Fossil fuels could be on their way out, and nuclear and renewable are set to overtake them this century. As part of this trend, some of the latest renewable power plants are being built not on land, but far offshore. Scotland is in the middle of building the world’s largest floating wind farm, and Japan has begun construction on the world’s largest floating solar farm.
Now China has thrown its hat into this rather unorthodox ring: The expansionist communist state is aiming to build up to 20 floating nuclear power plants in the South China Sea, with the first being built by 2018.
According to Tech Xplore, the plan has been emphasized by the government as being civilian in nature, with the aim of providing stable nuclear power for offshore projects. China has been busy building airstrips in the middle of the sea for some time, so this project could also feasibly provide a source of power to militaristic construction efforts.
“The development of nuclear power platforms is a burgeoning trend,” Liu Zhengguo, director of the general office of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), the group in charge of building the platforms, told the Global Times.
It has also been mentioned that a floating nuclear power plant could provide an electricity supply to both seawater desalinization plants and offshore oilfield exploration rigs. There are certainly technical advantages over using renewables for the same purpose: Nuclear power can be provided constantly, reliably, and efficiently, for extremely long periods of time.
The land reclamation in the South China Sea is causing regional tensions. BBC News via YouTube
There are many problems with this scheme, however. Firstly, the area in which they plan to construct these power plants is disputed territory, and neighboring nations are extremely wary of China’s recent drive to reclaim land in the South China Sea. This new effort will only increase tensions, as it signals that China has very long-term plans in place for the region.
Secondly, the primary goal of the scheme appears to be to provide power to new offshore oil drilling platforms. These are normally powered by greenhouse gas-effusing oil and coal, so switching to nuclear power would definitely lower the extractive platforms’ carbon footprints. Still, the offshore oil exploration will continue, which flies in the face of the Paris climate change agreement that China has only just added its signature to.
Thirdly, there’s a chance that these floating nuclear power plants could leak radioactive material into the ocean. Nuclear power plants are actually remarkably safe compared to fossil fuel burning ones, and even the once-in-a-lifetime Fukushima meltdown has been almost entirely contained. However, the prospect of a nuclear meltdown in the middle of the South China Sea, home to diverse reef ecosystems, is obviously horrific.
This may not be a legitimate concern if the South China Sea wasn’t prone to powerful typhoons. The sort of offshore oil drilling China wants to engage in will only serve to dangerously warm the world, which will make these typhoons more potent. Perhaps one day, one of these strengthened typhoons will succeed in knocking over a floating nuclear power plant – a potential disaster that will make the Deepwater Horizon spill look more like a picnic.