A Chinese research institute is developing the world’s smallest nuclear power plant, to be installed on an island in the South China Sea within the next five years. This is much to the concern of environmental scientists, who feel the sea (and eventually the Chinese people) will be at risk.
Dubbed hedianbao, or “portable nuclear battery pack”, the small, lead-cooled reactor measures approximately 6.1 metres long and 2.6 metres high, meaning it could fit inside a shipping container. It would be able to generate about 10 megawatts of heat, which would be enough to power 50,000 homes. According to scientists, it could also run for years or decades without refuelling.
It is a “fast reactor”, which uses high-speed neutrons to split the fuel atoms. According to scientists, the fast neurons can split the atoms of almost all fissile materials (including the waste left over by traditional thermal power plants), which will significantly increase fuel efficiency. Furthermore, as it utilises lead-based liquid metal, it does not boil until it reaches 1,400 degrees Celsius, which makes it safer than any existing thermal reactor in commercial operation.
However, environmental scientists and the Chinese public alike are concerned about the threat of radioactive waste, which would affect not only China but countries around the world, due to the region’s strong sea currents.
A marine scientist from the Ocean University of China has warned that the plant’s “inevitable” discharge of hot, radioactive water into the ocean could alter the ecological system of an entire region around an island.
“Many fish and marine creatures will not be able to deal with the dramatic change of environment caused by massive desalination and the rise of sea temperatures caused by a nuclear reactor,” the researcher (who declined to be named) told the South China Morning Post.
“The radioactive waste would enter the bodies of fish and other marine creatures and end up on our dining tables. Sea currents could also carry the waste to distant shores,” she added.
Professor Huang Qunying, a scientist involved in the plant’s development, said the scientists hope the military-funded technology will eventually benefit civilians. He noted the challenge of convincing the public of its safety and cited this as the main hindrance to the technology’s widespread application.
It has been suggested that the technology undergo rigorous scientific testing before its deployment.