30 March 2023
Nuclear shipping to solve climate change?
As the maritime industry begins navigating its way to decarbonization, shipowners face challenges in finding the ideal zero-carbon fuel for their purposes. Thus, nuclear power generation for shipping comes into play. Considering that the lack of bunkering infrastructure creates a major hurdle for many of these alternative fuel options.
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Shipowners are facing difficult choices when deciding on their future newbuild strategy. Committing to a zero-carbon fuel today, incorporates a real risk. The future bunkering infrastructure might not be properly developed at all trade routes. But, what if you have a vessel that doesn’t need to refuel for 25 years and could still sail faster than normal?
This could become a reality. A new type of nuclear-powered vessel is on the horizon of shipping, using the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR).
Wait. What is a Molten Salt Reactor?
It’s very important to recognize that the choice of advanced nuclear technology for sustainable shipping must meet key suitability criteria specific to our industry.
- A fuel-for-life reactor system, locks the fuel in the reactor, avoids refueling, and hence handles spent fuels in ports.
- Remaining safe in the event of an accident at sea. Essentially to passively shut down in the event of a collision, grounding, explosion, or even a sinking without polluting the environment.
- Simple and small system, enough to mass manufacture so that we can get the highest quality assurance in construction and the fastest incremental innovation cycle at the lowest cost.
MSR technology meets these criteria and allows for a new way to harness nuclear power for the shipping industry. It’s the most efficient and compact advanced reactor system conceived. It consumes less than a gram of fuel to produce 24 Megawatt-hours (MWh) of 100% clean energy. This means a Capesize bulk carrier would use less than 200 kg of fuel in 25 years. Coming with zero emissions and making little waste.
Safety is always the priority, and the passive safety features of the MSR are exactly why it is so suited to maritime applications.
”We believe the MSR is a perfect civilian-grade technology that neither threatens the tactical superiority of a nuclear navy, nor poses a threat to the peace and stability of port states. We will ensure that every reactor is built to the highest standards, is carefully controlled, monitored, and managed by vetted, qualified personnel. It will only be installed on floating assets which are flagged in appropriate jurisdictions.”Mikal Bøe (M), CEO of Core Power UK Ltd
Ships fitted with MSR technology will be faster than conventionally powered vessels, have a superior range, and potentially carry more cargo. No need of a stop to re-fuel and they will not be subject to carbon prices. Additionally, the vessels could possibly provide electric power to the ports they call.
Considering a Capesize bulk carrier, carrying ore cargoes for 25 years on a single fuel load. That’s 2.7 million nautical miles without a fuel stop. A few knots faster, a few percent more cargo, power in port to decarbonize terminals, and no carbon tax. That’s competitive.
The technology is not yet ready to be deployed. While sustainable, emission-free energy to meet IMO targets is required, it takes time to industrialize the ecosystem around the technology.
Moreover, the necessary processes to test, legislate and approve marine MSRs will not come timely. Note that, administrations, such as the United Kingdom, proactively include nuclear-powered ships in their future for the industry. Hence, we now know that it’s possible to see advanced atomic ships sooner than we once thought.
As the marine MSR provides the very real prospect of ships not needing to be re-fuelled, the cost of energy to power the vessel is fixed for its commercial life. That’s great for long-term contracts of affreightment (COAs) and charters.
The vessel would not be subject to the same restrictions on power or speed as those future ships using alternative fuels that have lower energy density than current hydrocarbon fuels. Hence, these ships could disrupt the shipping market and provide significant competitive advantages for their owners.
”Furthermore, diesel engines are cheap but maintenance and fuel over the lifetime of the ship is expensive. On VLSFO, the total propulsion costs, including CAPEX and OPEX, of a very large container ship can be more than $1.4 billion over a 30-year period sailing at full service speed. The marine MSRs are fuelled for life so are more expensive up front, but OPEX over the lifetime of the ship is very low. A 20,000 TEU containership would be as much as 50% cheaper to run on full service speed with a marine MSR.”Mikal Bøe (M), CEO of Core Power UK Ltd
Nonetheless, carbon taxes for fossil fuels will be introduced, either through carbon trading systems or a global levy. Thus, the economic case for MSR technology becomes even greater.
”Most of the disadvantages associated with nuclear propulsion using conventional PWR systems are removed with a marine MSR. There is no need for high pressure design specification which is much cheaper; no refuelling which reduces the risk, and of course, miniscule waste means a sustainable solution.”Edmund Hughes PhD of Green Marine Associates
In this regard, the future the risks could be:
- Economic risk (capital cost) if shipping experiences a downturn and struggles to pay for new ships. This can be addressed by applying different cost models including leasing from the reactor owner/payment for units of energy provided.
- Political risk in countries where the fear of old-nuclear still prevails. This can be addressed through international dialogue highlighting the advantages of deploying advanced nuclear technologies, as opposed to conventional nuclear, especially in the context of the climate emergency.
Waste & Radioactivity
Today a 20,000 TEU container vessel will typically consume 1.5 million tons of fossil fuel bunkers. Corresponding to 4.8 million tons of emitted CO2 in 30 years of service, straight into the air. Add other pollutants such as SOx, NOx and particulate matter to that. Then multiply it by the number of vessels and the scale of the problem is clear to see.
”Nuclear waste is a combination of spent fuel and unused fuel from a reactor. The unused fuel is harmless, and the spent fuel is radioactive. However, both are metals, and the Western nuclear industry is very good at managing metals. It doesn’t dissipate in air, or leak into the ground.
In an MSR the fuel is liquid so it can’t melt down. There is no water, which can form hydrogen, which is explosive, and there is no pressure which can release toxins from the reactor core. A radioactive leak which is carried by the wind, like at Fukushima is therefore impossible.
Radioactivity is not like smoke, but a ‘force field’; the further away from it you are, or the more it is shielded, the effects are reduced. It’s like the sun, which is purely radioactive and sunshine here on Earth is a huge ocean of low-level radioactivity in which we bathe in every day. We are safe because the dose is low, and we are so far away. It’s the same with reactors. No one has died or been harmed by radioactivity from a reactor since 1986, whilst 8 million people die every year of airborne pollution from fossil fuels. We must get real about this, and fast.”Mikal Bøe (M), CEO of Core Power UK Ltd
The MSR leaves very little waste due to fuel efficiency. A Capesize bulker would use less than 200 kg of actual fuel in 25 years of service. That spent fuel would be the total quantity of waste at the end. The rest of the unused fuel remains in the MSR and continues to be used in the next generation of reactors.
”We recycle and reuse, just like we should. This is sustainability defined.
The MSR does not need to dispose of unused fuel. The 200 kg of spent fuel is a radioactive metal which is heavy and would fit in the size of a shoebox. The shoebox is placed in a dry cask made of strong shielding material, so no radioactivity is measured outside. Most of that radioactivity is gone in just 20 years.
Because the spent nuclear fuel has quite a short half-life (the time it takes for the matter to lose 50% of its radioactivity), that small cask would have to be stored for about 300 years before final disposal. Compare that to CO2 which we release into the air, and which will be with us for up to 120,000 years before being fully absorbed by nature. Again, we must compare like for like here.”Mikal Bøe (M), CEO of Core Power UK Ltd
For generations, nuclear power has produced reliable electric power around the world but has also attracted bad press regarding concerns on safety and nuclear waste handling.
Source: North P&I
Full power wind propulsion will soon be available to existing ships. A bold and surprising statement, perhaps, but one which I believe to be true. SKYTUG, which is being developed by my company, Bluewater Engineering, is a wind propulsion concept with a novel twist – the sails aren’t attached to the ship.