Nuclear Power for Tanker Propulsion – A 'Work in Progress'

By George Backwell at November 29, 2010 02:55
Filed Under: General

"We believe that as society recognises the limited choices available in the low carbon, oil scarce economy...  we will see nuclear ships on specific trade routes sooner than many currently anticipate." This prediction came from CEO Richard Sadler of British classification society Lloyd's Register as he announced membership of a new 'think tank' on 15, November 2010.

Lloyd's Strategic Research Group has joined hands with a research consortium that aims to produce a practical concept design tanker fuelled by a 70 MW nuclear reactor, setting itself a two-year time-frame for the project. Other members are US-based Hyperion Power Generation, who are expert in small modular nuclear reactor technology; innovative British ship design group BMT; and Greek shipping conglomerate, Enterprises Shipping and Trading S.A.

The consortium chose a tanker design for its initial project as nuclear power appears suited best for large deadweight vessels that are at sea for much of their time, but whether steam turbine or turbo-electric propulsion will be preferred in the tanker design remains to be seen.

Present-day concerns about nuclear fuel safety may be somewhat exaggerated, resulting in limited port access to nuclear powered ships. A World Nuclear Association article online, 'Nuclear-Powered Ships'‚ (updated 19, November 2010) points out though, that nowadays some 140 ships (warships and ice-breakers) are powered by more than 180 small nuclear reactors, resulting in over 12,000 reactor years of accumulated experience. Thus the nuclear fuelled ship now comes with a fairly long and honorable pedigree guaranteeing low fuel costs, zero emissions, plus a high power-to-weight ratio. Additionally the small nuclear reactor would leave the factory with a 10-year life expectancy.

Critics of nuclear powered merchant ships point back to the world's first, the N.S. Savannah (launched in 1959 and laid up in 1971), as not having proven commercially viable. However, as can be seen from the photograph, she was built as an exhibition ship, with sweeping lines, and quite luxurious passenger amenities not to be found on a conventional dry cargo ship. Cargo stowage was always difficult in hold space defined by lines of such elegance.

President Eisenhower defined N.S. Savannah's  purpose as: "Visiting ports of the world, it [N.S. Savannah] will demonstrate to people everywhere this peacetime use of atomic energy, harnessed for the improvement of human living..." (April 25, 1955)

No doubt the tanker design prototype intended by the new cosortium will have a far more pragmatic and commercial purpose in mind.

Comments (5) -

As a retired naval officer, I am a proponent of nuclear power. I do, however, have some reservations as to its viability in commercial applications due to the considerable manpower requirements necessary for safe operations. Crack that nut and I'll be sold!

Michael Kerins |     11/30/2010 12:41:23 PM #

Having served as chief mate for 2 years aboard a 400,000 DWT ULCC and 30 years as a Naval reserve officer I am well aware of the potential of nuclear power for large tanker propulsion.

Engineering will not be the limiting factor.  

As Michale said manpower requirements will be significant not only in number but quality for both deck and engine.  

However even more significant will be liability issues.

Will new nuclear ships be government owned?
The N.S. Savannah's was/is owned by the US Government.  The US Gov. is  still paying for the cost of layup and security and will be for the next thousand years or more.

Who will pay for 1000 year plus layup costs when the vessels useful life (20-40 years is over?  Think life cycle issues.
Or, is the idea to sink them in the deep ocean when the useful life is over?

If there is an accident and a nuclear release what underwriter will assume that risk?

Will the operator be able to flag out the vessel so that the owner (traced to a phone booth in on an island) walks and impoverished developing county or the country impacted is responsible for the clean up?

Refueling and the disposal of spent fuel can be a very costly issue and raises other liabilities.

Will ports allow nuclear powered vessels in their harbors/waters even for innocent passage?  This was an issue with the NS Savannah and is currently an issue with nuclear naval vessels (New Zealand's Nuclear free Zone legislation) that have far more security than a merchant ship.

What an excellent terrorist target!

Richard D. Stewart |     11/30/2010 1:49:06 PM #

I would suspect that there would be many challenges besides the commercial cost of crewing the vessel. For example, security. I don't recall the ISPS code mentioning anything about nuclear propulsion. I would think that terrorists and pirates would have a new best target. It seems that most countries would balk at a nuclear commercial vessels arriving at their country. The upside would be the Steward would be able to irradiate the perishibles so the crew could have "fresh greens" around longer.

Sterling Camp |     11/30/2010 2:03:16 PM #

Mr Richard Sadler is the CEO of Lloyd's Register and he states "..blah blah....oil scarce economy...  we will see nuclear ships on specific trade routes blah blah blah.." and later "The consortium chose a tanker design ..... tanker design remains to be seen". Now As Mr.Sadler is a Naval Arcitect and CEO of a leading Classification, so he is stating scarcity of Oil in the first place, and so also, he ironically authorised the consortium to choose a Tanker, knowing in full that Tankers carry Oil!!. Richard Sadler is not only contradicting what he is saying in the first place but also made a fool of himself and the prestigious classification society...Mr.Richard Sadler, have you heard the word 'common Sense' ???

Schwzik |     11/30/2010 3:46:27 PM #

The consortium will spend million pounds in the research into the Tanker design only to find at a later date that there is no oil [or oil broducts] to carry....

Schwzik |     11/30/2010 3:48:50 PM #

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