As China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is gearing up for expansion, it seems to have attached much importance to aircraft carriers. If reports are to be believed, China’s fourth carrier will be a nuclear-powered one.
Beijing is currently focused on enhancing its military capabilities to face US threats in the Asia-Pacific. It is going all out to strengthen the navy to face the challenges in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean Region.
At present, China operates two aircraft carriers and a third one is likely to be launched this year. However, none of them have nuclear capability.
According to the South China Morning Post, PLAN’s upcoming aircraft carrier, currently under construction at Jiangnan Shipyard, will be nuclear-powered.
Nuclear-powered propulsion offers great advantages to a ship’s durability and mission profile. While countries like the UK have rejected the idea of having this system on their ship due to cost issues, the United States and France are currently the only two countries moving nuclear-powered aircraft carrier(s).
The conventional carriers run on oil or coal while the nuclear reactors function via the heat generated by nuclear fission, provided by a nuclear reactor. The power plant heats water to produce steam for a turbine used to turn the ship’s propeller through a gearbox or an electric generator and motor.
Compared to oil or coal-fuelled ships, nuclear propulsion offers the advantages of very long intervals of operation before refueling. All the fuel is contained within the nuclear reactor, so no cargo or supplies space is taken up by fuel, nor is space taken up by exhaust stacks or combustion air intakes.
However, the low-fuel cost is offset by high operating costs and investment in infrastructure, so nearly all nuclear-powered vessels are military.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in operation are 10 American Nimitz-class carriers and one Gerald R. Ford-class carrier, and the Charles De Gaulle of the French Navy.
The South China Morning Post quoted a PLA Navy official saying China has a made a ‘significant breakthrough’ in the construction of its fourth carrier.
“It will be a technological leap for the shipbuilding industry … but construction may take longer than for its sister ship due to the different propulsion systems,” the source said.
Another source told the SCMP that the Central Military Commission was studying a proposal by China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) to use nuclear power for the fourth carrier.
China aims to commission its fourth aircraft carrier by 2025.