I took a day of leave from my day job on January 20, 2010 to attend a workshop titled Nuclear Power for Commercial Ship Propulsion sponsored by the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME) and the Center for the Commercial Deployment of Transportation Technologies (CCDoTT) of the California State University, Long Beach. It was being held in the shadow of the Capitol Building at the Hall of States building.
Stan Wheatley, the leader of the workshop, had gathered a very experienced and distinguished group of interested people affiliated with a variety of government agencies, both domestic and international companies, at least one foreign government (France) and a number of independent, semi-retired consultants. Stan is a force of nature – he was an engineering officer in the start-up crew of the NS Savannah, a pioneering nuclear powered ship that is celebrating its 50th anniversary. In the period since he left Savannah, Stan has done a lot of great work, but one of the topics that has never been far from his mind is sharing the story of the technical and promotional successes that he experienced on board the Savannah.
Many of the people in the room were there at Stan’s personal invitation because they share his vision that there has just got to be a way to make nuclear energy a successful alternative power system for at least part of the shipping industry – that large, but rarely mentioned segment that recognizes the value of long term investments in high quality, reliable vessels and skilled crews. Like many engineers, Stan is not always successful in sharing the basis for his passion with people who are impatient or focused on perception rather than substance. He speaks a bit haltingly and is getting slightly hard of hearing, but he knows his stuff and has seen the promised land of a operating a clean ship that only needs new fuel every 4-5 years.
The workshop started with a presentation of the results of a phase one study completed on December 10, 2006 with the support of the Office of Naval Research titled Summary Review of Alternative Shipboard Powering Systems for Naval and Regulatory Review project number N00014-04-003.
As George Sawyer presented it, the study showed that a slightly modified 8,000 TEU (Twenty Foot Equivalent Unit, which is a measure of the number of box containers that a ship can carry) can economically compete by carrying about 9,100 containers and operating at higher speeds at a much lower fuel cost. The model that showed a good return was a fleet of three ships in liner service on a trans Pacific route with the same annual delivery capacity of four oil fired ships on the same route. NO CREDIT was taken in the study for the value of not producing NOx, SOX, and CO2.
Unfortunately, I cannot provide a link to the detailed study, which was totally unclassified and dealt with commercial shipping applications. ONR was interested because it is tasked with studying and developing technologies that have potential applications in transportation; the US military is a large consumer of the services provided by commercial ships.
The study has never been publicly released or followed up with a Phase 2 because it apparently rubbed a few bureaucrats the wrong way. It showed mathematically, using very conservative assumptions, that investing in a high quality series of large container ships with nuclear propulsion plants could provide a substantial return on investment.
That conclusion threatens a lot of rice bowls in a government budgeting process that is focused on year to year alignments of appropriations that do not change very much without someone experiencing pain and loss of status. In an environment where there is no linkage between revenue sources and programs and where annual top line budgets grow just a small percentage each year, every new program requires other programs to give something up. Government decision makers rarely lose their employment status if their program gets “marked” (budget speak for funding cut) or even cancelled, but they may lose their position of power and have to seek another position somewhere. The contractors working on whatever project it was can end up unemployed or out of business.
Speaking from experience, nothing can start more bare knuckles budget battles than gathering funds for a new program start – especially when that program will require tens of millions in the early years and hundreds of millions to billions in the actual deployment phase. Though the United States will often degenerate into lot of ideological squabbling about the role of government in such a development, there are many other countries in the world for whom such a discussion would be incomprehensible.
I cannot imagine South Korea or China worrying about whether or not the government should support the development if it makes good engineering and economical sense to have fast, reliable, capable container ships that do not emit any pollution. They will not worry about the fact that they have to carefully train a few hard working, dedicated people or the fact that they will have to make some major investments in physical manufacturing capability. I can imagine the UK or France having some heated arguments about the project, but then going forward anyway as their decision makers get convinced by the numbers and the reality.
Many of the people who attended yesterday’s session are dedicated, hard working pioneers who are convinced that America has been sliding downhill. They are discouraged and believe that the continued decline is inevitable. I happen to disagree – the America that I know and love is full of highly competitive people who are willing to work hard and take some significant risk in order to achieve success. It is impossible to watch a college football game or a robot creation competition with a critical eye and fail to come to that conclusion.
It is a time for leaders, not short term thinkers or greedy folks who keep their life score based on the objects they can accumulate, the meals they can eat or the trips they take. Deploying a new power source in a competitive commercial arena is HARD work that takes a steady effort from a lot of people. (In other words, jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs.)
Here is a final thought about a group led by people who were directly involved with the Nuclear Ship Savannah – the first ship that crossed the oceans aided with a combustion steam engine – supplemented by sails – was also named Savannah. Her pioneering voyage was also heralded at the time it was accomplished and then quickly forgotten. It was also about 50 years between the time of her voyage in 1819 and the deployment of competitive steam powered ships that quickly pushed wind powered vessels into the museum. In the case of the SS Savannah, there are also still detractors that deny the pioneering nature of her accomplishment. Technological history often repeats itself; part of the reason is the time that it takes for the people who are inspired by the initial accomplishment to grow up, get educated and gain enough career experience to bring together the financial resources needed for a real development of the inspirational idea.
Note: For some high quality images of models of the Steamship Savannah, visit Rigged Model, Auxiliary Steamship Savannah.