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Maritime’s net-zero ambitions re-energise discussion around nuclear energy

The emergence of new advanced modular reactors and new vessel concepts has elevated nuclear power as a viable option for the production of green fuels

Over the last few years, the conversation around nuclear power has grown, intensified by societal pressures to meet climate agreement goals and underpinned by advancements in small modular reactors (SMRs) and their potential to meet the rising demand for clean-power generation.

Long used for submarine and aircraft carrier propulsion by the US Navy and others, as well as Russian icebreakers, nuclear power is being seriously considered for commercial marine applications. China has made significant advancements in SMRs. Last year at the Chinese maritime trade fair Marintec 2023, Jiangnan Shipyard unveiled a nuclear-powered ultra-large container ship (ULCS) that would use a molten-salt reactor (MSR) with thorium as its fuel. The ULCS “is designed to truly achieve zero emissions during the ship’s operating cycle,” Jiangnan Shipyard parent China State Shipbuilding Corp said in a social media post. Others, such as Crowley and the Ulstein Group, have put forward promising vessel designs that incorporate MSRs. Oil and gas producer Viaro Energy has even proposed using an SMR on a North Sea platform to provide power to decarbonise the production of offshore oil and gas.

Today’s modular reactor technologies are a far cry from the world’s first nuclear-powered merchant ship, NS Savannah, which made its maiden voyage 20 August 1962, following its construction under the Eisenhower Administration’s “Atoms for Peace” programme. Removed from service in 1971 and decommissioned in 2019, NS Savannah is now docked in Baltimore as a ‘Back to the Future’ reminder of nuclear power’s zero-emissions potential for maritime.

“No stone should go unturned in the energy transition”

Both ABS senior vice president, global technology and digital development, Patrick Ryan and ABS technology group senior engineer, Meg Dowling, believe nuclear power is a viable zero-emissions solution for maritime in the coming decades.

In a podcast interview, Mr Ryan said using nuclear power initially to produce green fuels like ammonia or hydrogen would reduce many of the questions that would arise from a nuclear-powered commercial ship trading internationally. “The idea that we could power ships seems apparent because we have been doing that for decades, and I think that will come as well. But that will be a little bit of a longer tale.”

Added Ms Dowling: “But the big question remains in the spread of energy demand by 2050, and further, where are we getting the energy from to produce these fuels? Traditionally, they have been produced with fossil fuels, or renewable energy is an option, but it is intermittent and not as reliable. So, we are seeing a growth in energy demand, and the only place I can see that potentially coming from is from the advanced nuclear technologies that are being discussed right now.”

While much has to be done on the regulatory side, DNV Maritime business development director and senior principal surveyor, Allan Krogsgaard told us: “No stone should go unturned in the energy transition. All fuels need to be considered.”

Mr Krogsgaard moderated a panel “Nuclear Power Potential for Zero-Emission Shipping” at CMA Shipping 2024. He told us one of the key takeaways from the panel was nuclear “has to be a part of the equation in some form to meet net-zero ambitions. The set goals cannot be achieved without considering nuclear with what we know now.”

Source: Riviera