A ship that doesn’t need refueling for the next 25 years? While the shipping industry is vividly exploring all of its possible options to reduce emissions, nuclear power is gaining ground in the decarbonization debate. We tell you about the role of nuclear energy in maritime transport thanks to Safety4Sea.
The shipping industry has long realized that climate change is a real challenge. This is reflected, among others, in the IMO’s strategy which aims to reduce carbon emissions from ships by at least 40% by 2030 and make the entire sector net zero by 2050, which has made it a need an alternative source of fuel, while creating problems among shipowners. as to which is the most efficient solution in terms of costs and emissions.
Among the most attractive are carbon-free fuels such as ammonia and hydrogen, or alternative options such as LNG. But committing to one of these options can become a real risk, as future bunkering infrastructure might not be advanced enough to support a ship traveling in all regions of the world, creating significant operational challenges.
Therefore, the lack of adequate infrastructure is a key factor preventing the smooth integration of alternative fuel options, while rising fuel costs lately redirect attention to another possible alternative: nuclear power.
Nuclear power and nuclear powered ship
Nuclear technology uses the energy released by splitting the atoms of certain elements. As a result, nuclear power provides about 10% of the world’s total electricity and about 30% of the world’s low-carbon electricity. It is also the world’s second-largest source of low-carbon energy, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Nuclear power in shipping is nothing new, as the technology has been used to power ships and submarines for at least 7 decades. However, the technology was not developed commercially due to the high operating costs and stigma surrounding nuclear power in the 20th century.
To suit the needs of the shipping industry, Mikal Bøe, CEO of Core Power UK Ltd told the North P&I Club, nuclear technology must meet three important criteria:
- a lifetime fuel reactor system,
- a reactor system that remains safe in the event of an accident at sea, and
- a system that is simple and small enough for mass manufacturing
A new type of nuclear-powered ship, using the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR), is currently under development and meets these standards, Bøe said.
Nuclear ship MSR technology: pros and cons
In general terms, the advantages of MSR technology on a ship include:
- higher speed compared to conventional boats
- no need to stop to refuel
- not subject to carbon prices
- higher load capacity
- Nuclear power has proven to be significantly powerful at breaking ice as well, which is why nuclear-powered icebreakers have been operating in the Russian (and formerly Soviet) Arctic for decades.
The main disadvantage of MSR for shipping is the immature technology and regulatory framework. However, administrations such as the UK have officially included the nuclear ship in their future strategies, leaving an open field for faster development of the respective legislation, Mr Bøe noted.
In addition, the high costs of installing and operating a nuclear reactor have been key factors against the adoption of this option among shipowners. This is the reason why most of the nuclear ships currently in operation are military.
On the other hand, the fact that nuclear-powered vessels have a priori fixed energy cost for their entire commercial life (since they do not need refueling) is an important advantage for long-term charter contracts (COA) and charters, Edmund Hughes, Ph.D., of Green Marine Associates told the North Club.
Safety and nuclear powered ship
Safety is a big concern when it comes to nuclear power technologies, but the MSR’s passive safety features make it a tailor-made solution for the maritime sector, Bøe said.
However, unlike the conventional naval pressurized water reactor (PWR), MSR technology changes the narrative, providing the flexibility of zero refueling and zero pollution. Therefore, the current panorama for the nuclear-powered ship is shaped by the dipole, on the one hand, of low fuel costs and zero environmental footprint, and on the other hand, of high operating costs and the public stigma associated with the conventional nuclear energy and technology.
Meanwhile, training and regulation remain two important factors in the nuclear ship debate. Training is nothing new, as crews serving aboard gas carriers are already undergoing special training for this type of ship, Bøe argued.
However, regulation remains immature. The current regulatory framework, including IMO Resolution A.491 (XII) ‘Safety Code for Nuclear Merchant Ships’, needs to be reviewed to ensure risks from advanced nuclear technologies are appropriately and proportionately mitigated, Hughes suggested.
“The biggest risk remains to do nothing, as it would create a barrier to the deployment of these advanced nuclear technologies.”