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Naval Implications of
China’s Rapidly Developing Nuclear Power Industry
by Master Chief Petty Officer Shawn Cappellano-Sarver (SS/AW), USN

NOTE: This article represents student research undertaken at the Naval War College. It reflects only the opinions of the author, and not the official viewpoint of the U.S. Navy or any other department of the U.S. Government.

The development of China’s submarine force has received considerable recent press attention. Most of this attention has focused on the new indigenous diesel-powered submarines emerging at a swift pace from yards at Shanghai and Wuhan, as well as the large batch of eight advanced Kilo-class submarines that has arrived in China from Russia during 2006. But China’s simultaneous development of two new classes of nuclear-powered submarines, the 093-class and the 094-class, suggests a new imperative to focus analytical attention on Chinese naval nuclear propulsion. Since the earlier Han-class (091-class) is considered by most to be inferior to all other modern submarines it is important to determine if China has now developed the skills and obtained the technology necessary to support a formidable nuclear undersea fleet. Several Chinese publications imply that China has not only obtained these skills and technology but could perhaps even have developed a completely new generation of submarine propulsion plant. These reports may not be credible, but a close look at recent progress in China’s nuclear power industry suggests that naval planners must take this possibility seriously.

Initial Steps in Chinese Naval Nuclear Propulsion

The development of Chinese naval nuclear power followed a slow and painful process. The lack of trained technical personnel, a weak industrial base, and the political upheavals of the late 1950s and 1960s restricted the pace at which China’s first indigenous submarine and its propulsion plant were developed. The final product was marginal by international standards, being noisy and apparently plagued with significant technical problems. It is nevertheless impressive that a country that was so politically chaotic and economically backwards could produce one of the most complex machines on earth.

The Chinese naval nuclear power program started in July 1958 when Mao Tse-Tung and the Central Military Commission gave approval to start the 09 submarine project.1 The Institute of Atomic Energy (IAE) started the 09 project by looking at information on the U.S. and Soviet submarine programs. Available information convinced them that a pressurized water reactor (PWR) based on the Russian icebreaker Lenin’s propulsion plant would be the best choice. It was also decided early on that a land-based prototype would be built first for testing and training. The IAE created the Reactor Research Section (RRS) and within a few months had recruited over 200 engineers and technicians to start designing the plant.2

RRS personnel scrutinized foreign textbooks, reports and any other resources available to determine the specifications for the plant. The design was completed and approved by mid-1960. The Second Ministry of Machine Building was given control of dozens of factories that were capable of producing the specialized instruments, controls and major components required for a nuclear propulsion plant.

The project was severely affected by the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), the Cultural Revolution (1965-1975), and the Third Line movement – government-run economic and social transformation programs. These three movements resulted in major program delays, funding cuts, and the loss of talented engineers due to political issues. Despite these delays, the land-based prototype design was completed by 1967 and construction started in March 1968. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was required to participate in the construction effort in July 1968 to compensate for the disruptions caused by the Cultural Revolution, and the plant was completed in April 1970. The plant conducted full power operations in July 1970. The prototype was a success, and the basic design of the plant proved adequate.3 The infrastructure built up around Jiajiang, named the Southwest Reactor Engineering Research and Design Academy, or, First Academy, became China’s largest nuclear power industrial complex.

At the same time, the submarine design progressed along with the development of the reactor plant. The layout of the submarine and its subsystems was determined by the use of a full-size wood and steel model used to test fit all the components. This slowed construction but avoided costly rework to the actual hull, and the reactor was in place by early 1971. The submarine was able to get underway for the first time on August 23, 1971. Not surprisingly, many technical abnormalities occurred during sea trials, and it was not until 1974 that the submarine was deemed ready to join the fleet.

Overall, the story behind the building of the Chinese nuclear submarine is also the story of building the Chinese nuclear industry, and in some ways was the basis for building the entire Chinese industrial system. The technology that was developed by Chinese scientists and engineers on the 09 submarine project and other strategic weapons systems helped to build the confidence of a nation that had never had a significant industrial base. Overcoming a vast number of technical challenges amidst the political chaos of the 1960s showed the extraordinary determination of the Chinese to complete the submarine project, and the potential they had to accomplish other high technology projects.

The Organization of China’s Nuclear Industry

The Chinese nuclear industry traces its roots back to January 15, 1955, when Chairman Mao and the Central Secretariat decided to develop atomic weapons. This decision made it imperative to develop the technical and scientific knowledge required to build bombs, which also developed the technology base for building nuclear-powered submarines and eventually a robust civilian nuclear power industry.4

The Second Ministry of Machine Building was formed in 1958. It was tasked with the development of nuclear weapons, a nuclear submarine propulsion plant and all associated industries. The Second Ministry controlled every aspect of the nuclear industry, from prospecting, mining and processing uranium, processing fuel, constructing nuclear facilities, to developing and producing all instruments and control (I&C) equipment.5 In 1982 its name was changed to the Ministry of Nuclear Industry (MNI) and in 1988 it was reorganized into the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC). CNNC consists of over 100 subsidiary companies and institutions and controls the vast majority of the civilian and military nuclear programs.6

The China Institute of Atomic Energy (CIAE) is the main research and development organization of CNNC. It was created in the early 1950s and directly supervised the development of the first submarine nuclear power plant as part of the 09 submarine project. The CIAE created the Reactor Engineering Research Section in 19587 and this became the Reactor Engineering Institute in 1964.8 The Reactor Engineering Institute (Code 194) did the initial design studies for the 09 submarine project9 and today is still the primary design institute for submarine propulsion plants.10

Recent Developments

The Chinese have built eleven civilian power plants over the last two decades and have plans for at least four more in the very near future. This is more than have been built by any other country recently. These plants have been built with a combination of Chinese and foreign designs and components that have each added to China’s engineering and design prowess. China’s strong economic growth during this time has allowed it to purchase the most advanced nuclear technology available. The sources of this technology are coming from every country that has a nuclear power industry, including the U.S.-based Westinghouse Nuclear, AREVA (majority owner of Framatome ANP) of France, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), Siemens of Germany and several Russian companies and institutes. These companies are looking for new markets since their home countries have ceased to build new plants or have significantly cut back on the numbers planned. This makes China the most active market in the world for the sale of nuclear power plants and their supporting technology. It is estimated that China has spent over $100 billion dollars on its nuclear power industry in the last decade and plans to spend another $20 billion per year for at least the next decade.

The contracts between China and foreign companies have also required extensive training of Chinese engineers and technicians by foreign companies. This has included Chinese engineers having full access to both Westinghouse Nuclear and Framatome’s latest civilian nuclear power plant designs. AECL and Framatome have also provided advanced Computer Aided Drafting and Design (CADD) software and training to allow the Chinese to use this software to design complex systems.

The extent of foreign involvement in China’s nuclear power industry cannot be fully explored here, but it starts with the production of fuel for the nuclear power plants, includes the design, construction, and operation of nuclear power plants, and continues through to the disposal of nuclear waste and other nuclear services. Much of this advanced technology and expertise could also be used to develop advanced submarine power plants.

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