Monday, 22 November 2010

Nuclear powered merchant ships on the horizon?

Environmental concerns and long term economic advantages are raising the possibility of nuclear energy being used as the main means of propulsion on cargo ships; the IMO’s increasing thrust on controlling emissions from ships is making technocrats reconsider various business models that will make the idea palatable. Marine and energy consultants BMT Group and Enterprises Shipping and Trading have joined with start-up small reactor firm Hyperion and the Lloyd's Register. They will "investigate the practical maritime applications for small modular reactors," says World Nuclear News, a service supported by the World Nuclear Association and one that covers nuclear power developments.

"We will see nuclear ships on specific trade routes sooner than many people currently anticipate," it quotes Lloyd's Register CEO Richard Sadler as saying. Lloyd's Register has now reportedly redrafted its rules for nuclear ships and submitted the draft to its technical committee. Vince Jenkins of the organisation says, however, "National maritime regulators have little nuclear capability, so land based nuclear regulators will be needed in support. Our nuclear powered ship rules have suggested a framework which may allow nuclear powered shipping to operate”.

Nuclear power for merchant ships was an idea that first surfaced in the late 50’s in the US, where the then 47 million-dollar ‘Savannah’ (see pic) was built with government support. However, she was in service for only ten years, and another nuclear powered ship, the ‘Otto Hahn’ was refitted with diesel engines within nine years. For various reasons, the idea never took off. In recent times, the success of the Russian icebreaker fleet and major Russian initiatives to have floating nuclear power plants around the Arctic has rekindled interest in the possibility of nuclear power for commercial shipping. One obstacle is that High Enriched Uranium, which allows for smaller reactor design, is controlled by the recognised nuclear powers. The alternative, Low Enriched Uranium, makes for bulkier reactors.

Of course, there are other issues, the main one being the lack of acceptability of nuclear power driven merchant ships by Port States. The technical requirements of radiation shielding, crew training and the cost of setting up a nuclear plant on a ship- with additional grounding, collision, fire and such risks- will undoubtedly be other major factors that will have to be considered, even though fuel savings will make the cost worthwhile in the long term. Another advantage: there would also be no need of slow steaming to save on fuel or to control emissions, as is the case today.

The Industry is already reported to be toying with various commercial models using nuclear power and making initial evaluations. It is possible, for example, that two countries agree to use a specific nuclear powered vessel for a port-to-port service. On bulk carriers that are part of a ‘moving pipeline’, large volumes could be moved by fewer and faster ships, thus defraying initial capital costs somewhat.

Another interesting variation of this is the ‘Supertug’ concept, where a nuclear powered tug attaches itself to a conventional ship for the sea voyage, thus saving on fuel costs and making the passage emission free. It then stays in international waters while the ship steams in on her diesel engines into the port, reattaching itself again for the return voyage.

Analysts say that a luxury liner- which has the power demand curve of a small town, would be an ideal ship to use nuclear systems, with conventional diesel generators being used for back up and to handle ‘peak load’. However, this is unlikely to happen in a hurry, given the stiff resistance that will probably be faced from passengers and ports both.

These are early days and the debate on the possibility of nuclear powered merchant ships- a controversial idea, to be sure- is just beginning. One cannot help thinking that this road is likely to be a rough one. Perhaps some countries will promote these ships on their domestic routes first, hopefully after stringent regulation.


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