A team of Beijing-based researchers has designed the concept for a small, inexpensive nuclear reactor to power a swarm of unmanned underwater vehicles or torpedoes, the South China Morning Post reported.

The disposable nuclear reactor can be fitted to torpedo tubes in large numbers and launched from ships and submarines for a range of tasks such as reconnaissance, tracking, and nuclear and conventional strikes.

Switches to Battery After 200 Hours

The reactor-powered torpedo could cruise at a speed of over 30 knots (56 kilometers/35 miles per hour) for up to 200 hours “before dumping the reactor to the seabed and drawing power from a battery to launch an attack with conventional weapons,” the outlet wrote.

The reactor would automatically separate from the torpedo once it is spent and sink to the sea bottom, “activating a safety mechanism to kill the remaining chain reaction.”

“Even if the hull is broken, the interior is filled with water, and the whole body falls into the wet sand on the seabed, the reactor will not have a critical accident. Safety is ensured,” the outlet explained.

More Flexible Than Russian Poseidon

Compared to the under-construction Russian nuclear-powered Poseidon drone, the Chinese reactor’s flexible design allows the torpedo to launch both conventional and nuclear strikes, making it operationally more useful, according to the outlet.

“Thanks to its high flexibility and low cost, this unmanned underwater vehicle equipped with the nuclear power system can be used as a conventional force like an attack nuclear submarine, rather than as a nuclear missile,” the China Institute of Atomic Energy’s Guo Jian wrote in the Journal of Unmanned Undersea Systems.

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Low-Cost Design

To keep the reactor’s production cost low, the design proposes removing most of the shielding material, “protecting only some critical components from radiation,” the outlet wrote, adding that the expensive rare earth element coatings inside the reactor core are replaced with cheaper materials such as graphite.

Moreover, it also suggests replacing the reactor’s expensive military-grade materials with commercially-available components. 

“The reactor, as heavy as two average Chinese adult males, would generate more than 1.4 megawatts of heat with less than 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds) of low-concentration uranium fuel.”