Nuclear commercial ships have been studied for decades and there is renewed interest. The newest justifications focus on the decarbonization climate change aspects. The first nuclear navy ship was launched in 1954. It was the US nuclear submarine.
The US had the nuclear-powered cargo ship NS Savannah launched in 1959.
The Russian Sevmorput is the world’s only civilian nuclear-powered cargo ship. It was commissioned in 1988. It is being used to deliver about 20,000 tons of cargo to mainly Antarctic routes.
A nuclear ship is about 50% faster than a diesel ship. A three-week run from China to the US would be completed in two weeks.
Nextbigfuture has written many articles about nuclear power for commercial shipping.
There has been progress to small modular nuclear reactors. The NuScale 76 MWe reactor Commercial shipping uses nearly 10% of the world’s oil and generates more air pollution. The air pollution is worse because they use the cheapest and dirtiest oil (bunker fuel). There are around ten thousand commercial ships.
China Ocean Shipping (Group) Co (COSCO) studied nuclear commercial shipping for several years.
SOURCES- Hackaday, Barents Observer, Nuscale
Written By Brian Wang, Nextbigufuture
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.
32 thoughts on “Commercial Shipping Could Be Faster and Better Like the Nuclear Navy”
Hello Brian, why don't we use those big Nuclear powered ships still have them run by the military, create a big tug like a locomotive on a train, and have that be nuclear powered and ships could latch onto it and off of it and it would just be 2 ships that could cycle back and forth across the pacific lowering Fuel costs and creating Fees, and ships would not penetrate the 200 Nautical Miles of the other countries shoreline and maintain international water locations, this would save money and maintain political correctness.
And how many—nuclear tugs—have you sailed on?
Also if you cut the transit time by 50%, you can move the same amount of goods using fewer ships. Minimize the loading/unloading time and there you go.
Either that or the same number of smaller ships. They could be Panamax ships instead of canal busters. And then instead of having Panamax ships there would be Nuclemin ships. What is the smallest ship in which a nuclear reactor would make sense? If it's a 120 foot ship, then nobody would make 110 foot ships anymore.
I'm 100% in favor of nuclear ships.
I stopped eating fish – I can get by without, but the penguins and Maui dolphins off the coast here are in trouble. Be good though, when they certify the omega 3 canola you Aussies developed, for Kiwi consumers.
Great Holy Floating Nuclear Bomb!!! What are they trying to do??
Aquaculture is the only way to supply 8 billion people with the demand for fish once the planet becomes developed enough for everyone to afford their prefered diet.
Well, unless we find another couple of oceans.
Ah, you mean the whole ship is submersible. That makes sense.
I was picturing a submersible gliding tug pulling a surface ship along.
Weather is not an issue once submerged but it is an issue in the coastal area's where diving is risky or poses a hazard to shipping. Pirates usually don't have submersibles of their own. If they prevent the submersible from diving, sure I follow you, but without a crew on board to protect, there are a lot of (frankly quite gruesome) countermeasures that could be implemented against attempts of piracy. International counter-piracy programs also exist(-ed) (i.e. Operation Atalanta around Somalia).
Piracy will never be resolved. Ships are just to nice of a target and pirates will try to find a way. But rest assured, insurance companies are very willing to make the case for and ask for a higher premium because of the perception of increased risk (while at the same time sneakily arranging armed escorts reducing the risk of payout via a compartmentalized sister legal entity).
Having a significantly slower and less powerful propulsion system would make weather and piracy MORE of a problem, surely?
But if you want to incorporate nuclear power into the shipping industry as being the new normal, then having all the nuclear ships painted like a poisonous insect and treated like a military ship on high alert would give the exact reverse of this. That doesn't normalise anything.
Which gets back to the original thesis that, given the vast gulf in technical expertise, discipline, security and maintenance spending between what we consider acceptable for nuclear power and what is currently viable for international shipping, we won't see shipping go all nuclear unless:
— The cost of international shipping goes way, way up.
— New nuclear reactors are designed that are not just foolproof and neglect proof, but deliberate, determined, aggressive, sabotage and attack proof.
I've got no idea what the second option would look like.
Solid steel blocks with no-moving-parts low temperature cores buried deep inside, the heat coming out via copper conduction paths? Something more like deep space probe radioisotopic generators, scaled up a million times?? I guess some designs must be floating around.
(I'll note that a molten salt reactor totally fails at these requirements. Sorry MS fans.)
With recent IMO pushes that make even desulphurized marine fuel oil a difficult proposition, many shipping lines are now openly feeling out new tech and trying to predict the market. Assuming the recent japanese pushes within IMO to defang the pollution mandates fail, then we are going to see a lot more LNG powered ships in short and medium distance shipping. Long distance is still a problem though. I think the big moves will be when chinese container ships start to feature nuclear reactors onboard, and running very fast as well. That tilts the economics in strange ways, as some companies are beholdened to ship products *greenly* as part of their overall CO2 statistics. Under normal circumstances, that favors slow steaming/nose jobbed container vessels, and in some cases wind assisted ship if travelling the tradewinds (from kitesails, to actual sails, to wingsails).
But here's a thought. What if you started seeing electric drive container vessels, With a minor diesel powerplant, and a pair of modularized nuclear reactors, not seawater cooled but air cooled, and internally using a supercritical CO2 power cycle. Reactors themselves are functionally containerized and mostly self contained, and built to a common spec. You get them from a lease pool, and slot them in topside slots, similar to how LNG powered ships have containerized tankage. Operate the reactors as sealed assets. remotely operated/managed via satellite like Starlink.
Feature not a bug?
There is a fundamentally sound reason why transportation isn't propelled by nuclear energy, just like why every household doesn't have a SMR in the basement. It's not a technical issue, or even cost. It is a security problem. And a safety one in case SHTF.
Ammonia is used in agriculture and refrigeration, Uranium is not used is such a proximity to people. Ships can handle it. Enough screaming.
Ammonia is nowhere near as toxic as you are trumpeting, John. Piles of manure make vast amounts of the stuff; work in a dairy farm for a few days, and you'll see. Smell. Overwhelming.
Ammonia NH₃ combines with water H₂O to become NH₄OH, ammonia 'water'. It dissolves in surprisingly high fractions, at room temperature, over 250 volumes-per-volume and more when refrigerated.
Ammonia from refrigeration leaks was one of the big 'problems' of older pre-CFC refrigeration. Yet, it rarely killed: the amounts used were small, and even tiny precursor leaks were very easy to 'sniff out'.
Ammonia, in the form of ammonium nitrate NH₄NO₃, as the largest produced and consumed agricultural source of nitrogen, also is unsurprisingly the largest nitrogen component of field run-off water. Which goes to creeks, to streams, to rivers, to deltas, to the oceans.
Eutrophication is real, and serious.
Hence … why USDA has well funded, active programs to retrain farmers….
To mitigate runoff, to lower N use per acre, and the like.
Hubris, I say.
⋅-=≡ GoatGuy ✓ ≡=-⋅
This piece would be meaningful if they factored cost of production, reactor maintenance and retirement, insurance and crew costs into it. By one yardstick nuclear ships save money, but the problem has many facets and the trade offs need to be calculated before recommendations are made.
The US and other navies are fanatical about personnel training and reactor safety, administrative errors alone can get people 'de-nuked' as we used to say. I do not feel as confident that 'flag of convenience' countries will feel compelled to enforce the same standards.
Having sailed vessels around the world, I can say with certainty that tugs are NOT standardized.
Let's not forget that if we replaced all fossil fuels with nukes and EV's and locally manufactured synthetic fuels, global shipping goes down by 40% anyway as 40% of ships is just moving fossil fuels around. Then you only have to nuke the remaining 60% of the ships.
Mind you, if the Chinese and European boats weren't vacuuming up all the fish, the Somalis would still be fishermen themselves.
Ammonia kills people every year, just from leaks of the tiny quantities used in refrigeration – that's why CFCs were developed. It's lethal to fish and other water dwellers too. A leak from a nuclear reactor is usually a few grams of tritium or suchlike, with no harm resulting, just ritual wailing from Greenpeace and co. An ammonia leak probably means you have to evacuate the whole city block- it boils at -33C, so it's very keen to escape containment. To fuel the world's ships, you'd need untold thousands of tonnes of the stuff. Ammonia from fertilisers is also responsible for the death of areas of the ocean through eutrophication, and for the increase in emissions of N2O, nitrous oxide. This is the third major greenhouse gas, 310 times worse than CO2, lasts five times longer in the atmosphere than methane, and for good measure helps destroy the ozone layer.
Got any more good ideas ?
Not to mention that automated turrets are going to fail to distinguish an actual pirate from greenpeace protesters or seashepherd or someone and so kill someone who is rich and with a high social status.
Having an electric or hybrid electric tug sailing along side of the nuclear tug would probably further enhance security since you could deploy armed men to the electric tug to approach and further intimidate any pirates within the vicinity of the tug or its freight.
You can reduce energy requirements for a large container ship-like shipment to that provided by a couple of solar panels if you use underwater submarine glider propulsion. Buoyancy changes (which require little energy) are used to make your merchant submarine glide in a see saw pattern across the ocean. When weather permits, you recharge the batteries with solar. Weather and piracy become less of a danger.
But… scaling this up, material cost, longer transit times, investor risk aversiveness, regulator risk, cohabitation of unmanned systems with ships on trade routes (or the perceived risk even when choosing other routes), still need a prop for coastal zones, narrow shipping channels, harbor, etc.
Or, if you don't care about the mess, automated turrets.
I just read an account of a tug being taken by pirates off Somalia. Tugs have powerful engines for their size, but they're designed for torque, not speed, so they couldn't outrun the pirates. Since the fuel for a nuclear powered vessel should be considerably cheaper per unit energy than fossil fuels ( especially if high-sulfur bunker oil is banned ), but the ship itself might cost more, it would make economic sense to run them faster – maybe at 30 knots instead of 20 – to get a better return on investment. That would also make them much harder to intercept. It's also probable that improved security will pretty much eliminate piracy, just as it did for aircraft hijacking. There's not much that the average criminal gang or third-world desperado could do with a reactor before they were staring down the barrels of a navy boat, anyway – a safe room for the crew would suffice. The reactor would protect itself.
If transoceanic barge towing was feasible, it would probably happen a lot more already, because of savings in turnaround time.
' Chlorine from renewable sources hybrid engine is probably the cleanest solution for shipping propulsion ' – ? What are you talking about ?
Maybe a heavy Nitrogen brayton cycle machine (smaller and simpler to run than a steam power plant) could do the job?
I would assume that any nuclear sea craft would have to have armed security personal.
A nuclear tug might be the most viable nuclear commercial sea craft since– one standard vessel– could tug a large variety of cargo barges to near their final destination. A companion electric or hybrid electric (methanol fuel cell/battery or hydrogen fuel cell/battery) tug could then tow the barges perhaps up to 50 kilometers into port. Electric tugs could also be recharged by the nuclear tug.
44 kilometers is a country's contiguous zone, allowing it to enforce sanitation laws within its territorial waters. And I assume that a significant number of nations might ban commercial nuclear ships from entering their contiguous territorial waters.
But no such ban is allowed by international law beyond 44 kilometers, even within a nation's EEZ territory (Exclusive Economic Zone) which stretches out to 370 kilometers beyond a nation's coastline.
Pirates safe also?
Chlorine from renewable sources hybrid engine is probably the cleanest solution for shipping propulsion, Ships in the future will glide on generated air bubbles and will carry a giant kite that helps pulls them to further reduce power consumption.
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