Studies investigate potential of nuclear shipping

27 July 2023

The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) has commissioned US-based Herbert Engineering Corp (HEC) to investigate the potential of advanced modern reactor technology for commercial marine propulsion. At the same time, UK-based start-up nuclear technology company newcleo has signed an agreement with Italy-based shipbuilder Fincantieri and certification multinational RINA, also based in Italy, to jointly study nuclear applications to the shipping industry.

Under the study for ABS, HEC modelled the impact of nuclear propulsion on the design, operation and emissions of a 14,000 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) container vessel and a 157,000 DWT (deadweight tonnage) Suezmax tanker. The study explores the feasibility and safety implications of nuclear propulsion with the aim of supporting future development projects.

It involved input from leading nuclear reactor developers to model the impact of two, lead-cooled, 30 MW fast reactors on the container carrier. The results suggested that it would likely increase cargo capacity and operational speed, while eliminating the need for refuelling during its entire 25-year lifespan. On the Suezmax vessel, the study found the addition of four, 5 MW, heat-pipe microreactors would decreasing cargo capacity, increase operational speeds and only require refuelling once during its 25-year life. Both concept vessels would emit zero CO2.

“Our findings from this latest cutting-edge research underscore why the industry cannot afford to ignore the vast potential offered by nuclear propulsion both in terms of emissions reduction and operational efficiency,” said ABS Chairman & CEO Christopher J Wiernicki. “A net-zero world is more easily realised through nuclear propulsion, and we are putting in place the foundations for that future today. Turning this into a practical reality will require significant public sector support and ABS is well placed to bring governments and industry together.” He added that advanced or small modular reactors (AMRs/SMRs) “address many of the issues traditionally associated with nuclear for commercial maritime use, with enhanced safety and efficiency, reduced cost and waste and proliferation prevention”. However, many questions still need to be answered “and it is critical that industry evaluate these technologies with a laser focus on safety”.

Robert Tagg, Senior Principal Naval Architect at HEC said the company is pleased to explore the practical application of nuclear power on board ships. “This study is helping us to understand in detail both the potential of modern reactor technology and how this will affect the design and operation of future vessels,” he noted.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded ABS a contract to research barriers to the adoption of advanced nuclear propulsion on commercial vessels. DOE has also contracted ABS to support research into thermal-electric integration of a nuclear propulsion system on a commercial vessel being carried out by the University of Texas.

Meanwhile newcleo, which is developing lead-cooled fast nuclear reactor (LFR) designs and plants to manufacture fuel from nuclear waste, will co-operate with Fincantieri, one of the world’s biggest shipbuilding companies and RINA, which focuses on inspection, certification, ship classification and consulting engineering.

Under the terms of the agreement, the three companies will carry out a feasibility study for nuclear applications to the shipping industry, including newcleo’s LFR technology. This could involve placing a closed mini reactor on vessels as a small nuclear battery producing a 30 MWe. Newcleo says it would require refuelling only once every 10-15 years, very limited maintenance and easy replacement at the end of its life.

It would also reduce carbon emissions. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) recently approved new targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction, to reach net-zero around 2050.

Also, using nuclear power on ships would safeguard the marine ecosystem in the event of an accident, newcleo says, citing the safety of its reactor design. “The liquid lead inside the reactor would solidify as it cools down in contact with the cold water, enclosing the reactor core in a solid casing, and containing all radiation thanks to the shielding properties of lead, the company claims.

Finally, the newcleo naval propulsion reactors would eliminate the current need for frequent refuelling, and at the end of its life, the whole LFR unit would be simply removed and replaced with a new one in the ship. The spent unit would be taken away for decommissioning and reprocessing.

Newcleo Chairman & CEO Stefano Buono noted that Fincantieri and RINA “are two global leaders in the shipping sector, and combining their expertise with our technology innovation can bring a real solution to the issue of carbon emissions in maritime transport”.

Fincantieri’s vocation is “to be a pioneer and catalyst for progress in the maritime sector with cutting-edge, efficient and sustainable technologies”, according to CEO & General Manager Pierroberto Folgiero. “Indeed, the agreement allows us to explore the possibility of adding a new and visionary solution among those at our disposal to achieve the ambitious decarbonisation goals the industry has set for itself. Nuclear power holds enormous potential and, as such, it needs the best expertise to be expressed.”

Ugo Salerno, Chairman & CEO of RINA said: “The improvement of fuel efficiency and vessel design is already giving good results in reducing shipping footprint. But, in order to reach the targets fixed for this industry, we need alternative fuels with low carbon content from well to waste. Nuclear will be one of the answers to these objectives. In addition, small modular reactors will be the most efficient solution to apply nuclear to shipping.”

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