Type 095 - High Temperature Gas-cooled Reactor (HTGR)?
Construction began on the Qinshan 2 nuclear power plant in 1996 (with French assistance), Qinshan 3 in 1998 (Canadian), and Ling Ao in 1995 (French). The Yinbin Fuel Plant was upgraded by the French in 1994, and from 1994 to 1996, Westinghouse made the plans for the AP600 (its most advanced civilian nuclear power plant) available for the Chinese to study.
Given the technology transfer from the West for civilian power reactors, it is at least possible that China has developed a submarine-compatible high temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR). This possibility is worth considering for several reasons. The first is that, if successful, a HTGR would allow for a much lighter power plant. A HTGR is twice as efficient as a PWR so it would require a substantially smaller core for the same power output. It is also cooled by helium at a relatively low pressure instead of by high-pressure water. This reduces the weight not only of the coolant but also of the piping. The reduced weight would potentially allow the submarine to be faster and smaller.
The second reason is that the Chinese have stated that their goal in designing weapons is to use the latest technology to leap ahead. Developing a unique reactor system would be a dramatic example of this policy. The research on HTGR in China started in the 1970s, before a substantial amount of development in the civilian nuclear power industry began; this tends to indicate that some type of military use was envisioned.
The technical difficulties that would have to be overcome with the blowers (i.e. the need for magnetic bearings) and the fuel loading system to make a HTGR compatible with a submarine are formidable. This makes the probability of the 093 being equipped with a HTGR small. Nevertheless, it should be taken into consideration that if not the 093, then a future Chinese submarine could have a reactor of this type. Such a vessel could take a form that would represent a significant departure from current nuclear submarines that are designed for open ocean long endurance operations.
Chinese strategy for the near and medium term appears to be focused on pushing its defenses out to the first island chain, which includes Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. This will require more shallow water access denial platforms, instead of long-range open ocean submarines. A small submarine, similar to a diesel electric submarine but equipped with a small HTGR to recharge the batteries, would be an ideal sea denial platform. It could stay submerged for extended periods of time while lying in wait for a passing ship. This submarine could have technology currently available from the recently purchased Kilo-class submarines for the batteries and propulsion while using a reactor on the scale of the HTR 10 (2500 KW generator). The reactor would have to be quiet, but a HTGR equipped with an integral gas turbine/blower outfitted with magnetic bearings could – in fact – be designed to be very quiet.
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