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Bill Gates joins nuclear-powered shipping push

Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world, has turned his attention to getting ships powered by nuclear energy.

The Microsoft co-founder, who turned 65 last week, is also chairman of TerraPower, a nuclear tech company that today announced a new venture with Mikal Bøe’s CORE POWER, French nuclear materials handling specialist Orano and American utilities firm Southern Company. The four companies plan to develop molten salt reactor (MSR) atomic technology in the United States.

The implications could be transformational, shaping how we deal with climate change

“We’re pleased to work with such outstanding partners in developing game-changing technology to help transport and industry transition to a clean energy future,” said Mikal Bøe, CEO of London-based CORE POWER, which has been making headlines in recent months for its atomic batteries aimed at the marine market.

The four companies have submitted an application to the US Department of Energy to take part in cost-share risk reduction awards under the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Programme to build a prototype MSR, as a proof-of-concept for a medium-scale commercial-grade reactor.

“The implications of the MSR for transport and industry could be transformational, as we seek to build scale-appropriate technology and broad acceptance of modern and durable liquid-fuelled atomic power to shape the future of how we deal with climate change,” Bøe commented today.

The CORE POWER units are based on marine molten salt reactors (m-MSRs), a technology using high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), capable of powering the largest ships afloat today.

In the m-MSR atomic battery, the fuel is the coolant and the coolant is the fuel, so coolant cannot be lost. Thorium is a weakly radioactive metallic chemical element found most commonly in India and is a substance that Gates’ TerraPower has been studying closely of late.

Admitting the technology would not be cheap to install on ships, Bøe has proposed a leasing model for his batteries, similar to those deployed for aircraft engines.

Bøe’s atomic battery invention (pictured below) has been much discussed in the shipping industry in recent months.

At a webinar in Singapore last week, Andreas Sohmen-Pao, the chairman of BW Group, discussed the potential dramatic market shifts brought about by atomic energy being deployed widespread on the merchant fleet.

“The change in the industry is going to be massive and maybe catastrophic because you will have ships going 50% faster because the fuel is essentially free once you’ve paid the up front capex investment and the tanks will be empty because you will have cheap electricity around the world without intermittency,” Sohmen-Pao mused.

Bjørn Højgaard, the CEO of Hong Kong shipmanager Anglo-Eastern told sister title Splash Extra in September: “I think that in 50 years nuclear molten-salt-reactors will be par for the course in the shipping industry, and we will look back at the current time and wonder why we dabbled in alternative pathways for greenhouse gas-free propulsion.”

Writing for Splash earlier this year, Bøe claimed: “The reality is that the only viable technology which can deliver a durable combination of close-to-zero emissions, marine-level reliability, walk-away safety and competitive economics, is atomic energy.”

Bøe’s extensive shipping career has seen him work as chief risk officer to well-known shipowners in the past decade, developing what he claims was the first internet venture for the shipping industry back in the 1990s and establishing Cleartrade Exchange in Singapore 10 years ago.

CORE-POWER

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.

Comments

  1. Russia is the only Nation-State which has nuclear-powered vessels in service on a commercial basis: they are all ice-breakers.

    This is because Russia is possibly the only Nation which, when threatened by terrorist action, will send overwhelming force to neutralise the terrorist threat.

    Nuclear power, at sea or on land, is highly vulnerable; and it is highly doubtful id commercial sea-going commercial nukes will ever be seen: Bill Gates or not!

    1. Handling the significant Tritium-emissions from these reactors is unsolved, right? It’s said to be 50x higher than from normal reactors. Not a good idea for our oceans…!
      And how about the reprocessing of the nuclear material which has not yet been shown in large scale?

      1. So, the reactor produces liquid gold as a byproduct? I think they can probably sort out what to do with that.

      2. These reactors are molten salt cooled, not water cooled. You need the hydrogen in the water to be subjected to a large neutron flux to form any appreciable amount of tritium. Since only salt flows through the core, where the only real neutron flux is, essentially not tritium is formed. That’s actually one of the many benefits of molten salt reactors. Look up Kirk Sorensen if you get the chance. He does a much more fantastic job of explaining the pros and cons of this tech.

  2. Obviously not considering incidents/losses and the impact a nuclear powered vessel will have on the environment.

    1. 14 billion years half-life, therefore it is very weak.

      Half-life is the time it takes for any amount of radioactive material to decay to a half its original weight. The longest the half-life, the less radiation the material emits. Non-radiactive materials have infinite half-life. 14 billion years half-life (the current age of the universe) is quite a while

  3. Molten salt reactors operate at much lower temperatures and have proven safe. The “problem” with them is that they do not yield material that can be used to make nuclear weapons. So, the US Government saw no need to develop them and we have ignored an abundant source of energy for over 60 years.

  4. although it is a good idea one would have to be sure that it could not be used for a terrorist plot and security would be uppermost. if any would be criminal got his hands on one would this be a nuclear bomb?

    1. It would be impossible to turn the nuclear material in a reactor into a bomb – reactor use >5% enriched uranium, while bombs require over 95% enrichment.

      It would take a nation with large scale industrial infrastructure, many years and tremendous amounts of money to transform reactor material into bomb-material. You would basically be starting from scratch.

    2. One of, if not the biggest reason this technology was abandoned in the 70’s was the fact it was determined to be very difficult or impossible to use for the production of nuclear weapons grade materials. I very much advise looking up Kirk Sorensen. He does a fantastic job explaining the (many) pros and (few) cons of this tech.

  5. Maritime needs the contribution of non-maritime professionals as well, then to decide utilization or not. Let’s embrace the developments with hope for genuine outcomes improving the industry, and preserving the environment.

  6. I’m not a fan of Mr Gates, but Molten Salt reactors are pretty safe compared to standard nuclear reactors… (unless the plan is to cause some freak disaster thus “proving” them unsafe, of course….!)

  7. Before people start jumping up and down screaming Nuclear Winter is upon us, please Do Some Research on Thorium Salt Water Reactors before fearmongering .

    1. You are happy with 300-year radiation risks rather than 1,000-year risks? There are safer alternatives for power at sea – including wind and solar and hydrogen fuel cells.

      1. Considering the benefits, yes. Take a more realistic look at the true economics and efficiencies of wind, solar, and hydrogen fuel cells before freaking out about nuclear just because it’s “scary.” Most of decay products actually decay within 30 years for these reactors; 300-years is a very small percentage of the left-overs.

  8. The ocean is a huge energy container. Are you brains so week that you cannot harness it straight form the container. Could it be that everyone wants to be a hero, and no one sees what is in front of them.. do ships need to go fast ? Why do we keep building ships to transfer . The top of the ocean is a very dangerous place, it is where energy emits. Small subs , dragging sub containers would allow trains in much safer enviroments. Why do you need energy density if you have it all around.
    I would like my children to surf Bill. You can live on Mars with Elon. When the forces that think they are good, start to be more destructive that their own precieved evil, we have a problem….

    1. What a wonderful example of fear-mongering. All accusatory, zero facts, and a few wildly incorrect suggestions. I can tell you as a submariner myself, being under the water is much more dangerous than on the surface for a variety of reasons. Fast nuke ships makes so much more economic and SAFETY sense than slow submarines.

    1. You’re not out of touch by much as the world’s technology continues whether anyone pays attention to it or not. One read of the world’s current pandemic and how every nation is attempting to handle it while the lab rats work feverishly to develop a vaccine should tell you the minds of man wanders more. There was a time when handwriting was taught but now that keyboards are second nature, texting is the new handwriting, punching pseudo keys on a screen.

  9. Why not use the US Navy’s reactor design? Even when the USS thresher went down on her trials in 68 or 69 the reactor didn’t breach. And whatever happened to the SS Savannah? A nuclear powered cargo ship well back during the Apollo days and see lab days?

    1. Thorium can’t really be weaponized. It has to go through a breeder to be neutron emitting, a process that absorbs neutrons (and so shuts itself down if you try and ramp it up) and then the half life is short enough that using the neutron emitting isotope for weapons isn’t really possible (most of it will have decayed before you can even do anything with it after separation from other isotopes). That MASSIVE national security advantage makes it much more desirable for private applications, especially on the ocean where the law doesn’t reach very far.

  10. Well… I would love to build a gigantic nuclear powered superyacht… but alas, they probably have to limit the size of my superyacht due the fact that my ship will have to fit into the dock size in Singapore…

    1. Maybe it doesn’t have to be enormous. If it can time travel at 88 knots, that would make up for a lot of size 😉

  11. May interest on Bill Gates almost evaporated when I came to know of his addiction to the global depopulation stupidity. But his venture into nuclear-powering big ships must be welcomed if the waste-fuel safe managment and possible diversion of nuclear assets to wreck havoc on human settlements issues can both be securely handled. If Bill can come clean on these, then he can be cautiously reintegrated into healthy human societies but only AFTER ditching his stock of useless vaccines into the nearest cesspool !

  12. This man was never elected to represent anyone.
    Why should we care what he says or does! He is creepy and derives way too much pleasure from taking about people dying.
    Please stop giving him a platform for his sick ideology.

  13. None of Gates, Boe nor Sohmen-Pao have any formal education in nuclear physics. I’d like to know what nuclear experts they are betting on. My hope has been that the other partner in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would keep Bill out of trouble. Her expertise should be his guide toward healing harm rather than causing it. Our most reliable and safe nuclear energy resource is 93 million miles away. Let’s not try to bring it closer to home.

    1. You are right that Gates is not a nuclear expert, but he is investing in companies run by nuclear experts (I was following NuScale before Gates invested in it, and those are smart people), so you can be pretty sure that when Gates says something about nuclear it’s something an expert told him. As for investing in Solar, yes, we should, but that tech is 1) currently self supporting and 2) not good for every scenario. Same, largely, with wind. Also, this will drop right in where the old generators sat, making it much easier to retrofit in existing ships.

  14. Gates needs to concentrate completing his work with Barry Soetoro in the Woohan Bat Lab, along with Fauci, Birx and others.

    1. Gates isn’t doing any of that work. He is funding so.e of it, but that doesn’t take a lot of time. If you are worried about him splitting his money… I think he has enough to go around.

  15. Today’s giant ships, whether oil tankers, container ships, or giant cruise ships, are well over 100,000 tons displacement and they consume as much power as a small city. Currently that power comes from diesel engines which consume thousands of tons of diesel fuel. When out of range of national authorities they switch to cheaper fuel which increases production of ash, sulfur, and nitrous oxide. The proposed nuclear reactors are essentially sealed units. They have no moving parts beside the coolant/fuel. They would be designed to be swapped instead of being designed for maintenance in place. They use thorium, which is 3.3 times as abundant as Uranium as well as less radioactive. A ton of granite has up to 60 grams of Thorium. Unlike the enriched Uranium water cooled reactors which have been built around the world, for example the reactor that failed at Fukushima, they cannot be used to create plutonium and cannot meltdown a la China Syndrome. A natural Uranium heavy-water reactor also cannot meltdown and does not require fuel enrichment but it converts some of the U238 to Pu239 which can be chemically separated for building bombs, which is why Iran is building one so it will have a supply of plutonium to supplement the U235 from their enrichment plants. Some versions of these Small Modular Reactors are designed to run without refueling for 30 years. They use new technology to make them safer and cheaper to operate but are essentially equivalent to the reactors which have propelled warships for over 60 years. Individually these reactors will be expensive, but not extremely so because they will come off an assembly line in the hundreds of not thousands per year. But consider the total cost of diesel fuel for 30 years of operation and the cost of maintaining the thousands of moving parts in a diesel engine for those 30 years! And of course the millions of tons of carbon emissions from the diesel powered ships. The big downside is that they will not be available to contribute to greenhouse gas reduction until the 2040s, but that is because although this technology was described as far back as 1956 the monomaniacal focus on monstrous centralized nuclear power plants using the intrinsically unsafe Uranium designs, whose only “side-benefit” was the production of explosive plutonium, prevented any investment in development of alternatives. Those monstrous plants, like similar sized plants that exploit other power sources, almost always go over budget in part because each power plant is a separate design. Also using massive power plants which must be located near the power source, whether that is a coal mine, a waterfall, a geothermal site, or a remote and physically secure location for nuclear, forces the creation of massive, excruciatingly ugly, transmission networks which are the most common single fault point for existing electrical supply systems and which are extremely vulnerable to terrorism.

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