China took the global shipping industry by surprise by unveiling a super-large NUCLEAR container ship design at the Marintec marine expo in Shanghai last month.
The launch of the KUN-24APclass concept was by Jiangnan Shipyard, which comes under the umbrella of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation.
The 24,000 containers capacity ship has been designed to utilise fourth-generation Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) technology to generate the electricity needed to power its propulsion system and onboard services.
If the project gets as far as constructing a prototype, then it could in time to act as a catalyst for the development of a fleet of large nuclear-powered merchant vessels with a claimed near-zero emissions operating footprint.
“The ultra-large nuclear container ship is designed to truly achieve ‘zero emissions’ during the ship’s operating cycle,” CSSC said in a statement.
“This ship type has high safety, the reactor operates at high temperature and low pressure, can avoid core melting in principle, and has anti-proliferation and inherent safety features.”
Running in parallel is the development of a marine MSR by US energy utility Southern Company; Core Power, a UK start-up focused on nuclear for maritime applications, and TerraPower, which is owned by Microsoft legend Bill Gates.
They are developing a molten chloride fast reactor that would never require refuelling during its operational life.
MSRs are a type of small-scale modular nuclear reactor that utilises a liquid mixture of salts as both the fuel and the coolant, providing improved safety and potential for higher fuel utilisation compared to current reactor types in service around the world, mostly in warships.
MSR technology was developed in the 1950s and two reactors were built in the US during the 1960s. They are said to be more efficient and produce less waste than uranium-based fission plants.
But, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the test units were problematic.
First, the containment vessel material had trouble managing stresses. It became brittle, for example. Second, the material developed cracks on surfaces exposed to the fuel salts.
“These problems remain relevant,” says the journal. “Even today, no material can perform satisfactorily in the high-radiation, high-temperature, and corrosive environment inside a molten salt reactor.
“In 2018, scientists at the Idaho National Laboratory conducted an extensive review of different materials and, in the end, could only recommend that a systematic development program be initiated’.”
In other words, 50 years after the test MSRs were shut down, experts continue to question their viability and safety.
Notwithstanding US developments, the Chinese have been ploughing their own MSR furrow.
Notably, last year, The Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) – part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) – was granted approval by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment to commission an experimental thorium-powered reactor, construction of which started in September 2018.
They have moved swiftly and the MSR was reported to have been completed in 2021 … way ahead of the 2024 schedule.
SINAP has since been given regulatory clearance to begin commissioning the 2MW experimental plant that has in some quarters been touted as a potential game-changer. Thorium was chosen for fuel as it is plentiful in China and suitable.
While the Chinese have a big fleet of nuclear power stations and a large stable of nuclear warheads, they have no maritime nuclear experience, unlike the US, Russia and the UK albeit their core focus is warships.
There have only ever been seven nuclear-powered merchant vessels built: Savannah (US – 1961), Otto Hahn (Germany – 1968), Mutsu (Japan – first voyage 1974), plus Russia’s Sevmorpuf – 1988 and three further sisters.
Only Sevmorpuf is still active. However, as this edition was going to press, news broke that the ship suffered damage on December 24 following a fire in a crew cabin.
If the Chinese build their nuclear containership, it would be the first civil build in half a century.
Meanwhile, research commissioned by the American Bureau of Shipping, (a classification society) and published earlier this year, has suggested that nuclear plants would occupy less space than diesels, plus eliminate CO2 emissions and do away with the need for refuelling during their typically 25-year service lifespan.
ABS modelled a 14,000 box capacity containership and a Suezmax tanker.
Another classification society, DNV of Norway, has also been closely involved in regulatory groundwork, while Lloyd’s Register of London has rewritten its code for nuclear merchant ships.
Some countries like the UK have already adopted a nuclear code for merchant shipping of the future.
LR Lloyd’s Register observed that it expected to “see nuclear ships on specific trade routes sooner than many people currently anticipate”.
CSSC is not the only big shipping name in China to be interested in nukes; Cosco said in 2009 that shifting to nuclear was potentially a very good way of slashing shipping emissions. It commissioned a study, though that was aborted in 2011 because of Japan’s Fukushima disaster.
In 2010 Babcock International’s marine division completed a study on developing a nuclear-powered LNG tanker.
In November of that year, LR began a two-year study with US-based Hyperion Power Generation (now Gen4 Energy), which has developed a small fast neutron reactor using lead-bismuth eutectic cooling and apparently able to operate for 10 full-power years before refuelling,
Also, UK vessel/marine systems designer BMT Group and Greek ship operator Enterprises Shipping & Trading teamed to “investigate the practical maritime applications for small modular reactors”.
This project included research on a comprehensive regulatory framework led by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and regulators in the countries involved.
Presently, some 90% of all goods shipped globally travel aboard box ships.
And, with around 53,000 merchant vessels, the shipping industry in toto is one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters globally, spewing around one billion tonnes of CO2 annually (3% of all greenhouse gas emissions), while guzzling around 6% of annual global oil output.
In 2018 the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) adopted the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from shipping by 50% by 2050, compared with 2008.
In 2021 it was suggested that modular molten salt reactors of about 100 megawatts (MW) would be particularly suitable for marine propulsion due to ambient operating pressure and low-enriched fuel.
The World Nuclear Association (WNI) notes in a recent paper that shipping company X-Press Feeders has invested in UK-based Core Power, which is an advocate of modular molten salt reactors for marine propulsion.
In June 2021, Samsung Heavy Industries (SHI) announced that it would partner with Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) to develop compact molten salt reactors to power ships as well as market offshore power plants.
WNI notes that, last January, SHI completed a conceptual design for the “CMSR Power Barge”, which is a floating nuclear power plant based on compact salt reactors.
The 200-800 MW design developed by Danish company Seaborg Technologies, would have a 24 year operating life. SHI plans to commercialise the concept by 2028.
Apart from naval use, where frequency of refuelling is a major consideration, nuclear power seems most immediately promising for the following:
- Large bulk carriers that go back and forth constantly on few routes between dedicated ports; such as China to South America and NW Australia. They could be powered by a reactor delivering 100 MW thrust.
- Cruise liners, which have demand curves like a small town. A 70 MW unit could give base load and charge batteries, with a smaller diesel unit supplying the peaks. The largest liner afloat today is the 100,000-ton Oasis class, which would require as much as 100 MW of generating capacity, which is pretty much equivalent to the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre offshore Aberdeen.
- Nuclear tugs, to tow/assist conventional ships across oceans.
- Some kinds of bulk shipping, where speed may be essential, especially container ships.
Mid-2021 saw the World Nuclear Transport Institute (WNTI) launch the so-called Maritime Applications & Nuclear Propulsion Working Group, to discuss and develop rules and frameworks for the deployment of next-generation reactors at sea.
This includes nuclear propulsion, floating nuclear power plants, offshore small modular reactors used for hydrogen production and maritime transport of SMRs.
However, there is a downside in that there is a school of thought which says that using nuclear reactors to power merchant vessels raises too many questions about port access and security.
It argues that the main role of nuclear should be to extract hydrogen for use in methanol and ammonia production on the basis that adapted diesels will be safer and cleaner. Such plants would be located onshore and aboard barges.
One estimate is that producing enough ammonia/methanol to fuel the world’s container ships and bulk carriers would require 2,300 Terawatt hours per annum; nearly as much as total civil nuclear generation capacity today and more than total wind generation.