On a chilly morning last November, dockyard hands and officials gathered around a smart blue and red hull, positioned on a slipway leading into the murky waters of the Baltic.
Across the ship’s stern was draped the blue, white and red of the Russian flag. Along her side were white Cyrillic letters spelling out the name of Russia’s nuclear power agency.
The Yakutia, the ship the crowd had gathered to launch, is no ordinary merchant vessel. She is one of a tiny handful of nuclear-powered civilian ships, tasked with icebreaking in the Arctic waters to the north of Russia, helping to keep shipping routes open.
Nuclear-powered ships have long been the sole preserve of navies and state agencies like Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency. Concerns over safety and available engineering expertise have largely kept nuclear power plants out of civilian hands.
Yet that might be about to change, according to the world’s largest shipbuilder. South Korea’s HD Hyundai is looking at building nuclear-powered cargo vessels as the industry seeks to end its dependence on polluting heavy fuel oil.
“We’re thinking of putting nuclear into a ship for a zero carbon shipping future,” chief executive Ki-sun Chung says.
HD Hyundai is considering the shift to nuclear ahead of green regulations that will apply to global shipping from 2025. It is not alone.
“At the present time there are a number of organisations looking at nuclear in the marine space for both shipping and offshore applications,” says Mark Tipping of Lloyd’s Register’s, an industry body that helps set safety standards in the shipbuilding industry.
Tipping helps oversee Power to X, a push to generate electricity for heavy industry from alternative sources.
The vast majority of global cargo vessels still use bunker fuel oil – little changes since the Second World War, even if engines burning it are somewhat more cleanly nowadays.
However, the pace of change is picking up. Shipping lines such as AP Moller-Maersk and CMA CGM are already placing contracts with Hyundai for vessels powered by alternative fuels, Chung tells The Telegraph.
While none of those contracts are yet for nuclear-powered vessels, he sees the power of the atom as a potential replacement for bunker oil.
There are currently no commercial ships operating on nuclear power in the West today. Safety regulations and cautious port authorities have largely kept the technology in the “what-if” basket.
It is becoming increasingly more viable, however. Environmental concerns and regulation are pushing to move global maritime trade away from traditional fossil fuel oil propulsion and in search of alternative energy sources.
New rules from the International Maritime Organisation will give the world’s cargo ships ratings between A and E. Too many low ratings will trigger regulatory action, says Chung.
At the same time, the European Union is also planning to introduce carbon cap-and-trade measures for the shipping industry beginning in 2025, which will increase the cost of operating polluting vessels.
Even Russia is talking up the green aspect of its nuclear ships. In remarks made at the launch of the Yakutia last year, Russia’s deputy prime minister Victoria Abramchenko said: “At high latitudes, special attention to environmental protection is required. For the Arctic, a very important factor is the amount of emissions into the atmosphere. In this series of icebreakers, they are drastically reduced.”
Nuclear propulsion brings more benefits than just going green. Refuelling a reactor is a once-in-years operation, compared to bunkering a current-day tanker, which is required every four to six weeks. The limiting factor for days on voyage becomes crew endurance and rations, not the need to top up the ship itself.
A shift to nuclear-powered civilian shipping could reap dividends for Britain. Rolls-Royce has supplied the Navy with reactors for its submarines ever since the 1960s, and the Derby-based company is working on small modular reactor designs intended for civilian electricity generation.
Building nuclear-powered ships is just one piece of the puzzle: these vessels then need to be crewed by specially trained and experienced sailors. Compared with the well-remunerated and stable life of a nuclear engineer ashore, going to sea can be a much less attractive prospect.
Professor Alessio Patalano, a naval expert from King’s College London, says that Russia’s nuclear icebreakers “present challenges in terms of maintenance, like any nuclear power plant,” but adds that the country “has a long-standing track record” of successfully running the ships. While Russia is not a role model for transparency, so far its nuclear icebreaker fleet is not known to have had any serious nuclear safety issues.
Expertise in maritime nuclear power is concentrated in a handful of navies: chiefly Britain, France and the US. Engineers trained by these forces find themselves in heavy demand and for good reason: the consequences of a nuclear accident at sea, on a civilian ship, would be severe.
Any perceived glamour around the working life of a naval nuclear watchkeeper is far from reality. An ex-Royal Navy source relays the “months of boredom” inherent in patrolling the oceans aboard a Vanguard-class nuclear submarine.
A Hyundai spokesman says the company “appreciates the pros and cons of applying nuclear power in the maritime sector”, and advocating for nuclear propulsion “in a measured way while recognizing its value to zero-carbon emissions”.
For now, it is looking to launch alternative, non-nuclear fuels. Chung of HD Hyundai says his company is working on ships that could be powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG), methanol, ethane and even ammonia.
“We are also trying to bring in a hydrogen burning engine around 2025-2026,” continues Chung. “And beyond that we are also trying to introduce fuel cells into marine propulsion.”
Much of this is still at the research and development stage, but Hyundai claims switching propulsion fuel to LNG can “reduce carbon emissions by 20pc compared to burning traditional bunker fuel”. Burning ammonia, says Chung, results in “zero carbon” emissions – although other gases are inevitably released when fuels are burnt in real-world conditions outside the laboratory.
Still, the race is on to start building civilian nuclear-powered ships. Lloyd’s Register’s Tipping says: “We are likely to see the first applications of commercial nuclear propulsion this decade.”
Shopping could soon reach our shelves from overseas through the power of the atom.
Source: The Telegraph