While nuclear power has the potential to offer a decarbonization alternative for shipping, the technical, economic, and regulatory challenges associated with its use have limited its widespread adoption.
owever, the last eight months have seen a growing interest and progression in both offshore and shipping projects for nuclear power. What are the latest developments in shipping nuclear?
Safety and regulatory concerns, combined with public stigma, have established nuclear-powered ships as a less attractive option for shipping decarbonization. This is why other alternative fuels such as hydrogen, ammonia, and biofuels are being explored as potential solutions, in a bid to address the need for shipping to reduce its carbon footprint. But as technology advances and the decarbonization game is becoming more challenging, shipping is exploring more alternative ways to embrace innovation.
Small nuclear power reactors: An alternative role of nuclear power in shipping
Small modular reactors (defined by the World Nuclear Association as nuclear reactors generally 300 MWe equivalent or less) are closer to technical and economic feasibility for green shipping, according to Lloyd’s Register. This interest in small and medium nuclear power reactors is driven both by a desire to reduce the impact of capital costs and to provide power away from large grid systems.
For the maritime industry, floating nuclear power sources (also known as small modular reactors or SMRs) could be used to recharge battery-powered vessels when they are away from infrastructure. For example, a major hurdle to shipping electrification is the lack of appropriate infrastructure. Ships require a significant amount of energy to operate and this is a problem when battery-powered vessels are far from a suitable land-based bunkering option.
In this respect, a floating nuclear power plant could potentially provide a reliable, long-term power source for a vessel. These sources are small nuclear power plants that can be placed on a barge or other watercraft and towed to different locations as needed. A key advantage of a floating nuclear power source is that it is designed to be self-contained and requires minimal infrastructure to operate. This makes it a potential solution for remote or off-grid locations that require power.
3 benefits of SMRs application in shipping
- Lower emissions: While most ships use HFO or marine diesel to operate, SMRs use nuclear fission to generate electricity. This results in zero carbon emissions and could make SMRs a particularly attractive option for shipping companies looking to reduce their carbon footprint.
- Energy efficiency: Compared to traditional fossil fuel-based power systems, SMRs can generate the same amount of power with less fuel, reducing the overall cost of running a ship. Additionally, SMRs can operate for longer periods of time without the need for refueling, which can reduce a ship’s stay in port.
- Improved safety: SMRs are built to withstand extreme weather conditions and other challenges that ships may encounter when at open sea. Additionally, as SMRs are self-contained units, they do not require the transportation or storage of large amounts of fuel, which can reduce the risk of accidents and spills. This could make them a particularly attractive option for shipping companies operating in sensitive or remote areas.
Building on these, Norwegian shipbuilder Ulstein has created a concept for a vessel that houses a small nuclear reactor, providing power to battery-driven vessels. This aims to help these vessels to operate in areas where there are limited options for bunkering, such as polar regions.
Except for providing a zero-emission option for shipping, the vessel, named Thor, could serve as an emergency power supply for regions hit by natural disasters, epidemics, or conflicts.
Shipping nuclear and regulation: The way forward
It is often said that regulation must keep up with constant innovation and technology advancement, in order to ensure safety. Although SOLAS Chapter VIII provides a global basic framework for applying nuclear technology in shipping, it was written at a time when only pressurized water reactors were considered, Mark Tipping Global Offshore Power-to-X Segment Leader from Lloyd’s Register says.
However, today is seeing the addition of molten salt, heat pipe and nuclear batteries as also viable options for nuclear power, which means that the regulatory framework needs an update to include these developments.
The nuclear power alternative is showing potential as studies show that widespread adoption of zero-emission fuels is still away for shipping. However, the adoption of SMRs in the shipping industry will require a careful balance between safety, regulation, public perception, and economic viability. While there are regulatory obstacles to overcome, the potential benefits of SMRs could make them an attractive option for shipping to reduce its environmental footprint.
Did you know?
Nuclear power has been considered a potential source of propulsion for shipping for several decades, primarily for large vessels such as cargo ships, tankers, and cruise ships. The idea of using nuclear power for shipping emerged during the 1950s with the introduction of the first nuclear-powered submarines.
While the use of nuclear power in the shipping industry has been limited, there have been some notable examples of nuclear-powered ships. The first nuclear-powered cargo ship, the NS Savannah, was launched in 1959 by the United States. It was designed to showcase the potential of nuclear propulsion for commercial shipping, but the high cost of nuclear technology, along with concerns over nuclear safety and proliferation, prevented further development of nuclear-powered cargo ships.