Why is China building a 30,000-ton nuclear-powered icebreaker?

China Military Online
Yao Jianing
The file photo shows a nuclear-powered icebreaker Arctic built during the Soviet Union period, which also marked the beginning of the Soviet Union’s development of nuclear-powered ships.

What kind of equipment does the People’s Liberation of Army (PLA) Navy lack the most? The answer might be the aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. What kind of carrier does the PLA Navy lack the most? That must be nuclear-powered carrier. Here come the good news, China will have it soon.

China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) issued a tender notice to build the nuclear-powered ice-breaking comprehensive support ship on June 21 and announced that the funds required were in place. It means that starting with this nuclear-powered ice-breaking support ship, China has now completed all its preparations to build the first large nuclear-powered surface vessel.

Why does China take the nuclear-powered icebreaker as its first step to start building nuclear-powered surface ship?

It's known to all. Research and development of major military weapons platforms is highly rigorous. If that fails, it will adversely affect the PLA Navy's overall planning, but the icebreaker is different.

The icebreaker can be used for civilian purposes and can generate revenues. Even if the research and development of an icebreaker fails, there won't be serious consequences. Furthermore, it may even be a good thing because we can keep improving the design according to the operational performance and gradually obtain a mature and stable nuclear-powered system. After all, this is the first time that China will build a nuclear-powered surface ship.

Why start with the icebreaker? Among all civilian ships, the icebreaker is the one that can use nuclear power and put it into full play.

Being stronger, powerful and with a larger tonnage, nuclear-powered icebreaker can smash thick layers of ice. It can independently generate electricity and provide driving force for itself. It can also consistently operate in waters near the Arctic Ocean or the Antarctic Ocean without facing fuel supply problem and even enter sea areas that were inaccessible in the past. Regular ships don't have such abilities, which is also why the Soviet Union's earliest nuclear-powered ship was also an icebreaker.

Moreover, building nuclear-powered icebreaker will lay a sound foundation for building nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Another advantage of the nuclear-powered icebreaker is that being a surface ship with large tonnage, its power features are basically similar to that of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

As ice-breaking operation requires large propulsion power, the icebreaker's engine and propulsion system are very powerful. This provides a platform for China to verify the effectiveness of the high-power steam turbine and drive shafts that can be used in a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. And the experience garnered can be directly applied to the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

After all, the new nuclear-powered icebreaker's designed tonnage is 30,000 tons, much bigger than a nuclear-powered submarine. Translating its power equipment to an aircraft carrier is more reliable and realistic than transplanting from a nuclear submarine.

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