FEATURE | Dutch firm studies more widespread use of nuclear propulsion in commercial shipping

FEATURE | Dutch firm studies more widespread use of nuclear propulsion in commercial shipping

Photo: C-Job Naval Architects

New research by Netherlands-based design and engineering firm C-Job Naval Architects reveals that nuclear energy could be applied as marine propulsion in the future.

According to the company, nuclear technology has seen several interesting developments and should be considered for future maritime applications.

New findings from ongoing studies

The research was carried out by Koen Houtkoop, Msc. Marine Technology graduate at TU Delft, on behalf of C-Job.

“Developments in nuclear energy have mostly been focused on land-based applications,” said Houtkoop. “However, a number of aspects make them of interest for maritime application. In particular, the significant reduction in harmful emissions. Compared to conventional fuel-based systems, my research showed that there can be up to a 98 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions. Furthermore, the air pollution emissions, such as SOx, PM and NOx, are eliminated completely.

“There are obvious concerns with nuclear energy such as nuclear waste as well as societal perception. Additionally, we should be mindful that regulations for marine application are outdated and require significant effort for a successful application.”

The molten salt reactor concept

C-Job finds that the molten salt reactor has the most promising potential to produce energy for the maritime industry in the long term. Molten salt reactor concepts have a built-in passive safety system due to the salt being used as the coolant and fuel, and the strong negative temperature coefficient, indicating that upon temperature increase the reactivity drops strongly. This prevents problems with stability.

The passive safety of this type of reactor, along with the combination of its high burn-up and the future potential to use the thorium cycle, make it the best fit for maritime application. Burnup is an effectivity measure indicating how much thermal energy the reactor can extract from a given quantity of nuclear fuel. A higher burn-up is favourable as it reduces the amount of required nuclear fuel and produced waste per power produced.

Thorium cycle has proliferation resistance, meaning it is a very unattractive route to create nuclear weapons out of it. This make makes the weaponisation potential very low, as it is difficult to weaponise the respective material that is largely consumed in the reactor.

With thorium, the high-level nuclear waste longevity can be reduced from more than 10,000 years to approximately 300 years. However, for a completely accurate footprint assessment to be done, an accepted method to compare nuclear waste to CO2 emissions needs to be made.

Key advantages over diesel propulsion

The research identified large ocean-going vessels as having the most potential for nuclear propulsion. By creating four different concepts (bulk, container, tanker, and offshore), key items were analysed, including the mass and volume of the energy storage and power generation system. It shows that, even though the shield around the reactor is a significant portion of the respective mass and volume of the nuclear power generation system, in most cases, the nuclear option is lighter and more compact than the conventional marine diesel option.

The research shows that while nuclear marine propulsion has a high capital expenditure, it nonetheless be cost-effective within five to fifteen years depending on fuel cost and the vessel’s operational profile. Also, nuclear marine propulsion offers the potential to consider higher design speeds, making the ship more profitable. This is because fuel cost (OPEX) only grows marginally with higher speeds where ultimately the main limiting factor would be the CAPEX of the installation with more power.

“Where maritime applications for ammonia, hydrogen, and methanol have advanced, nuclear energy so far has not been widely considered to be a viable option,” said Niels de Vries, Lead Naval Architect at C-Job. “Appropriate safety measures must be in place and the technology must be developed further before it’s mature enough to be implemented, but nuclear technology has serious potential. More research is needed to fully understand the design, operation, and life cycle.”

C-Job believes that a combination of more advanced technology and the correct regulations for safe application can turn nuclear power into a viable source of energy for marine propulsion.

See all the other news, reviews and features of this month’s Marine Engines and Propulsion Systems Week right here.

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