COLUMN | Get with the program: buy a nuclear boat that doesn't need fuel [An Innocent Australian]

Arktika Project 22220
Arktika, a Russian Project 22220 nuclear-powered icebreakerRosatom

"Hagar, I can’t get to sleep for thinking about her," declared Lucky Eddie to his commander. "I can't even concentrate, eat, or do anything without thinking about her." he lamented.

"It’s alright, Eddie," Hagar declared sympathetically as he put a hand around his companion's shoulder. "I was the same with my first boat!"

Hagar the Horrible from the comic strip of the same name is undeniably a nautical mentor to millions. He has dispersed such gems of wisdom that I post them up in the office kitchen.

Along with 274,000 other Queenslanders that own boats, we proudly show photos of our boats while our spouses show off happy snaps of the kids or the grandkids. Just for the record, I’ve noticed that some of these small people turn ugly in looks and/or personality when they get bigger, but a good-looking boat always stays a good-looking boat!

Key developments beginning in the 1950s

The amazing thing about a boat is that it can be moved easily with very little horsepower. I have a 1930 photo of one draft horse pulling 600 tonnes of coal on a barge that weighed 200 tonnes. Bringing that 800-tonne total weight ashore, and putting it on railway wheels or truck wheels, would take 30 to 40 horses to do the job. Hence when then-US President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked his clever people in the early 1950s for nominating a project for his "Atoms for Peace Project" to a world terrified by the word "atomic," the clever people in his administration offered floating solutions.

At the same time, the Soviet Union started considering nuclear energy to transportation in 1954 when the five-megawatt nuclear power station went into operation at Obninskoye near Moscow. Serious papers by senior Russian engineers at the time highlighted the attractiveness of nuclear power plants for ship propulsion where "great range and endurance with the least amount of fuel weight" were the most desirable features. Some 70 years later, they still are!

The first US project was the nuclear submarine Nautilus, commissioned in 1954. The sub could stay underwater, even under the polar icecap, for extended periods.

The first US nuclear-powered cargo passenger ship, the 182-metre-long Savannah, was on the drawing boards early. It was launched in 1959 and entered service in 1964. It was capable of circumnavigating the planet 14 times at 20 knots on just 22 kg of uranium.

The Russians at the time were obviously peeking over the counter at the Americans in designing a passenger cargo icebreaker. In their case, it was the 134-metre-long Lenin, which they launched in December 1957, and they pipped the Americans by getting her into service by 1959 and using a nuclear power plant similar to the Obninskoye unit.

These commercial nuclear vessels were setting significantly higher operational capabilities, particularly on the Russian Transarctic route known as the Northeast passage, which is is one-third of the distance of the traditional route through the Suez Canal. This transarctic route also gave the Russians access to significant oil reserves, gas reserves, and mineral resources.

Ongoing projects in Russia and China

In January 2022, multinational engineering and constructions company China Communications and Construction and Russian Titanium Resources agreed to cooperate on a mining project to develop a vertically-integrated mining and metallurgical complex for the processing of titanium ores and quartz sands from the Pizhemsky deposit in the Komi Republic in northern Russia. The parties also discussed the supply of marketable goods to the Chinese market, including rutile, titanium dioxide, wollastonite, iron oxide, calcined quartz sands, and premium glass sands with low iron content.

This project to create a national mining cluster is involving the construction of the Sosnogorsk-Indiga railway and the deep sea ports of Tiksi and Indiga, in the Arctic region of Russia. These developments have been boosted by the Ukraine war and sanctions against Russia where Chinese trade has increase by 35 per cent.

These developments need reliable waterways, which only icebreakers can provide. Russia is boosting its 40-strong icebreaking fleet building with all of the new vessels being nuclear-powered as part of its aim to improve Arctic shipping.

Shipbuilder Rosatomflot is a subsidiary of Russian state nuclear company Rosatom and Baltiysjiy Zavod, part of United Shipbuilding Corporation. Recently, the company signed a contract for the construction of a unique, multi-functional nuclear service vessel that would operate from 2029. The vessel is designed to perform a full range of work on recharging nuclear icebreakers.

Successful Russian floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs) have been working since 2018 in Vilyuchinsk in the country's far east. Last month, Russia agreed to supply the first FNPP to Guinea in Africa, with several others under contract with other African countries with power problems. These units will be leased by Russia and replacement of the reactors will also be done by the Russians.

China is also building FNPPs, primarily for use in offshore mining. Another 23 reactors are under construction in China as of April of this year. Ships powering shore grids has happened since 1929, but engineering advances with nuclear reactors has made power transfer much easier now with voltage transformers and the latest technologies.

More preferable to wind and hydro power

The latest micro modular reactors (MMRs) are being designed by several countries and are focused on generating five to 10 MW. For context, these MMRs can fit on the back of a 40-foot semi trailer, and can power merchant ships up to Panamax size (80,000 DWT).

The largest production wind turbines are only around seven MW with a capital cost of US$1.2 million per megawatt. They also have a significant footprint and a limited lifespan of 20 to 30 years. You can check this out for yourself!

The MMRs offer a combination of power for propulsion and shore powering, which is highly attractive for very remote nations. The highest national cost component of remote nations even with some hydro and renewables is imported diesel, and it averages US$1 billion per annum for a population of one million. With MMR manufacturers offering a cost of US$0.35/kWh on a leased base, this is surely the future for low-emission power solutions, is it not?

Again, the marine industry is leading the nuclear industry and technological change with MMRs. Not having to carry fuel or do voyage deviations to pick up fuels, as mentioned earlier, is a hugely desirable feature.

The 100,000 cargo ships of all sizes carry 1,000 to 3,000 tonnes of fuel depending on size. Over a 30-year lifespan of a ship carrying this amount of cargo instead of fuel, together with the significant maintenance costs and manning associated with large diesel engines, the operating overhead would amount to millions. Add the attraction of zero emissions with MMRs and the nuclear option becomes compelling.

Over the last decade shipowners, have pursued the holy grail flirting with ammonia, hydrogen, sail-assist, methanol, and LNG, and yet nothing comes close to nuclear! The existing 162 nuclear vessels in the world have been constrained to military, research, and icebreaking duties. They will soon have their numbers boosted with cargo ships, and the Chinese are already leading the charge with a nuclear-powered containership.

A boat that doesn’t need refuelling has a lot of appeal, especially if you can plug it into the power grid when alongside. Hagar the Horrible and his long-term Director of Operations, Lucky Eddie, may only be two-dimensional comic strip characters, but they would certainly agree with that sentiment! With that in mind, real-life three-dimensional people like Chris Bowen should get with the program.

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Baird Maritime / Work Boat World