Backing for nuclear-powered ships grows

Support is growing for Mikal Bøe-led Core Power, a high profile developer of nuclear propulsion for merchant ships.

First launched in 2018, Core Power today can boast 49 shipping companies as backers of the UK firm, a grouping made up of owners, operators and managers who, combined, control more than 4,000 ships.

James Marshall-led Berge Bulk and Tim Hartnoll-chaired X-Press Feeders are among the owners Splash has been able to confirm as backers for the project, which has made plenty of headlines over the past year.

Core Power, together with Bill Gates-chaired TerraPower, Southern Company and French atomic group Orano, is developing a modular molten salt reactor to propel ships and provide energy for manufacturing synthetic green fuels from hydrogen. The first prototype reactor is due to start trials in 2025.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) in the UK published a consultation document last August seeking views on the proposed Merchant Shipping (Nuclear Ships) Regulations. These regulations would transpose chapter VIII in the annex to the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea, 1974 (SOLAS) into UK law. A total of 11 of the 14 submissions now support nuclear powered ships.

In light of the responses received, the UK government does not intend to significantly amend the prepared draft legislation which has been drafted to transpose SOLAS Chapter VIII into UK law. It is intended to make the regulations and bring them into force by the autumn of this year.

“There is an appetite for nuclear ships over the next 10 years with growing interest for nuclear propulsion for large ocean-going vessels,” the government-controlled MCA stated in an update on its website this month, with the UK increasingly looking to position itself as a centre of expertise for atomic propulsion.

The UK will face strong competition from the US and Asia in the development of nuclear-powered merchant ships.

There is strong lobbying in Washington DC to bring America’s existing navy knowledge of nuclear power to merchant shipping, with US climate envoy John Kerry among fans of this technology.

In South Korea shipbuilding major Samsung Heavy Industries has teamed up with the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute while Seaborg Technologies in Denmark is building floating power barges, and the Canadians are working with NuScale to develop marine power stations.

The Russians, meanwhile, already have the market domestically and are now touting a huge new next generation nuclear-powered icebreaker as further proof of their maritime atomic expertise.
Not to be left out, Chinese scientists are developing their own atomic propulsion technologies for both merchant marine and offshore facilities.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.


  1. Forgive a naive question, but would not nuclear power sources carry similar risks as land counterparts? I’m imagining fuel disposal and who will be responsible for that, piracy, vessel scrapping would be need new processes to factor in nuclear material. Skilled workforce could be an issue but think that might be the easier part to address.

    1. Go to their website and read all about it.
      Also, the alternative is continued dependence on murderous despots and dictators, as we are now seeing, followed by the end of life as we know it. No brainer really.

    2. Molten salt is inherently safer, and non-prolific. I would argue the largest concern is nuclear material and piracy.

      1. The safest place for nuclear fuel is in a reactor. Creating an acceptable security and risk profile for a maritime reactor would be based on excellent fuel efficiency and long fuel cycles where few or no refuellings of a reactor are required. With no fresh fuel going in and no spent fuel coming out during the life of a vessel, security, safeguarding and proliferation risks are dramatically reduced.

        Conventional naval reactors using civilian grade uranium fuels for ships would require refuelling and associated spent fuel management as frequently as every 18 months. This fuel would also require ports capable of handling the material, thereby restricting options down to the handful of existing nuclear nations. In short, a major deterrent to any upscaling of the world’s nuclear fleet.

  2. Seems to me from the press releases etc. that there is more government interest, financial backing etc. from the US than the UK. Will this be yet another Brit initiative thrown away by a government with vested interests elsewhere?

  3. Nuclear powered ships must be fail safe to the point of guarantee that the reactors cannot be toyed with for evil purposes such as a terrorist act. Only then could such power systems be permitted. If that is even possible.

    1. The pursuit of absolute safety is a mistake. Nuclear technology has powered naval ships for 70 years without a radiation casualty. On land apart from Chernobyl where there were 43 radiation casualties, there is a clean record of radiation safety. None at Fukushima. Nuclear energy is safer than fire, that is what the record shows.

      1. Quite, but heavily subsidised Exxon et al and our compliant politicians have been spreading disinformation for a long time. They have no morals.

    2. Sorry, but the alternative is the end of the world as we know it. The heavily subsidised fossil fuel industry ($5+ trillion per annum subsidies) has been spreading propaganda for decades and as a consequence we now have Hobsons Choice. Nuclear or destruction of the environment.
      You obviously prefer the latter. Just like Exxon et al.

      1. Fossil fuels are not subsidized – any accounting write-offs are dwarfed by the massive amounts of royalties and taxes the oil companies pay. Then add in the workers income taxes and the per litre taxes at the pumps – the various governments are making many more times than the propaganda of “fossil fuel subsidies”

        Compare the same with renewable and ev subsidies – money in the toilet to increase systems that are a drag on the economy – except for China’s!

        1. Sorry but they are, as any aware person knows. All (honest) governments recognise this, as does the IMF The subsidies that have been given to wind and solar are temporary and miniscule by comparison.
          From the IMF “Globally, fossil fuel subsidies are were $5.9 trillion or 6.8 percent of GDP in 2020” You were saying?
          Also, accounting write-offs are not subsidies, are they.
          I don’t know if you are allowed to use a search engine, I use Ecosia, just type in fossil fuel subsidies. You a;so know precious little about economics either.

  4. While hardly an expert, my investigation of current nuclear tech suggests that most fears are from the past. Certainly, if anyone truly believes in EV’s, for example, they simply have to consider nuclear for energy supply shore-side. Just ask Mr. Musk. Below is just a quick search, and note the sources.
    [Search domain world-nuclear.org]
    https://world-nuclear.org › information-library › current-and-future-generation › molten-salt-reactors.aspx
    The Molten Salt Fast Neutron Reactor (MSFR), which will take in thorium fuel cycle, recycling of actinides, closed Th/U fuel cycle with no U enrichment, with enhanced safety and minimal wastes. it is a liquid-fuel design.
    Or see: https://www.iaea.org/topics/molten-salt-reactors
    While you always look at sources, the IAEA are not fools. No uranium enrichment is a key element.

  5. Molten salt is inherently safer, and non-prolific. I would argue the largest concern is nuclear material and piracy.

  6. There is a huge problem with nuclear powered ships, and that is “nuclear fear”. In New Zealand we have laws against entry of nuclear powered ships. This was aimed at the US military but still holds for all shipping. Nuclear fear is responsible for the huge regulatory barrier to all nuclear generation, despite the fact that it is documented as the safest fuel.

    1. Of the world’s fleet, about 20% of ships consume about 80% of the marine fuel, and hence cause 80% of the airborne pollution.

      Trade in and out of NZ does not impact these numbers much.

      Major trade lanes where large quantities of commodities move regularly, like iron ore and grains, or container trade lanes where huge quantities of industrial components and durable consumer goods are transported from manufacturer to end user, are the trades where nuclear powered ships could make the largest impact.

      Newcastlemax or VLOC bulkers with 1.5-2 knots higher speed, 4-6% more cargo carrying capacity and the ability to sail for a full 30 years on single fuel load will impact these trades in a positive way. The option to provide electric power in ports to decarbonise loading and discharging gear could also be a very positive thing for port communities.

      We can overcome irrational fear with positive contributions to the environment and to the economy.

  7. All nuclear plants, regardless of size and design, require an emergency planning zone (EPZ) around the reactor.

    As most reactors today are pressurized, the EPZ must take into account the formation of a plume that would form if pressure was released from the reactor into the surrounding environment. As a result, EPZ requirements for conventional naval style reactors are large. Between 15 – 80 kilometers is common for large power reactors. Less for naval reactors, but still measured in kilometers.

    This is the main hurdle to public opinion on nuclear as a pressure leak could potentially disperse radioactive material into the atmosphere and create a ‘fallout area’.

    Inherent safety is essential for maritime nuclear reactors to be implemented commercially.

    This means the implementation of passive safety systems and reactor designs that make operations, management, and emergency planning feasible for mobile reactors in ports.

    Advanced reactors operating at ambient pressure have the potential to require Emergency Planning Zones (EPZs) that DO NOT extend outside the boundary of the ship, making them far smaller than the EPZs required of conventional pressurized reactors. In fact, the berth at which the ship is docked could be outside the EPZ.

    This would allow for simpler port calls, removing a major barrier to adoption.

    Molten Salt Reactors and micro Heat Pipe Reactors both operate with ambient pressure only. Hence, those are the designs that are being developed for shipping.

    Please get in touch to discuss any other aspect of nuclear for maritime or visit https://corepower.energy for some good introductions to the multitude of topics that arise when we talk about nuclear.

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