China to build its first nuclear-powered icebreaker

China's research icebreaker Xuelong, also known as the Snow Dragon, in Antarctica, Dec. 5, 2018. Credit: Liu Shiping/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

China’s plans to build a nuclear-powered icebreaker confirm the country’s ambitions to significantly increase navigations through the Arctic Ocean as part of their multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

The China General Nuclear Power Group have invited bids for a contract to build the 33,000-tonne, 152-metre-long nuclear-powered icebreaker.

Original project documents describe the vessel as an ‘experimental ship platform’ hinting at its role as a test vehicle for nuclear propulsion. The proposed icebreaker will be powered by two 25 MW pressurised water reactors with a top speed of 11.5 knots.

However, the vessel’s specifications suggest that the atomic behemoth will in fact be used as an icebreaker and speculations that the prototype could pave the way for the country’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are rife.

This means that if this is China’s first nuclear powered icebreaker, it could pave the way for nuclear technological advances, which will reverberate far beyond the Arctic region.

While China does operate nuclear-powered submarines, this would be China’s first nuclear-powered surface vessel. The use of icebreakers is essential for opening up shipping lanes in the polar region, with the use of a nuclear power for propulsion providing an unlimited fuel source.

China has rapidly increased its ability to build ice-class vessels thanks to advances in steel manufacturing. In early 2018, China released its first-ever Arctic policy followed by the launch of its second conventional polar icebreaker, Xuelong 2, in September 2018, which was constructed with the aim of boosting China’s polar research and expedition capacity.

To-date, Russia has been the only nation to build and operate nuclear-powered ice breakers. However, the Chinese ice-breaker will compete with its rivals in the Russian fleet. With a proposed displacement of more than 30,000 tonnes, the Chinese ice-breaker will be just slightly smaller than Russia’s newest and largest icebreakers of the Arktika class.

According to the South China Daily Post, the deadline for interested parties to tender was March 20th, with no bids permitted from outside mainland China.

A tender notice for the project was also published by China National Nuclear Corporation also published in June 2018 for the small reactor technology, which will be used to power the vessel.