Posted on Oct 17, 2023 at 09:10 PM
Recent developments in the maritime industry suggest that nuclear fuel is emerging as a viable option to power commercial ships as technology advances. This comes at a critical time, as the shipping sector currently contributes nearly 3% of global CO2 emissions, prompting investors and environmentalists to press for cleaner alternatives. While ammonia, methanol, and wind power have been explored, nuclear energy is now gaining traction as a potential solution.
Historically, nuclear energy has been harnessed to power icebreakers and military submarines. However, its application to merchant ships has been constrained by financial constraints and insurers' reluctance to cover vessels entering commercial ports without a comprehensive understanding of associated risks.
Moreover, a major discussion was opened regarding the additional training of seafarers towards equipping this vital labour force with knowledge & proficiency to deal with such sensitive new propulsion and power-generating technology onboard merchant vessels.
In contrast to past years, a recent survey by the International Chamber of Shipping Association indicates a growing interest in nuclear fuel. The possibility of nuclear-powered commercial ships becoming a reality within the next decade is now on the horizon.
The key to this transformation lies in developing small, mass-produced reactors that require less nuclear fuel and generate lower power than conventional facilities. Fincantieri, an Italian shipbuilder, has taken note of this shift and expressed interest in tracking the progress of modular nuclear reactors. These reactors have the potential to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of vessels within their primary business scope, including warships, cruise ships, and specialised containers.
RINA, a prominent Italian-based ship certification organisation, is also delving into nuclear fuel research. Collaborating with Fincantieri and an atomic technology company, they are conducting a feasibility study to understand the viability of nuclear power in the maritime sector.
Given their substantial power requirements, the Chief Executive of RINA envisions that the container ship industry is one of the transportation markets most likely to adopt nuclear fuel. However, practical production is still approximately seven to ten years away.
Public safety is one of the foremost concerns regarding integrating nuclear power into commercial shipping. Concerns about radiation leaks and collision-related explosions have cast a shadow over public perception of this technology.
Small ship reactors present inherent risks, including radiation exposure, shipboard installation procedures, ownership challenges, safety protocols, and heightened maritime security measures.
In the United Kingdom, CORE POWER is pioneering the development of a prototype for an advanced molten salt nuclear reactor that operates on liquid fuel instead of solid fuel. This strategy minimises the likelihood of coolant loss incidents, a frequent issue in traditional atomic reactors.
Mikal Boe, the CEO of CORE POWER, anticipates unveiling their prototype by 2032 or 2035. He underscores that nuclear energy is essential to the solution if we transition to a clean, green future.
The maritime sector faces a crucial juncture where it must consider public opinion and address nuclear fuel concerns comprehensively to ensure a sustainable shipping industry. This involves reducing emissions, promoting responsible risk assessments, and fostering technological advancements.
Today, the maritime industry is fervently pursuing zero-emission fuels, with ammonia leading the decarbonisation narrative. However, challenges such as scalable production, safety measures, and infrastructure financing remain on the horizon. The emergence of nuclear power as a potential alternative underscores the industry's commitment to a greener future.