A report from the US Clean Air Task Force (CATF) has found that that nuclear-derived zero-carbon fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia could play a key role in decarbonising the global marine shipping sector, and offers policy recommendations for how the US could lead the global transition away from high-polluting shipping fuels.

In 2018, the international shipping industry accounted for 2.6% of the world’s CO2 emissions—more than the international aviation sector, the report notes. “The international shipping community recognises the need for change and, in lieu of regulations, the International Maritime Organisation and private actors are driving maritime fleets to modernise and improve fuel efficiency and cost competitiveness. However, if this sector continues to grow as projected and continues to rely primarily on fossil fuels, sector-wide emissions will triple by 2050.”

Efficiency gains will help, but are not enough. “The bottom line is that the maritime sector needs to decarbonise and is under pressure from global organisations and consumers to do so. Ultimately, eliminating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the global marine shipping sector will require widespread fuel switching, or transitions from conventional fuels to zero-carbon fuels (ZCFs).”

The 31-page report says the ZCF supply chain in the marine sector presents a classic dilemma with users desiring fuel supplies that are practical and affordable, but suppliers unlikely to produce and distribute fuels at scale in advance of market demand. “Low-carbon hydrogen produced from renewable electricity, fossil fuels with carbon capture, and nuclear energy can be used to make ZCFs that can play an important role in resolving this dilemma.”

Hydrogen-based ZCFs produced from nuclear energy have technical and economic advantages, compared with to other zero-carbon options. Future long-distance shipping reliant on ZCFs would complement hydrogen derived from nuclear energy for many reasons such as the current reliance on a small number of concentrated fuelling hubs, the energy density of nuclear technology, the firm and available nature of nuclear energy and the availability of high temperature steam.

According to the report, US maritime policy and regulation offers a mechanism to help invest in the sector by incentivising needed ship-board technologies, fuel switching, and near-term carbon reduction. In addition, the US could scale up the domestic production of clean hydrogen and ammonia through under-utilised nuclear energy, much of which is accessible by coastal and navigable waterways. “Taken together, US maritime policy and under-utilised nuclear infrastructure could foster development and initial deployment of a nuclear energy derived hydrogen-based ZCF supply chain for maritime shipping.”

Sufficient investment and exploration of these opportunities would also create innovation “which can be applied across the global shipping industry and solidify US leadership”.

The report offers the following policy recommendations:

  • Increase research, development, and deployment of a broader set of key ZCF production and end-use technologies;
  • Establish tax credits for ZCF production;
  • Underwrite development of nuclear-powered ZCF hubs;
  • Incentivise new vessel construction to use ZCFs;
  • Direct the US Maritime Administration to explore mechanisms for supporting US ZCF;
  • Increase support of nuclear energy derived hydrogen-based ZCF demonstrations, with focused projects on maritime fuel demonstration, through existing Department of Energy programmes;
  • Incentivise ZCF use for the current US domestic maritime fleet;
  • Develop incentives to lower emissions for vessels visiting US ports;
  • Build ZCF Vessel Requirements (for New Builds) into Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Leasing Conditions for Offshore Wind.
  • Allow marine ZCFs to generate credits in existing and prospective clean fuel standards;
  • Extend fuel standards to inland vessels; and
  • Promote technology inclusivity in any policies supporting the deployment of hydrogen-based ZCFs