Forbes Clean Beta Advises “Forget Fukushima”. Think about nuclear ships.

William Pentland at Forbes Clean Beta has an interesting take on a recently released Congressional Budget Office report titled The Cost-Effectiveness of Nuclear Power for Navy Surface Ships. Though he makes it clear that the CBO’s report only supports an economic argument for nuclear powered ships under certain oil price scenarios, he points out that there are other reasons for building naval vessels that consume uranium instead of fuel oil. Here is his concluding thought:

Regardless of what happens with oil prices, the non-economic case for supporting nuclear-powered naval ships is strong, especially if the Fukushima meltdown closes the door on near-term expansion of U.S. nuclear power.

A long-term U.S. Navy procurement plan for nuclear-powered vessels would not only provide a steady source of funding for innovation, it would train a new generation of U.S. nuclear engineers and sustain the domestic supply chain that supports nuclear energy. The U.S. Navy trains massive numbers of power engineers. So do U.S. maritime academies like Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Maine.


If you have been not been reading Atomic Insights for very long, you might not know that I started this publication at a time when I was trying to leverage a bit of my nuclear propulsion experience into a company that would design a simplified atomic engine that could push commercial ships, power remote locations and provide heat and electricity to isolated mines or manufacturing facilities.

After not succeeding (yet) I was recalled to active duty in the Navy and spent almost a decade in various analytical and financial assignments on Navy headquarters staffs in Washington, DC. I had some personal involvement with the efforts during the past 10 years to determine if the Navy should rethink its 1990s era decision to abandon nuclear power as “too expensive” for all ships except aircraft carriers and submarines.

I thought I might add something useful to the active discussion at Forbes and thought you might enjoy reading it here as well. (I am never sure when comments might or might not appear on moderated blogs. Besides, I like to repurpose my efforts because I am fundamentally a very lazy man.)

@William – One of the best reasons for investing in building nuclear powered naval vessels is that they can perform their mission even if there is active effort by the opponent to impede the flow of fuel to the fleet. That is a hard measure of effectiveness to quantify and defend, so the analysts working on the studies tend to avoid using it. Instead they end up relying on a purely numbers driven cost argument. As a former submarine officer who has devoured a number of books about WWII submarine operations, I know how effective it can be to interdict tankers when fighting against a fuel dependent fleet.

If our nation’s goal is to enhance access to clean energy resources by expanding commercial nuclear energy capabilities, buying nuclear powered navy ships is a really expensive and slow method of achieving the goal. That statement does not have to be true, but unless someone tells Naval Reactors to learn to share their information, most of what gets learned in building, operating, and repairing navy ships is locked up tighter than almost all other national secrets.

That is a shame because power systems built for navy ships are directly applicable to other ships that also currently burn oil. Imagine if the Air Force had decided in the early 1950s that it would protect jet engine secrets. We would still be flying in piston engine planes.

(Aside: I would recommend some reduction in certain shock and silencing criteria and a modification of the fuel cycle to one that is not aimed at lasting the life of a warship.)

As gwkimball pointed out, Rickover and his team helped to build the Shippingport and to develop the very early nuclear power industry. Then, supposedly out of Cold War era concerns arising from a visit to Russia’s icebreaker fleet, Rickover imposed a tight reign on all information associated with his system of training people, designing, building, operating, and maintaining equipment. That protective shell exists today, strengthened by years of bureaucratic habit and layers of rules.

Around the world, large ocean going ships consume roughly 6% of the world’s oil production. Because they often burn high sulfur fuels, they produce about 50% of the global emissions of sulfur dioxide. Carrying enough fuel for rapid transit of large oceans takes up a tremendous amount of space and weight that could be devoted to carrying cargo. Burning distillate fuel oil in what is essentially a “baseload” power plant is also a very expensive proposition compared to consuming commercial nuclear fuel.

For those reasons, ships are often designed to operate at a relatively slow speed of 15-20 knots, which inhibits their potential productivity. However, doubling a ship’s speed requires consuming 8 times as much fuel per hour, so it means 4 times as much fuel per mile.

There is no country in the world that comes even close to the United States when it comes to experience in designing, building, operating and maintaining nuclear power plants at sea. Allowing significant sharing between the navy program and the commercial world would give us an immediate, multi-lap advantage over all other competitors in a world wide market for commercial shipping using nuclear instead of diesel. That would also change the economics of using nuclear energy for naval vessels – if the Navy does not have to carry the full overhead burden on just a few ships per year, the cost per ship can drop rather significantly.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

Next Big Future –

Additional Reading

Cost Effectiveness of More Nuclear Powered Navy Ships

About Rod Adams

32 Responses to “Forbes Clean Beta Advises “Forget Fukushima”. Think about nuclear ships.”

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  1. Chuck P. says:

    It’s certainly fun to see my alma mater mentioned!

    Chuck Patterson
    MMA ’98

  2. John Englert says:

    How about investments in space nuclear power and propulsion. NASA was working on an ultra-high temperature gas core reactor that would use MHD to generate electricity. http://www.osti.gov/bridge/purl.cover.jsp;jsessionid=39D82489D1B8856270E56ABB4104D4A4?purl=/850575-STLcf9/

  3. Ioannes says:

    Nuclear power ‘monster,’ Bishop warns

    http://www.ucanews.com/2011/05/18/check-nuclear-power-a-monster-bishop-warns/

    I disagree with the Bishop, but as a devout Catholic I won’t correct him. Why? Because too many of those who blog for nuclear energy (1) do so in worship of the works of man’s hands and that’s idolatry (think Tower of Babel), and (2) ally themselves with the most wicked adminstration yet to take the Oval Office.

    Let’s see: nuclear power has been around for 60 years or so, and the Church for 2000. No contest. It’s sad that it has to be that way, but it is.

    • John Englert says:

      Nuclear power has been on this planet since it’s formation. Over a billion years ago, the weight percent of U-235 was high enough that natural fission reactors would sometimes start up when ground water flowed through uranium ore deposits.

    • Rod Adams says:

      Nuclear energy has been around for billions of years. How do you think the sun and other stars work?

      • Richard says:

        A lame argument for two reasons.

        First reason is that stars work using nuclear fusion and there is already more than enough Sun-worship going around. None of it productive as nuclear fusion is not and never will be commercially viable given the ridiculously rare fuels it requires (with tritium and pure boron-11 being artificial by-products of the fission industry no less!). Your feeding the sun-worship (which is all anti-nuclear FUD) is about as productive as your putting a bullet through your own head would be.

        The second reason is that life on Earth does NOT depend on nuclear fusion in stars. It depends on nuclear fission, or at least radioactive decay, in the center of our planet. That’s what keeps our planet having a yummy molten center. Which is what keeps the plate tectonics going. It also keeps volcanoes and black smoker vents operating. Which keeps all those high-temperature loving bacteria (ie, life) fed and happy. If the Sun went out tomorrow, there would still be life on Earth for the next billion years (even complex life thanks to humans running nuclear power plants). But if plate tectonics stopped and the Earth’s core grew cold, life on Earth would end eventually.

        The THIRD reason your response is lame is because you didn’t put any thought into it because ultimately you have nothing but contempt for that crazy religious nut. But since you decided to hide and paper over that contempt, you are actually deceptive and dishonest. An honest “shut the %$#@ up you religious freak” would have been so much better. I personally would have responded with “the insanity of anti-nuclear zealots usually staggers me but you’ve reached a new and unexpected low”.

  4. Couple of comments.

    The ‘twice the speed 8 times the power’ is only nominally correct. Most ships if pushed to twice the speed would ‘hit the wall’ as a displacement vessel. There is a certain point after which putting more power in does little more than make a bigger wave.

    High speed transport vessels would require quite a different design to carry both the weight and achieve the speed intended. Not impossible, but different.

    Provide a range (1.5MWe, 6MWe, 25MWe, 100MWe) of ‘drop in’ nuclear power plants that are focussed more on weight, size and robustness than efficiency and opportunities will open up in ship design.

    Regulation permitting.

    Couple of questions:
    – what would an ideal regulatory environment for nuclear power be?
    – who comes the closest to that at this time?

    • Rod Adams says:

      Christopher – you are correct except for the fact that commercial ships are not currently operated at a speed where doubling speed would put them close to “the wall” for a displacement vessel. That is especially true for large ships since that wall is a function of the length of the water line.

      An “ideal” regulatory environment for nuclear energy would be something akin to the way that the aviation industry is regulated. There is a high bar requiring safety and great powers for regulators to demand changes, but the regulators are also allowed to recognize that air travel brings great benefits along with some measure of risk. We have decided as a society that the balance is acceptable – most likely because we nominally accept the fact that life cannot be made risk free. I hope that most humans also consciously recognize that some day every one of us is going to die.

      It is a fact even more certain than taxes.

      • Christopher Polis says:

        The displacement speed of a ship is proportional to the square root of the waterline length of the vessel. Containerships especially run at a reasonable proportion of displacement speed. Bulk carriers less so as the cargo is not so time critical.

        Actual speed of operation is considerably down from design speed at the moment anyway as trade volumes have dropped off dramatically over the last few years.

        It is possible to design around the problem, but it’s not as simple as just dropping a bigger engine in.

      • I calculated this a while ago.  The hull speed of the new container ships such as the Emma Maersk is around 47 knots.  Running at 40 knots or more would appear to be feasible.

  5. Phil says:

    Nuclear propulsion for civilian ships does seem attractive for the reasons you give. I wish it had not been prematurely abandoned.

    But I do have one concern — piracy. How would you deal with it?

    • Richard says:

      You’ll have to elaborate on your concern before it makes any sense. Currently, piracy is a big problem and shipping companies end up paying the ransoms. What would be different? Are you worried about commercial espionage?

      • Phil says:

        I thought the concern would be obvious — letting an anonymous bunch of armed thugs get control of a mobile nuclear reactor that could be driven to any port in the world would undoubtedly freak out most of the world’s governments. And militaries. A hijacked nuclear powered vessel would have an enormous endurance. While you wait for the hijackers to starve, they could still cover a lot of distance.

        You might say that no navy would let a hijacked nuclear ship anywhere near a potential target. But would they really be willing to risk attacking and sinking a nuclear reactor that may be carrying a rather large inventory of fission products?

        Whether or not there’s any credible way even for hijackers willing to sacrifice themselves to do meaningful damage with a well-designed, modern merchant marine nuclear power plant is beside the point. I’m sure the US overreaction to 9/11 would pale in comparison.

    • Rod Adams says:

      Phil – I would use speed as a defense against pirates. There is a reason why they have been successful in attacking ponderous vessels like oil tankers – they move slowly enough to be approached and boarded.

      If you have ever been on an aircraft carrier operating a high speed, you will understand why I think it is impossible for a pirate to attack a fast ship. Even a helicopter would not work – landing on a ship requires a lot of cooperation between the people on the ship and the people in the aircraft.

    • Deal with piracy by designing the ship to run at speeds too high for bandits to attempt to board, and then run the ship at speed.

      Nuclear power help there not just because it allows faster cruise speeds without concern for fuel, but because the lack of concern about fuel and higher speed allows alternate routes around bottlenecks like the Suez Canal and Strait of Malacca which fossil-fuelled ships must use for reasons of time and fuel cost.  The pirates would have to operate hundreds or thousands of miles from their ports and in open seas where ships have much more room to maneuver.  Trying to intercept ships cruising at 35-45 knots in open waters in small boats with limited fuel seems like a very dicey proposition, and once the fuel is gone… well, it’s not a nice way to go.

      • Phil says:

        That’s an excellent point — that nuclear power would permit the use of longer but safer shipping routes. I hadn’t thought of that.

        I did know that the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean east of Somalia are the most pirate-ridden areas in the world. I don’t understood why the navies patrolling those areas can’t form convoys or otherwise coordinate more closely with merchant shipping to better protect themselves against pirates. You would think they could establish well-defined “lanes” that the warships could patrol to cut down the vast area that otherwise has to be covered. (Maybe they are and I just haven’t been keeping track.)

        I had also thought that piracy was the classic crime of universal jurisdiction. Any country can interdict and prosecute a pirate regardless of the victim’s flag (or the nationality of the pirate since he’s unlikely to be flying his actual national flag). But the US navy doesn’t seem particularly interested in reacting unless a US-flagged ship is taken. And there aren’t very many of those these days.

        One drawback to the use of alternate shipping lanes by fast nuclear-propelled ships would be an enlargement of the area subject to anti-piracy patrols.

      • That’s just it:  fast ships running in open water don’t need help from anti-piracy patrols.  The Queen Elizabeth ferried troops during WWII without destroyer escort because it was too fast for submarines to target; the principle is the same.

  6. DV82XL says:

    So that’s it then. Because ‘the public will panic’ we should stop any and all development of nuclear power, nuclear medicine, cellphones and every other item of modern life, destroy or dismantle every thing that depends on post-war technology and do our best to live like it was the start of the 1900′s. All because ‘the public will panic’ every time it sees something it doesn’t understand.

    Well guess what? Most of the public doesn’t panic, but a very loud group of self-centered, malcontents will jump at the chance to get some attention in a vain attempt at feeling important, and relevant, by running to the media to tell them how everyone is in a state of panic. The media, having been reduced to fear mongering, to get an audience, breathlessly reports this tripe as fact.

    Well its not fact. It is nothing but fabrication by shit-disturbers. The pity is that the real public can’t be bothered to put these idiots in their place.

  7. Phil says:

    Believe me, I’m as annoyed as you are about public hysteria over nuclear power. It’s more than a few “self-centered malcontents” – they seem to have the ability to get a large fraction of the population saying “ditto”.

    That’s political reality, and you have to deal with it.

    If you or anyone else is ever going to get nuclear power going again, you need clear, precise, logical, and understandable answers to all the questions. And you have to keep repeating them. Yes, nuclear waste is a purely political problem that was solved technically decades ago, especially if we use breeders designed to burn the actinides. Yes, we can build reactors with inherent negative feedback mechanisms so reliable that a Chernobyl is impossible. Yes, we can build reactors that are, for all practical purposes, melt-down-proof through use of passive cooling of decay heat after scram. Yes, we can make it extremely difficult or impossible to extract bomb-grade plutonium from a civilian reactor. And so on.

    But even I’m not sure that you can design a marine reactor that would resist a group of knowledgeable people determined to radiologically contaminate some port city, sacrificing themselves in the process if necessary. Have you studied this issue?

    • DV82XL says:

      As a matter of fact I have looked into something similar in the recent past. There has been much hand-wringing over the the possibly of non-state actors using radiological dispersal weapons, the so called ‘dirty bomb,’ (although that term traditionally belongs to enhanced radiation weapons.)

      During my research, I found that the task of making an effective weapon of this sort, even under ideal conditions, is a non-trivial task. Both the U.S. and British tested such devices in the 50′s and concluded that they were of no military significance, to the point where even developing countermeasures was a waste of time.

      Thus the idea of hijackers packing some plastique around a marine reactor would not constitute a major threat.

      If one postulates that the attacker would then open the containment to get access to the core, the fact remains that the heat and the radiation will protect it from further tampering. Mandating the use of oxide, or carbide fuels would eliminate the risk of dispersing radiation by burning. No doubt too, the containment would be of such a design and construction that breaching it would require special tools making this possibly even less likely. As well one would assume some defense in depth making physical access to the reactor very difficult as well.

      One can also assume that passive and tamper-proof systems would be in place to stop any attempt accidental or on purpose, to push the reactor into an excursion.

      Thus I am reasonably sure that no terrorist would find a marine reactor a soft enough target to consider it for an attack.

  8. Phil says:

    You’re probably right. At the very least, the intense gamma radiation from the fission products would make it very difficult for terrorists to get into a reactor core.

    That leaves deliberately operating the reactor in such a way that (some of) the fission products escape containment.

    Obviously this is all too easy with existing reactor designs. But can we really design a reactor — even a small one — that’s so foolproof that even the deliberate mis-operation of the controls by a knowledgeable person cannot cause a breach?

    • Rod Adams says:

      Phil – I completely disagree with your statement. As a guy who has both military training (33 years of naval service including a tour teaching the principles of weapons systems) and nuclear energy facility experience, I do not think that even existing designs are easy to attack. It is very difficult to imagine a successful attack that actually releases a dangerous quantity of fission products to the environment

      Look at Fukushima – that plant and its surround area was attacked by a force equivalent to at least one and perhaps several atomic bombs in the form of a massive earthquake and resulting large wave of salt water. Even with the infrastructure destruction and the complete loss of power plus damaged power lines, and even with a high percentage of melting in three nuclear cores, there has still been a relatively minimal release of radioactive material.

      What terrorist organization could hope to carry out an even remotely equivalent attack?

      I will find some diagrams that I have somewhere of the shielding and collision protection that surrounded the reactor on the NS Savannah. That might help you understand why I say that any reactor licensed to operate at sea would be an incredibly difficult target for anyone to damage.

      • Phil says:

        I would be interested in those details about the Savannah. I have looked at their website, including the panoramic pictures taken within, but I didn’t get a good sense of the ship’s overall resistance to collisions and other threats to the integrity of the reactor vessel.

      • Phil says:

        When I said “all too easy with existing reactor designs” I was referring to the ability to deliberately operate the controls to damage the reactor core and compromise containment of the fission products.

        I agree that it is probably all but impossible to cause, even deliberately, a significant release of the actinides and the less volatile fission products. That would take a Chernobyl-like power excursion that could be made virtually impossible through careful design.

        But the same can’t be said about the more volatile species, particularly iodine and cesium. (And krypton and xenon, but because they’re noble gases I’m not too worried about them — they’ll simply disperse in the atmosphere.) As we’ve seen in Fukushima, BWRs depend pretty heavily on fuel rod cladding to keep those volatile elements contained. All it takes to damage that barrier is to uncover the core for a few hours. Once those volatile elements get into the reactor coolant loop, in a BWR it’s pretty hard to keep them from further escaping into the environment.

        Yes, despite all the hysterical hand-wringing the public exposure has been kept well below the levels that could result even in long-term harm. But I would have to be shown that that’s due to the physics of the situation rather than the efforts of a very hardworking emergency response team.

        Given that PWRs already seem to dominate naval propulsion I assume that an isolated primary loop would be a mandatory feature of any new marine reactor design. That would provide another barrier to the escape of the volatile fission products. But someone bent on sabotage would probably have little difficulty opening up the primary loop too, if they knew what they were doing.

        All this, plus maximum safety margins against purely accidental mishaps, suggests that inherent resistance to very high fuel temperatures would be a major design win. Something like a pebble bed reactor – which is exactly what you’re working on, right?

  9. Phil says:

    I should include bypassing of interlocks among the things that a knowledgeable terrorist might do to cause a deliberate containment breach. So while it may be perfectly reasonable to rely on interlocks and other technical safeguards to reduce the risks of an accident, we can’t necessarily rely on them to stop a deliberately destructive act.

    I still see this as being one of the biggest impediments to the use of nuclear propulsion in civilian shipping.

    • DV82XL says:

      Sealed reactors have already been projected for use in the Third World as stationary power plants. They are to be built as tamper-proof, and require a return to manufacturer for refueling. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘nuclear battery’ concept.

      This being the case I would assume that it would be possible to design and build a marine reactor the same way.

      Never mind terrorists, I don’t think the industry would stand for anything less, as otherwise very expensive help would be needed to run the reactor. I assume too that hull insurance rates would be astronomical if there wasn’t a sealed design for civilian use as no owner could assume full liability otherwise.

      Thus I think that all of your security issues would be covered as a consequence of of other market forces that would come into play if this ever came to pass.

  10. Phil says:

    What exactly does “tamper-proof” mean? This isn’t a rhetorical question, I really want to know the answer. I can certainly speculate, but I’d base them on assumptions about the resources available to the “tamperer” that would probably be wrong.

    And are these “nuclear batteries” truly idiot-proof? Is there really no manipulation of the controls that would cause release of fission products? I’m somewhat familiar with research reactors like the TRIGA fueled by uranium hydride that are so stable that they can be (and regularly are) intentionally taken prompt critical with no hazard to the people standing nearby. But these same negative feedback mechanisms keep those reactors from producing significant amounts of continuous power.

  11. DV82XL says:

    Well yes ‘Tamper proof’ is a bit too absolute, the term in use is ‘tamper resistant’.

    Of course these things can be breached given enough time and resources, that is a given. The general idea is to make the task so difficult, that the attempt will not be made, or if made, to delay it such that interdiction there is time to interdict.

    Tamper resistance ranges from simple features like screws with special heads, more complex devices that render themselves inoperable, or use of materials needing special tools and knowledge. The proposed small, sealed, transportable, autonomous reactor (SSTAR) being developed in the USA by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, will feature a combination of anti-tamper techniques that will make it difficult to get at the nuclear material, ensure that where the reactors are transported to is closely tracked, and have alarms in place that sound if attempts at entry are detected (which can then be responded to by the military).

    In the shipboard context it would be enough, in practical terms, to delay a potential breach long enough for a counter-assault to be mounted.

  12. Phil says:

    Let’s do a sanity check. If counter-assaults were the answer to ship piracy, we wouldn’t be reading story after story about Somali pirates successfully ransoming ships as large as oil tankers. I presume the owners and the governments alike have concluded that it’s cheaper to pay the ransoms than to risk killing the crews and/or seriously damaging the ships.

    Taking a much larger view of the topic, I would definitely agree that making energy plentiful and readily available throughout the world would do much to alleviate the root causes of terrorism and piracy. But there will always be a few who, though mental illness, group delusion or simple greed, try to throw monkey wrenches into the machinery of modern civilization. Like it or not, protecting against these people will always be a design consideration.

    • DV82XL says:

      Counter-assaults are not indicated in the case where the hijackers want to ransom the ship and its cargo. Pirates like these are in the business of being criminals: they are in it for profit. Their behavior should not be confounded with non-state political actors such as terrorists. The threat to the nuclear power plant from the former is low. One would suppose if the latter were to take a nuclear ship, the response would be measured to match the threat.

      While it is true that we cannot protect everything from everybody, we also have to keep in mind that a nuclear reactor is not a nuclear bomb waiting to go off, and that containment would keep any major incident, well…contained, and while a mess may need to be cleaned up, the likelihood of a city being contaminated can be made acceptably low.

    • Rod Adams says:

      Again – speed is the answer to piracy. Fast ships have not been boarded – too freaking hard. Nuclear ships would be fast ships because speed improves productivity when fuel is cheap.

  13. Phil says:

    I had the same thought — nuclear propulsion would make high speeds much more practical, and while I’m not a sailor I have heard that speed is the best defense against being boarded.

    Any large surface ship would still be quite vulnerable to a ship-seeking missile, however. They’re generally considered high technology items only within the reach of the aerospace industries of developed countries but I wonder how much longer that will remain true.