Stimulated by early atomic optimism, naval successes and Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative, four nations built ocean going ships with nuclear propulsion plants. The US built the NS Savannah, Germany built the Otto Hahn, Japan built the Mutsu, and Russia built a series of nuclear powered icebreakers.
For reasons that are beyond the scope of this post, but that are partially explained by the related posts and additional reading below, Russia is the only nation that pursued nuclear ship propulsion for civilian ships. Even Russia, however, has limited its application of nuclear energy for ship propulsion to the special case of icebreakers and one or two ore carriers with icebreaking capability.
I’ve been an advocate of revisiting that choice for many years. In 1991, when I started serious investigation on the topic, knowing what I knew then about the navy’s experience with nuclear power at sea, it seemed like a “no-brainer” to me. Most of what I’ve learned during the past 23 years about the potential benefits of using nuclear energy to propel large ships continues to support my contention that it is a development that should be pursued with due haste.
There are a few stalwarts around the world who agree with me, notably Guilian Crommelin, a retired engineering officer from the Royal Dutch Navy, Stan Wheatley, who served as an engineer on the NS Savannah, and Jose Femenia, who leads the SNAME (Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers) M48 (Nuclear Propulsion) panel. There a few other reliably active proponents who will show up for a panel M48 meeting, but most of us are, unfortunately, getting a little long in the tooth.
The US Navy’s Nuclear Reactors organization has been one of the biggest detractors and obstacles to using nuclear power to replace bunker oil or diesel fuel on commercial ships. They selfishly resist the idea of anyone else using the amazing technical superiority of nuclear energy to propel ships. Having worked under NR’s influence for many years, I recognize that there are many influencers in the organization who believe that their organization is the only one that can be trusted to safely operate nuclear power plants at sea. That is a mistaken, arrogant and narrow point of view.
About a year ago, an engineering student from SUNY (State University of New York) Maritime named Benjamin Haas made contact with me. I’d like to share his initial email; it is a terrific example of a communication from a curious student that is just about guaranteed to get a good response from someone with expertise and experience.
I am an engineering student studying Naval Architecture at the New York Maritime College. I am very interested in the application of nuclear power for the propulsion of commercial ships. The low cost of fuel and environmental advantages of nuclear power appear very attractive for an industry (commercial shipping) that is subject to rising fossil fuel prices and increased environmental awareness as one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases. It is encouraging to see that you came to the same conclusions back in 1995 with your paper, “Nuclear Power for Commercial Ships”.
I am currently working on a ship design project with a fellow student where we are exploring the potential of nuclear power to reduce the Required Freight Rate to make imported goods more affordable for developing and island nations. Essentially, we are preforming a basic economic analysis on a ship of our own design, but instead of having a slow speed diesel plant for propulsion, it will have a nuclear reactor. We think nuclear power will have clear economic advantages over a typical diesel, or LNG powered ship, but we don’t know for sure.
We currently have a lot of questions about the economics of nuclear power, the use of small modular reactors and traditional reactors, and everything else associated with the wide scale deployment of nuclear power for the world’s merchant fleets.
We want to learn as much as we can about nuclear power so that we can make our student designs as reasonable as possible. We are very serious about this.
Can you be a contact we can go to for our questions?
Thank you for your consideration. We hope to hear back from you soon!
After receiving that flattering note, I responded quickly and also put Benjamin in touch with Guilian Crommelin, with whom I have been working since 1994. During the past year, Benjamin and his partners have done an amazing amount of work, sent us progress reports, and asked for assistance when they hit a hard spot. It has been a lot of fun to help; the sustained engagement has reinforced my opinion that people who pontificate about “today’s students” are just getting their information from second hand sources with an agenda.
Recently, Benjamin told us that his most recent paper on nuclear powered ships, titled Strategies for the Success of Nuclear Powered Shipping had placed first in the Connecticut Maritime Association student paper competition. Here is the paper abstract:
The development of nuclear powered commercial ships has taken on greater importance beyond transporting cargo cheaper. Increasing limitations on Sulfur Oxide emissions from ships has put the global maritime industry on a search for economical ways to meet current and future environmental regulations.
With the inevitable development of trans-Arctic shipping, nuclear power is the only means of preventing the phenomenon of “graying of the ice”, which is the deposition of black carbon soot particles on snow and ice from oil and natural gas burning engines, leading to increased heat retention and melting. However, unless these next generation nuclear powered ships are cost-effective and can achieve an acceptable level of safety, they will not be deployed and their environmental advantages not realized.
This paper discusses in qualitative terms methods for the cost-effective and safe development of nuclear powered commercial ships for world trade, specifically by a United States initiated program. Discussed are changes to the nuclear regulatory model that can alleviate certain economic burdens that ship-sized nuclear reactors may face, and recommendations are made for how industry can actively lower nuclear power’s high upfront costs. Emphasis is placed on the development of an inherently safe, wide- market application reactor that can achieve these cost and safety goals.
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An abridged version of the paper will be posted on the Connecticut Maritime Association web site, but Benjamin has kindly given me permission to post the complete version of his paper and the presentation that he gave at CMA’s recent Shipping 2014. Here is the happy report that Benjamin provided after making the presentation.
My presentation went very well. I would estimate about 100 or so people were in attendance; students and industry members. I received a number of questions at the end: decommissioning, training of operators, safety and terrorism, and any design considerations for the ships. Other than being wordy (I do not yet know how to simplify these broad topics without sounding political), I was told my answers came off as confident. A three day event would be needed to truly changes peoples’ minds, though. Two students asked me specific details at the end, which I was very happy about. One approach I took with people talking to me afterwards was as they learn about nuclear power, they learn they do not have to be afraid of it. Thank goodness for all the articles at ANS and at Atomic Insights!
I suspect that he will participate in the discussion here, but Benjamin is still a student and it is a busy time of year for people working on engineering degrees.
ANS Nuclear Cafe – December 2010 Nuclear Power at Sea
Atomic Power Review Nuclear Icebreakers 101
Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science Winter 2013 Nuclear Marine Propulsion: The History of Nuclear Technology