Nuclear Energy and Commercial Ship Propulsion
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.
Hi, love the idea of having ships being powered by nuclear – even plains for that matter. But there is one question I haven’t heard been answered. What happens if a nuclear boat ( or sub) sinks? From a rational point of view I think it would take a lot of nuclear waste dumping into the sea to make a difference. Though, I have a feeling Green Peace don’t think the same. What do you think?
I worked briefly on the nuclear plane project. Given the opportunity, I would veto that project direction. The implications of an airframe malfunction are pretty nasty. The shielding problems are just short of insurmountable.
As far as nuclear reactors at sea, there are two US nuclear submarines that have sunk without catastrophic environmental impact. The reactor does have to be designed for the contingency. Russia/Soviet Union has several on the bottom also but I’m not sure that they are as benign.
The fuel consumption of a major container ship is staggering. The ‘Emma Maersk’ is longer than an aircraft carrier and has 110,000 horsepower. It normally cruises at 1/2 throttle to save fuel (17 knots rather than 25).
The biggest issue that I see for purely commercial nuclear vessels is political and that is piracy. An aircraft carrier has 5000 teenagers with guns and its own airforce. The Emma Maersk has a crew of 32.
While there are countries that could overcome the political barriers to build such ships, I doubt they would be economically viable. I’m sure we all know what the reaction would be in most First-World ports she would call in. The demonstrations, the court orders, opposition politicians honking about the need for more security. It would be a nightmare.
Nuclear powered merchantmen will come, but only after we have established nuclear power as the option of choice on land.
I’m not so sure about that. I mean, US aircraft carriers and subs are welcome in every US port without any demonstrations or many – if any – mentions of nuclear issues – because there aren’t any. If these were US merchantmen – built in the US – for instance – I doubt there would be any complaints at all. I think there would be a lot of quiet pride, in fact.
I can imagine that on the trade between the US and Japan, France, China, and India, none of the parties would have major objections to it; if necessary, ASN in France and the equivalent authorities in Japan, India, and China could do their own investigations (or, if they find the NRC’s license credible, they can just import it.)
No one can make any hay on the safety record of US waterborne nuclear propulsion. No one – there are no safety issues.
Piracy isn’t an issue – if the top speed of the ship is very high – for instance – 40 or 45 knots. No pirate boat can conceivably keep up with that for long. Or, one could install 3 Navy surplus CIWS systems on the ship – one at the stern, well above the waterline, and two on the port and starboard hulls just prior to the hull bending into the bow point. This would be a good idea for all US-flagged merchantmen, not just nuclear ones, in this new age of piracy.
Without putting too fine a point on it there are more ports than just US ones, and I do know that nuclear power warships are NOT welcome in all countries. The US doesn’t force the issue when at peace, and avoids places that have indicated nuclear vessels would be poorly received.
“That is because there is no value.”
It’s a victimless crime in the same sense as punching someone in the dark.
“Summary Review of Alternative Shipboard Powering Systems for Naval and Regulatory Review”
Rod, can I assume ONR has a copy of this report?
and the study was done by a government contractor – even if they aren’t planning to release it?
As a sidelight, Henry Roller, the father of my significant other, Rebecca Roller, and a graduate of The United States Merchant Marine Academy. was a Nuclear Engineer. He helped to build the Savannah’s nuclear propulsion system.
You are aware that Chins’s COSCO CEO and president stated that he was in favor of using nuclear power for merchant ships
I did have access and links to an economic study by Femenia, C.R. Cushing & Co, Inc
there are detailed studies of the air pollution benefits of swithcing from bunker oil to natural gas which would be a basis for the benefits of nuclear ships
I have several more articles on nuclear shipping both research and my own ideas. China would have the military benefits of an easily convertible nuclear merchant fleet to a nuclear military fleet
Why couldn’t we have a nuclear powered ocean going tug, that never berths at destination port. Just delivers and picks up barges with minimal auxiliary power to motor the last 20 miles. Turnaround times and demonstration of endurance would be a staggering proof of concept.
Does anyone know what kind of regulatory hurdles would have to be surmounted for a foreign registered nuclear ship? Imagine that we converted a foreign (Liberian or Marshall Islands) registered turbine powered ship from diesel to a small but carefully designed small nuclear reactor from a reputable quality manufacture like Adams Atomic Engines. If the ship was foreign registered and its home port was a foreign port would the vessel and its carefully designed retrofit nuclear reactor necessarily have to be certified by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission? Are there provisions in the Law of the Sea treaty(s) that would limit the conversion of existing foreign registered diesel powered ships to nuclear power? Could a foreign registered nuclear ship visit US ports or traverse US coastal waters if the nuclear power plant did not have NRC certification?
Every vessel is under the law of the flag that she flies – assuming there was a third country willing to go along with a reactor installation in their country, I don’t see why it couldn’t be done, especially for a test ship. Conceivably, the US might take steps to ban the ship from entering into American waters – but I doubt that this would take place, especially if the IAEA was invited to investigate and perhaps give it a clean bill of health.
It would be interesting if some intrepid venturers were to design and fabricate a reactor solely for export to another nation who might mount it in a vessel who flies their flag so as to avoid the regulatory hurdles that go with NRC certification. They might be able to design and build the reactor in the US, and then export it – unfueled – to a third country for installation and testing, so that all that is being exported is a piece of machinery – not a functional reactor – the fuel could be fabricated to spec wherever such things can be done – and then transported to the third country, for fueling of the reactor.
It might be a way to sidestep the whole issue of regulatory barriers – and it might even be able to be done very inexpensively. Perhaps this could be accomplished even with less than $100 million in VC for a major containerized cargo carrier.
The planned Russian floating nuclear power stations should be very economically viable as many are planned to help Gazprom with their oil and gas development. Strangely these barges will not move from their own power plants but are planned to be towed. They plan to use the same reactors that have operated many their many nuclear powered ice-breakers.
Technically there are not many hurtles, but as DV8 points out the controversy that would erupt would keep American companies away. This is really too bad because I think we will see the Russians and Chinese move forward with plans quite rapidly. If the NRC has a problem with these types of ships visiting US waters as then they just won’t come here.
So yet again, America may be thwarting its own potential because of a fearful public and an unfriendly regulatory agency. I’m not so sure enthusiasm, hard work or competitive spirit is enough to overcome the momentum of global trends. For example, no one wanted to see the city of Detroit fall into decay as it has been for the last 50 years, but no amount of well meaning effort or money will ever revive it to its former glory. I’m not saying that reflects on the USA as a whole but a country can be full of good people and at the same time be its own worst enemy.
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