Every time Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station finds itself at the brink — cut off from the power lines that allow safety equipment to function — it’s impossible not to think back to another nuclear power crisis elsewhere in Ukraine.

It was the 1986 Chernobyl disaster that represents the worst fears about nuclear power — a meltdown that made a portion of what was then the Soviet Union uninhabitable, turning the nearby city of Prypiat into what is still a ghost town.

But is the spectre of accidents that sparked fear about nuclear keeping minds closed to the potential for a source of zero-carbon power that could give industries, such as shipping, a path away from fossil fuels? Is it an energy transition panacea, or are the risks too great?

Subscribe to Green Seas
Get our weekly newsletter on sustainability, ESG and decarbonisation to stay on top of the developments as the shipping industry faces pressure to transform.

For Mikal Boe, whose company Core Power has positioned itself at the forefront of the hunt for applying nuclear power to shipping, the answer starts with the nature of the decarbonisation challenge the industry faces.

To decarbonise, shipping needs to solve an energy efficiency problem: it needs to find a solution that does not pump waste in the form of CO2 into the atmosphere that remains economically competitive and that is reliable.

“I think nuclear has to be considered in that sense, because it’s the only real, reliable alternative to the internal combustion engine, and it has a much higher energy density than anything else that we have out there and, as a result, produces very small amounts of waste,” he told Green Seas.

Other carbon-free fuels present an energy density challenge for large ships. Hydrogen, ammonia and methanol all take up more space than conventional bunker fuels to provide the same amount of energy, and that threatens the competitiveness of shipping. Wind is notoriously unreliable.

And, Boe said, shipping needs a different nuclear solution than is used in today’s navy ships using the technology.

New tech

As TradeWinds has reported, Boe’s Core Power is pursuing a nuclear propulsion solution for shipping different from the technology used in power plants.

The company is involved in a consortium with TerraPower, a company set up by Bill Gates, which has been developing a new design of a molten chloride fast reactor since 2013.

Core Power chief executive Mikal Boe speaks at an event during the COP26 climate talks in November 2021. Photo: Julie Broadfoot

On a large container ship, this form of molten salt reactor (MSR) would produce minimal waste — it would be the equivalent to the size of a dishwasher over the course of a ship’s life — and disposal facilities are available to safely deal with that, Boe said. The MSRs are also different from conventional reactors in that they do not pose a risk of meltdown if there is a loss of coolant, since the fuel and the coolant are one and the same.

And they are expected to provide consistent power, with no carbon emissions, for the lifespan of a ship.

Nuclear opponent

But Stand.earth’s Kendra Ulrich, who focused on nuclear before becoming shipping campaigns director at the environmental group, does not see a place for the technology in the maritime industry’s decarbonisation.

She told Green Seas the technology is too risky, because if there is an accident, it could not only make the ship radioactive and unusable, but could also have ramifications for the local environment. She also said nuclear is subject to lax regulation, and it will take too long to implement and will be expensive.

Kendra Ulrich is Stand.earth’s senior shipping campaigner. Photo: Stand.earth

“Out of all the technologies that we could possibly be investing in, nuclear is a bad investment,” she said.

“There has to be so many safety guards in place, it makes a lot more financial sense, and carbon sense, to invest in things that can be rapidly implemented, rather than investing in new nuclear technologies.”

Boe believes his company can have a nuclear-powered demonstration vessel on the water by the end of this decade, a time frame that he said is not dissimilar from other fuels. And he said looking at nuclear-powered shipping is about long-term energy transition, so if it takes longer than other solutions, that means taking the time to get it right.

And when nuclear reactors for ships are being manufactured at scale, that will make it more cost-competitive.

Speaking after a visit to the International Energy Agency in Vienna, Boe said nuclear is a highly regulated industry,

“Honestly, there is no industry on this planet which is as heavily regulated as nuclear,” he said.

Boe said a 10 MW to 20 MW reactor on a ship would have a low risk of an accident, and the impact would be nothing like that of a multi-gigawatt power plant. Plus, the MSR reactors Core Power is working on would be kept at ambient pressure, meaning in an incident they would not expel radioactive toxins.

And the reactor would be encased in a containment system that will keep it intact in an incident.

“If a ship with a molten salt reactor on board explodes, because it’s got a gas leak or something like that, and it breaks in half and it sinks to the bottom of the ocean, there will be no radioactive pollution of the environment around that wreck,” he said.


More on the prospects for nuclear-powered shipping


Could nuclear power create the future’s green shipping fuels?

Paul Berrill reports that Core Power is working on plans for floating nuclear power plants that can provide energy for offshore green ammonia refineries.

Positioned at either end of a green corridor, the company reckons they can provide low-cost alternative ships’ fuel.

Producing green ammonia from 100% clean hydrogen and nitrogen is energy intensive and requires reliable low-cost electricity. It also helps if the fuel can be produced where it is needed.

At a launch demonstration in July, Core Power said a single facility in the US Gulf could produce 1.3m tonnes of green ammonia at a cost that would compete with low-sulphur bunker fuel plus carbon taxes.

Click here to read the full story.


Could nuclear Thor save the Arctic?

One of the challenges of bringing cleaner fuel to some regions of the world comes down to infrastructure.

For example, battery-powered cruise ships would be emissions-free cruising to the Arctic if only there were a place to charge them.

Enter Thor, the ship design concept developed by Norway’s Ulstein that would be powered by molten salt reactor (MSR) nuclear technology and onboard batteries, and could also serve as a charging station for electric cruise ships.

“What we saw is that we need to create a separate infrastructure for energy,” Ulstein chief designer Oyvind Gjerde Kamsvag said of developing the concept. “So rather than making a land-based infrastructure, why not use an ocean-based infrastructure?”

Click here to read the full story.


ABS: Nuclear power may ‘play key role’ in shipping but challenges lie ahead

Michael Juliano spoke to the American Bureau of Shipping after the classification society received US Department of Energy funding to study barriers to using nuclear energy to power ships.

Nuclear power might become a prominent fuel source for shipping someday, but the road to viability is daunting, senior vice president of engineering and technology Patrick Ryan said.

“There are a range of safety, regulatory and operational challenges to be addressed before the technology is viable for commercial application at sea,” he said.

Click here to read the full story.