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China plans to float nuclear reactors in disputed South China Sea; Analysts see it 'risky for environment'

China plans to float nuclear reactors in disputed South China Sea; Analysts see it 'risky for environment'
Washington, DC [US], May 17 (ANI): The US military warned that China is moving forward with developing floating nuclear reactors in the South China Sea to hold up its claim to the disputed maritime territory, a development, which analysts have stressed would pose risks to the environment, reported Voice of America (VOA).

According to analysts, the plan to build ships with mobile nuclear power sources would raise tensions with its neighbours and pose risks to the environment.

Chinese media reports described the marine nuclear power platforms as small plants inside ships that would act as mobile "power banks" at sea for stationary facilities and other ships, VOA reported.

However, Beijing had suspended the project a year ago over safety and effectiveness concerns, according to the South China Morning Post.

But this month, the outgoing commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command and State Department Admiral John Aquilino said that China is still building the floating reactors to supply power to disputed islands, the Washington Post reported.

Although the US officials said that the deployment of such reactors would take several years, Admiral John Aquilino said their development would undermine regional security and stability, VOA reported.

Following this, last week, the Philippines echoed those concerns.

Philippines National Security Council Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya said that China would use its floating reactors to power military bases it has built on artificial islands, including those within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

He added that China's nuclear plants would further militarize disputed areas of the South China Sea.

"Anything that supports their military presence in those islands is technically a threat to our national security and against our interests," he said, adding that Australia and the US would be among Manila's allies conducting joint patrols in the South China Sea, as reported by VOA.

According to Beijing's claims, they have control over almost the entire South China Sea, putting it in dispute with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Moreover, China has already built artificial islands with airport runways to strengthen its claims.

The analysts said that Beijing's floating reactors would not only strengthen its military presence in the area but also give it an excuse to extend its reach through security actions, VOA reported.

Song Yanhui, director of the International Law Society of the Republic of China, Taiwan, said that the current military security zone for China's artificial islands is a radius of 500 meters (1,640 feet), which means, other aircraft and ships that enter this radius can be legitimately expelled.

Song continued that if China deploys a floating nuclear power plant in the South China Sea, it could use the excuse of protecting the environment from radioactive pollution to drive away ships from a larger area or to take defensive measures.

For Beijing, he said, "It kills two birds with one stone. It is a win-win strategy. It can strengthen its military presence, civilian use and claim to sovereignty."

But the potential for radiation leaks is a real concern, analysts said, reported VOA.

Pankaj Jha, dean of research at the School of International Affairs of India's Jindal Global University, highlighted that China's lack of experience in operating such floating reactors could spell disaster.

"It is a threat because it will contaminate water and also surrounding areas," he said. "Any radiation leak would make the island uninhabitable and might also impact fishermen from the South China Sea."

In the event of a conflict with China, the analysts further noted that the floating reactors could also become military targets, reported VOA.

China has deployed radars, anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, and fighter jets, among other weapons, on the disputed territories of Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross, the three largest artificial islands in the Spratly Islands.

Richard Fisher, senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, stressed that floating nuclear power plants could also one day extend China's weapons capabilities.

"If they were protected, these nuclear power plants could also potentially power future energy weapon devices," Fisher said. "Laser weapons that could knock down missiles and aircraft or very powerful microwave weapons could also disable missiles and aircraft that would get within their range."

Notably, China is not the first country to think of building floating nuclear reactors.

The US took the lead in proposing the concept in 1970 but due to safety concerns, they did not quickly pursue development, reported VOA.

Meanwhile, Russia is the only country that has brought a floating nuclear power plant to fruition, with the Akademik Lomonosov plant producing electricity and heating since 2020 from a harbour in Pevek, a town in the Arctic Circle.

Earlier in November last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency at a forum in Vienna expressed concern about the development of floating nuclear reactors, particularly when they cross international borders or operate in international waters.

"The IAEA is working with our member states to determine what further guidance and standards might be needed to ensure the safety of floating nuclear power plants," IAEA Deputy Director General Lydie Evrard said in a press release.

The IAEA further noted that Canada, China, Denmark, South Korea, Russia and the US are each working on marine-based "small modular reactor designs."