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15 Comments

  1. “My first thought was “why would a big box competitor to Sam’s Club be interested in a nuclear option?”
    Even if they really meant Costco, stranger things have happened.
    The Coors porcelain company that made the uranium/beryllium oxide self-moderating fuel elements for project pluto suddenly got into the beer brewing business and it rapidly grew to supplant porcelain making entirely.
    Of all the weird cold-war projects, project pluto has got to be up there amongst the most insane. It was essentially an unshielded 600 MW flying nuclear reactor functioning as a ramjet with the fuel elements directly exposed to air; it was meant to fly at mach 3 at low altitude, below enemy radar and would have been able to stay aloft for weeks. They dropped the project when they were confident ICBM would work, but not before building and testing the nuclear ramjet component. It provided 156 kN of thrust and worked flawlessly.

  2. Good post Rod, hardly any arm waving.
    ?you can take a person with a BS in English?
    If that person has a technical aptitude. I actually think it is easier to operate a naval nuke than a boiler. I do not have any data but I think a steam plant takes less maintenance than a marine diesel.
    I do not see any world shortage of smart people who want good jobs. If there is a problem, once you demonstrate you can operated a nuke all kind of jobs open up that do not spending long hours at sea.

  3. Rod,
    A nuclear powered vessel is going to be more capital intensive than fossil and, with a LWR reactor, require a larger and more highly trained engineering department. To counterbalance this, the ship will need to have a large capacity and be faster.
    The ‘Emma Maersk’ is the biggest container ship in service-about 200 feet longer than an aircraft carrier. The top speed is 25.5 knots. It has 110MW of propulsion.
    Since the ship is longer than an aircraft carrier that has a published speed of 33+ knots, I assume the top speed of the EM is power limited rather than the hull speed.
    This actually sounds like a ship the size of the EM would be a pretty good match for a B&W Mpower at 140MW (when water cooled).
    The EM normally cruises with reduced power at about 19 knots for fuel economy. This would not be necessary if it were nuclear powered.
    Bill

  4. It would be something that the US has a near absolute comparative advantage in. A project of massive integration (a US specialty) in an area where the US is the only nation that has both extensive experience and a perfect reputation. (55 years and no notable screwups involving hundreds of naval NSSSes).
    The need is real: there aren’t many US-flagged and few US-built merchantmen crossing the Pacific or the Atlantic anymore save the small merchant marine fleet the Government keeps alive as a very prudent investment. And this is from the country that once constructed Liberty ships on the “build’em faster than they can sink’em” plan (and did very well at it, too!)
    Still, the US retains the knowledge and expertise to construct aircraft carriers (at a modest cost for the scale and sheer complexity of the delivered product, too.) That knowledge can be applied to container ships of great size, along with applying some of the less secret knowledge gained and lessons learned from those 55 accident-free years of nuclear naval operations.
    The result might be a great product to revive an industry that the US once was the master of the world in. Kind of like commercial aircraft: only the Europeans (and perhaps the Russians) really have a chance of competing with the highly efficient, technically advanced, very safe, integrated product that the US can deliver.

  5. The United States has let itself fall far behind in the nuclear game, not to mention the fact that other industries like shipbuilding have largely left the US in favor of the cheap labor and effecient operations of Asian shipyards. Big container ships and other large commercial vessels are not generally built in the US like they used to be.
    Here, however, we have a LOT going for us. Nobody, with the possible exception of Russia, has the level of experience when it comes to nuclear marine propulsion that the US has. We have shipyards already equipped for nuclear marine reactors. We have world class R&D sites like Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, and Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory. We have everything and that’s a HUGE head-start.
    Now the question is whether we will leverage these advantages or allow the rest of the world to once-again overtake us and thus lose us the opportunity to be a leader in nuclear energy.

  6. The key to leveraging our nuclear ship propulsion advantages is to begin working hard to explain why those advantages – developed as part of propulsion programs for military ships – should be used commercially in a manner similar to the way that we have used the technological and operational experience advantages that we developed in military jet aircraft programs.
    There really is no difference – propulsion is propulsion, engines are engines.
    It is not a weapons use of the material or the technology just because the engine happens to be on a vessel that can defend itself. There is a legitimate need to protect certain useful technologies from use by unauthorized producers, but that is true for any product where the goal is a profitable continuing stream of sales of a product with competitive advantages.

  7. A couple comments:
    * You quote B&W mPower estimates as $5-$10/W; isn’t that astonishingly high? I realize there are scaling economics, but e.g. Charles Barton pointed out that new Indian PHWRs are at $1.40/W, even at 220 MWe scale. And your own link (the 2nd one) quotes the under-construction floating reactors, on the Akademik Lomonsov, as $1.67/W – at a tiny 60 MWe size.
    Surely American economics won’t be so much worse than that of India and Russia? Or at least, I don’t see anyone pursuing this if the disparity is not fixed – as the situation appears, foreign competitors would easily underbid Americans for nuclear ships. (If your mPower numbers reflect reality).
    * You assume 15 MW ship propulsion. Why not much larger? On wikipedia there is a list of 200 container ships with >90,000 ton displacement, with engines in the range of 50-100 MW. If nuclear economics pushes towards larger reactors, why not build these super-large ships instead (limited by canal sizes)? And could there not be major optimizations – I would guess for instance, that fuel economics limits ship speeds, because fuel consumption is some power v^2 or v^3, whereas economic value is something like v^1 (inverse of travel time). Maybe the optimal point for nuclear propulsion is more powerful ships. Your #2 link seems to think this: in their example they suggest a 150 MWe reactor, which is twice as powerful as the 80 MW diesel ship they compare with (for same weight), and goes 6 knots faster (32 kt vs 26 kt).
    Let me push some numbers. Emma Maersk cost $145M to build. How efficient is a large diesel engine, 50%? Then its 80 MW engine consumes 15,500 L/hr diesel, or (say conservatively, 50% duty cycle/capacity factor) 136 million L/year – $70 M/year at $2/gallon diesel. The Russian floating reactors are $100 M for 60 MWe; they could pay for themselves in under two years!
    What have I misunderstood? Surely if the economics is this favorable, there’s a reason it’s not already ubiquitous.

  8. uvdiv – I like to under promise and over deliver.
    Since there is a large labor component in the cost of nuclear power in the United States, our costs really are quite a bit higher than they would be for reactors manufactured elsewhere. However, I would not be terribly optimistic about the potential to obtain permission to dock in a US port with a ship that is powered by a nuclear plant that has not been licensed in the US. Our process is stringent and expensive. I fully expect that costs can eventually be driven down, but not until after experience has been gained and repetitive production implemented.
    Larger engines would certainly be useful for larger ships, but I was simply using the technical data provided for a proven engine that actually saw service in a ship for a number of years.
    I recommend starting small and gaining experience gradually as a confidence building step to a more extensive deployment. Boeing did not start off by building 747’s.

  9. One more thing – Russia has been talking about building barge mounted floating nuclear power plants for at least 15 years, yet it has not yet completed any of them. It is not as easy as it looks, though it can be done and done well by people who know what they are doing and can put together the appropriate team. One disadvantage that Russia has is that its nuclear enterprise is controlled by the same government that obtains about 50% of its income through the sales of natural gas and oil.

  10. Rod you seem to have some misconceptions about Russia (Rod has misconceptions about a lot of things nuclear and environmental) and the pride (maybe false pride) the government has in its nuclear program. Last time I checked two barge mounted nuke power plants were under construction.
    There is a market for smaller reactors in Russia unlike the US.
    I do not see either a safety issue or training issue with nuclear power vessels. Since we pay shipyard workers $$, I not sure we can compete with workers paid in vodka.
    In any case, I would rather be sailing with nuke ships going past than LNG tankers. Those thing scare me.
    Pop Quiz: Where did a US sub come way to close to a LNG tanker?

  11. “One more thing – Russia has been talking about building barge mounted floating nuclear power plants for at least 15 years, yet it has not yet completed any of them. ”
    These are now under construction, but to an extent, they fall into the same category as a lot of other major Russian state-funded civil engineering work (the Angara rocket, likely to _finally_ enter service next year, but started in ’93 and originally planned to enter service by the turn of the century is a good example); the technology is generally good, and they look like they’ll be useful once they’re finished, but the projects have been greatly delayed by the near-total collapse of the Russian economy after the fall of the USSR.
    With proper funding, though, these projects tend to come together; Energomash had no trouble designing and providing engines for the US Atlas V rocket, for instance, and the resulting engines appear to be very good, because Pratt & Whitney was able to _pay_, at a time when the Russian government was barely solvent.
    Interestingly, the only currently operating nuclear cargo ship is Russian, though it was built during the Soviet period and is a sort of cargo ship/icebreaker hybrid. They also have a number of proper nuclear icebreakers.

  12. The Russians have gotten a lot better at what they do than they used to back in the old Soviet days. Even though they can’t be described as a liberal democracy, the place is a lot more open than it once was, though certain old habits die hard. I wouldn’t expect the Russians to give the US a run for the money immediately if we decided to start a nuclear shipping industry, but they might be interested in competing further down the line.
    But this can be said – although the US remains first in the world in these areas, the Russian nuclear engineering talent is first rate, a lot of their manufacturing infrastructure is in place, and they understand safety better, and now have an open-enough culture that errors and mistakes aren’t automatically covered up without dissemination of lessons learned any more. They also have a reasonably sane outlook on nuclear power: their people understand the benefits, their people take pride in what their country has done, and they also understand that nothing is perfect.
    I wouldn’t worry about the Chinese building innovative reactors in competition with the US. (I’d worry about theft of trade secrets, though, and subsequent appearance of unlicensed parts.)
    I would worry about Russian competition in terms of innovation. The Russians are one of those very few nations – like the US – that really keep the spark of high-tech innovation alive. For instance, some of the most innovative computer software in the past decade or so – like the Interactive Disassembler – has come from Russia, along with a tremendous amount of innovation in the area of computer virus manufacture, unfortunately – “idle hands do the devil’s work”.
    Even better – when it’s in our interest, cooperate and build alliances with them, to cross-fertilize each other’s projects. I wonder what happened with that GT-MHR that was supposedly going to be built in Russia? Haven’t heard anything about that in a while.

  13. “I wonder what happened with that GT-MHR that was supposedly going to be built in Russia? Haven’t heard anything about that in a while.”
    The plutonium burner? Well, burning plutonium went out of style. It was replaced with hydrogen production for a while, but that too has been a passing fad.

  14. Someone’s gotta say it. Ships running on diesel pollute the air and water in several ways. Maybe it’s obvious to most but there is quite a bit of propaganda about how cruise ships have cleaned up their act. The fact remains that noise pollution makes ocean mammals very unhappy and water and air pollution are still contributing a huge amount to the carbon dioxide and other pollutants. So producing Nuclear ships would go a long way to reducing global warming IMHO. Isn’t that a strong enough reason?

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