Modern ships run on fuel — a lot of fuel. Why not make large ships, like cruise ships and cargo transports, nuclear-powered?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Good news, Xodiac: the future is now. As soon as this weekend, you yourself can set sail on the Russian craft 50 Years of Victory, the largest nuclear-powered icebreaker in the world, which, as a side gig, takes passengers cruising over the sunny North Pole. A stateroom’s yours for a cool $26,995, and the two-week package includes an open bar, hot-air balloon rides, and the chance to see firsthand just how quickly climate change is rendering icebreakers obsolete. No wonder they’re turning to tourism.
There is indeed something of a global existential need for technological advancement in this arena. And admittedly the non-Russian, non-icebreaking pickings are a little slim, as far as civilian nuclear-powered ships go, but there’s reason to think that’s about to change.
Of course, there’s been reason to think it’s about to change since the 1950s, when the idea made its public debut, courtesy of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. World War II was over. Having let the nuclear horse out of the barn, the United States was now trying to keep the reins as tight as possible. To that end, Ike introduced his Atoms for Peace program, the aim of which was to spread globally the promise of a kinder, gentler split nucleus. We note here that Atoms for Peace has since been appropriated as the name of an alt-rock supergroup led by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.
Atoms for Peace was also propaganda — the Eisenhower initiative, that is, not the band. Ike hoped that by offering countries assistance in developing their nuclear-energy capabilities, the U.S. might keep their sympathies firmly on the side of the West. He made recipient countries pinky-swear they wouldn’t use the technology to develop a nuclear weapon, a geopolitical strategy that worked out about as well as you’d expect: the assistance set Iran down the weapons path, and also helped Israel, India, and Pakistan cook up bombs of their own.
But I digress. Ike was also keen to prove the myriad ways nuclear could benefit everyday Americans. Thus one stateside AFP project was the NS Savannah, a civilian nuclear ship launched in 1959 as a harbinger of America’s rosy atomic future.
Well, sort of, but honestly more like a preview of how slow the whole nuclear-merchant-marine concept would be to gain any kind of traction. Currently the Savannah is gathering dust in Baltimore, having remained in useful service for only ten years. The vessel did fine technologywise, but, configured as a hybrid of passenger ship and cargo ship, it fell short in both capacities — not really providing a model worth replicating.
What’s been holding back nuclear merchant ships? There’s a matter of, for instance, customer queasiness. Talking to the magazine Maritime Executive in 2015, one industry consultant said, “When you ask educated, professional groups whether they believe we should become more reliant on nuclear power, 30-40 percent are positive. When you ask the same group if they would be prepared to take their family on holiday on a nuclear-powered cruise ship, the number drops to below 10 percent.” Crew members on military nuclear ships, safe though they may be, wear dosimeters at all times, just in case — hardly a reassuring sight for your typical Caribbean vacationers, I’d imagine.
Otherwise, the challenges look logistically complex but certainly not insurmountable: rejiggering regulatory regimes, retrofitting ships, trying to figure out what to do with the nuclear waste (a problem, of course, not specific to shipping). And the benefits are significant:
- Ship owners nowadays have resisted switching to cleaner-burning natural gas because of a lack of in-port infrastructure for refueling, and so commercial craft continue to burn the dirtier fossil fuels. Nuclear avoids the issue altogether: not only zero emissions, but no refueling for five to seven years at a time.
- The startup costs of nuclear aren’t nothing — besides the reactor itself, there’s security, insurance, etc — but Nuclear Engineering International estimates that, factoring in lower fuel costs, a given ship could break even within 10 to 20 years. The economics should continue to improve, too, as the world sees heavier regulation of fossil fuels, in the form of carbon taxes and the like.
- Cheaper fuel means ships can travel faster — a boon in ways obvious (getting goods to market) and subtle (less susceptibility to pirate attacks).
The technology is basically there, too. As I pointed out in a 2009 column, the bite-size nuclear reactors that may one day revolutionize power generation are still in early stages on land, but not at sea — the U.S. Navy’s been successfully powering submarines with small nukes for decades. And though there have been plenty of maritime accidents over those years, no leakage has ever resulted from a sunk nuclear reactor. We’ve seen increasing interest in the possibility of nuclear propulsion over the last several years, and one imagines companies will feel a further push from the Paris climate accord of 2015, which encouraged the development of nuclear technologies. So maybe hold on to that 27 grand for now, Xodiac — I suspect you’ll see your options expand, and cheapen, after not too long.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.