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.
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