power close to 5,00,000 households. Chinese scientists say that it is capable of running for years, maybe even decades, without refuelling. State-run Global Times quoted the China National Nuclear Cooperation as saying that the country plans to build 20 floating nuclear power plants to bolster power and water supplies on the SCS islands.

Why does China need nuclear reactors in the South China Sea?

According to analysts, the reasons mostly seems political. China wants to assert political and military superiority in the region, which is under challenge from Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. China has been building infrastructure on the disputed islands, even building man-made islands, to consolidate its hold on the area after an international tribunal quashed its claims over almost all of the SCS in July this year. The remoteness and size of some of these islands make it difficult for them to receive power from the mainland. And since the islands also lack freshwater sources, a large amount of electricity would be needed to desalinate seawater for potential inhabitants.

How groundbreaking is the technology?

Not very. Chinese researchers have mostly refurbished technology from the Soviet Alpha-class nuclear submarines of the 70s.

How safe is it?

Several unnamed Chinese researchers quoted in the South China Morning Post report have raised concerns. Should an accident happen or were a natural calamity to strike, the radioactive waste would not only damage countries and people living nearby, but may also spread across the world on the strong currents that are common in the region. Marine scientists at the Ocean University of China have also warned that the discharge of hot, radioactive water from the plant into the sea might significantly alter the region’s ecological system.