But knowing what to do with a ship’s reactor is far from the only obstacle. People need to be convinced of the safety of nuclear energy and technology, says Alves de Andrade. Despite excellent safety records at many nuclear sites around the world, public perceptions understandably remain dominated by the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, as well as concerns about what to do with radioactive waste.
And while there are plenty of nuclear reactors at sea right now, they tend to be on some of the most secure ships in the world. Commercial ships are sometimes victims of piracy and accidents, including large fires and explosions – the idea of adding nuclear fuel to such scenarios is unlikely to be met with enthusiasm.
The task of transitioning to a world in which nuclear-powered ships are generally welcomed in commercial ports is “not a trivial one”, says Stephen Turnock, professor of marine fluid dynamics at the University of Southampton. “You need to have protocols in place to say what would happen in the event of an emergency associated with a nuclear-powered vessel,” he explains.
Simon Bullock, a shipping researcher at the University of Manchester, says there is not enough regulatory framework to define how nuclear ships would operate globally in the commercial sector, including details on who would be responsible for any incident. Would it be the owner of the ship, the operator of the ship, the manufacturer of the nuclear reactor or the country where the ship is registered, known as the flag state? There are six “decade-like problems” involving nuclear ships that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and other agencies would need to address if nuclear-powered commercial ships were to become widespread, he says.
Liz Shaw, IMO spokesperson, said that “there is a long history of IMO cooperation and coordination with other entities where necessary”. There are guidelines on how member states can submit proposals to update existing regulations, she adds.
The crews of nuclear ships would also require special training and expertise, which increases the cost of operating these ships. Is it worth taking on all these challenges, given the need to decarbonize right now? Probably not, said Bullock. “The critical thing here is the next 10 years,” he says, referring to the urgency to tackle emissions and climate change now. “Nuclear can’t do anything about it.”
Even Norway’s NuProShip project won’t convert its first demonstration vessel until at least 2035. Meanwhile, other low- or zero-emission fuels are already being deployed in ships, from methanol to ammonia to batteries. electricity and hydrogen. None of these are perfect, and all will be jostling for supremacy in the years to come. Nuclear, with its many complications, is “perhaps a dangerous distraction” from the main horse race, says Bullock.
For what it’s worth, Turnock’s money is on hydrogen. Last month, sportswear brand Nike launched a hydrogen barge in Europe, and several other similarly sized hydrogen vessels are already sailing.
In the longer term, however, shipowners may end up seriously adopting nuclear technology. Here’s a fun fact. the original Savannah, a steamship, was also a technological pioneer. Built in 1818 in the United States, it was the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic. But its huge engines meant it could carry virtually no cargo and was therefore deemed unprofitable. Yet, within a few decades, steam ruled the waves.
While the NS Savannah may seem like a short-lived experiment, shrouded in 1950s atomic idealism, perhaps nuclear-powered merchant ships will eventually dominate after all. As President Eisenhower discovered, dreams are one thing. Then there is the future.