Key point: The idea of using Russian technical data and nuclear know-how certainly makes sense from the perspective of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
It appears that China is relying on Russian know-how and experience to develop the reactor for its first nuclear aircraft carrier. As the South China Morning Post reports, China appears to be studying the nuclear reactors on Russia’s largest icebreakers, an approach that the Soviet Union also took when it planned to build nuclear carriers in the 1980s. Specifically, Russia has invited China to bid on the construction of a new class of nuclear icebreaker, necessarily requiring the development of surface-ship based reactors. This approach stands in contrast to how the United States and France developed nuclear reactors for their largest carriers, but probably represents the best choice for China at this point.
To appreciate what’s at stake in China’s pursuit of nuclear-powered surface warships, it’s important to review the experience of the United States and the USSR. After the successful development of the USS Nautilus and the Skate class nuclear attack submarines (as well as the merchant ship NS Savannah) provided proof-of-concept regarding nuclear propulsion, the USN began to evaluate nuclear power for surface warships. The first USN nuclear surface warship was the cruiser USS Long Beach, commissioned in 1961. Long Beach was powered by 2 C1WS reactors, generating around 120 MW, enough power to produce a speed of 30 knots for the 17,000-ton cruiser hull. The USN rapidly followed up with USS Enterprise, powered by 8 A2W reactors, each quite similar in construction and output to the C1W. Those reactors generated 120 MW each, translating to 280,000 SHP, driving the 100,000-ton Enterprise at up to 33 knots.