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Shipping Might Be About To Go Nuclear
Atomic cargo ships could save billions of tonnes of carbon emissions.
Our modern global economy deeply depends on the shipping industry. The device you are reading this on, the clothes you are wearing and even the food you eat has most likely been on one of these gargantuan, heavily laden vessels. This is a massive problem to overcome as we transition towards net-zero, as shipping currently accounts for just over 3% of global emissions and is proving incredibly difficult to decarbonise. But we have had carbon-neutral ships since the 50s thanks to miniaturised nuclear reactors. I mean, most of the large military ships within NATO are nuclear-powered. Yet, the shipping industry has doggedly avoided this energy source and instead relied entirely on filthy fossil fuels. But all of that might soon change.
Let’s start with why shipping is so damn hard to decarbonise. Most transport can use alternative low-carbon energy sources like carbon-neutral biofuel, green hydrogen, or battery electric. Yet none of these are applicable for shipping. Batteries can’t store enough energy and are too heavy for these types of vessels. While hydrogen doesn’t have these issues, it is far too expensive, and the refuelling infrastructure doesn’t exist yet, making it near impossible to use. You might think low-carbon or carbon-neutral biofuel is a suitable alternative, but the sheer volume of fuel required would drive an insane amount of deforestation, and again, it would cost far too much.
As such, the shipping industry has turned to increasing fuel efficiency rather than adopting new propulsion technology in order to meet emissions targets. But that approach can only go so far, and soon it will be impossible for these vessels to meet the increasingly tight targets.
But nuclear power has none of these drawbacks, as shown by a recent study by Herbert Engineering Corp on behalf of ABS. They found that a 14,000 TEU ship (a measurement of how much cargo a ship can carry) could go its entire 25-year lifespan without refuelling if it was powered by nuclear power. Not only does this mean a nuclear-powered cargo ship would be practical to use, as refuelling nuclear reactors on vessels can be expensive and hazardous, but it also means that its operation could be affordable, as you only need to buy fuel once.
But to make nuclear power usable like this, Herbert Engineering Corp couldn’t just use any old nuclear reactor. You see, typical reactors need refuelling every 18 months or two years and produce a lot of nuclear waste (though not as much as you’d think). This makes them wholly unsuitable for cargo ships. Ordinary ports can’t deal with removing and processing nuclear waste or refuelling new nuclear fuel, so these vessels would have to travel to specific specialised ports (which would need to be built) each time they needed refuelling. This means these nuclear-powered vessels might have to take months-long detours to refuel, which would significantly increase the ship’s operational costs to the point of being unviable.
To solve this, Herbert Engineering Corp turned to a particular type of reactor known as a fast reactor. Regular nuclear reactors use 5% enriched uranium fuel, meaning 5% of the uranium is the isotope U235, while the rest is mostly U238. These reactors can only extract energy from the U235. Meanwhile, the U238 remains mostly untouched. A fast reactor uses the same fuel but creates higher energy neutrons, which transform the U238 into plutonium 239. These reactors then use this plutonium 239 as their fuel source to make energy, allowing them to use close to 100% of the fuel. This process means fast reactors can extract much more energy per kg of nuclear fuel than regular nuclear power, enabling them to run for decades without being refuelled. As a bonus, the nuclear waste fast reactors produce is far less radioactive and far less toxic than regular nuclear reactors. This makes these ships’ end-of-life process (i.e. scrapping) much less hazardous and cheaper.
All of this means that fast reactor-powered cargo ships could be a genuinely viable way to decarbonise this industry.
But there is a problem. Fast reactors have been in development for years but have yet to see any real commercial success, meaning the shipping industry would find it near impossible to source the reactors they would need. There are a few massive hurdles in the way of this technology. One of the big ones is that it takes many years for new nuclear technology to make it to market, as they have to be assessed, create protocols around them and pass insanely strict safety standards. Sadly, while fast reactor technology has been around since the 60s, there have only been serious efforts to commercialise it over the past decade and a bit, meaning we are still years away from commercial fast reactors.
But they might not be that far away. A UK-based nuclear company Newcleo is developing a small lead-cooled 30MW fast reactor; in fact, the Herbert Engineering Corp study actually used this as the basis for their calculations, with their hypothetical nuclear ship using two of these reactors as a power source. Unlike a lot of other fast reactor developers, Newcleo has some serious backers. They have already signed an agreement with Fincantieri, one of the largest shipbuilders in the world, to supply them with reactors. They are also very close with RINA, the inspection, certification, ship classification and consulting engineering body for the marine industry. This backing can help them fast-track development, develop new protocols at super speed and pass safety regulations in no time at all (for the nuclear industry, anyway).
Now, lead-cooled fast reactors that are small enough to fit on a cargo ship are on the bleeding edge of nuclear technology. Even nuclear submarines don’t use such advanced reactors. So, as with all technology that pushes the limits, there may be some hiccups along the road. Newcleo is targeting to deploy a land-based version of their lead-cooled fast reactor by 2030, so if all goes well, we can expect an ocean-going version to be ready by the mid-2030s and maybe even full-scale production of it by the 2040s, which is just in time to help the shipping industry meet net-zero by 2050. But, for Newcleo to go through the arduous effort of developing and scaling production like this, it needs to know from the get-go that the shipping industry will approve the use of nuclear power.
But getting such an industry-wide approval is difficult, as nuclear power is still a contentious idea for many. For example, some countries like New Zealand have a permanent ban on nuclear vessels entering their ports, which would need to be overturned. There is also a multitude of unfounded safety and international security concerns from port-side communities and governments alike that need to be quelled. So it might be several years before companies like Newcleo to get the go-ahead, and by then, it might be too late.
Fast reactor nuclear cargo ships would be amazing, and if the shipping industry could adopt this technology across the board, it would be a significant leap towards net-zero. But, due to nuclear power’s undeserved bad reputation and the international nature of the shipping industry, it might never meet this fantastic potential. But here’s hoping studies like this can convince the right people otherwise and beckon on a new age of carbon-neutral sailing.
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