China is developing the world's smallest nuclear reactor, which may be installed in one of the disputed South China Sea islands.

According to the South China Morning Post, Chinese researchers are carrying out intensive work to develop "portable nuclear battery packs" within five years.

The lead-cooled reactor would be capable of generating around 10 megawatts of power, which could supply power to up to 50,000 households and run for decades without the need for refuelling.

At just 6.1m long and 2.6m high, they will be built small enough to fit inside a shipping container, which could help Beijing's efforts to take more aggressive action in the South China Sea.


The SCMP reports the reactor is based on a design used in 1970s Soviet submarines.

Professor Qunying Huang, a spokesperson for the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Nuclear Energy Safety Technology, said they hope to ship the first unit within five years.

"Part of our funding came from the military, but we hope - and it's our ultimate goal - that the technology will eventually benefit civilian users," she said.

However, she said it would be a challenge convincing people the technology is safe to use.

If one of the reactors was to malfunction - through a possible tsunami or stormy weather, for example - the radioactive waste could be capable of spreading around the world via the region's strong sea currents.

A marine environment researcher at the Ocean University of China, in Qingdao, expressed concern over the environmental implications of such a reactor.

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," said the researcher, who declined to be named.

"If a nuclear disaster happened in the South China Sea, it would not have an immediate effect on people living on the mainland owing to it being a great distance away," she told the SCMP.

"But the radioactive waste would enter the bodies of fish and other marine creatures and likely end up on our dining tables. Sea currents could also carry the waste to distant shores."

DigitalGlobe overview imagery comparing Fiery Cross Reef from May 31, 2014 to June 3, 2016. Photo / Getty
DigitalGlobe overview imagery comparing Fiery Cross Reef from May 31, 2014 to June 3, 2016. Photo / Getty

Earlier this year, the state-run Global Times said the country is expected to build up to 20 floating nuclear power stations to beef up the power and water supplies on the South China Sea islands.

At the time, analysts said maritime nuclear power platforms would play an important part in China's strategy to increase its presence in the South China Sea.

Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, said the platforms could provide reliable power for lighthouses, seawater desalination, rescue and relief equipment and defensive weapons in the region.

"Normally we have to burn oil or coal for power. Given the long distance between the Nansha Islands and the Chinese mainland and the changing weather and oceanic conditions, transporting fuel could be an issue, which is why developing the maritime nuclear power platform is of great significance," he said.

China has stepped up its infrastructure building plans since an international tribunal in The Hague ruled that China had no historic title over the waters and had breached the Philippines' sovereign rights there.

Earlier this year, satellite photos emerged revealing reinforced hangars designed to house combat jets on several of Beijing's artificial outposts.

The images showed military infrastructure being built on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs, which are all part of the various disputed territories.