You need a degree in physics to understand the subject of nuclear-powered ships. The technical issues that come with nuclear power at sea are not easy for an amateur, such as a generalist manager, to understand, and unless you can chat about why Hyman Rickover didn’t want liquid salt cooled reactors in 1952, why the positive void coefficient in an RBMK is so large, and how you can get nuclear weapons out of a thorium reactor despite the modern myth to the contrary, you don’t begin to understand which projects are feasible and which are selling snake oil.
The legal issues that come with a nuclear-powered merchant ship operating with cargo on international voyages are not hard to understand, but they are very annoying. Nation states have generally harmonised their laws relating to ships through the IMO, but they haven’t seen any reason to harmonise their laws relating to nuclear reactors through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), so when a nuclear reactor built and operating according to the laws and regulations of Country A finds itself in Country B, as often happens with ships, we have a bit of a problem.
The crew of a nuclear ship are going to have to be well paid, and well looked after
I’m not going to talk about either of those things. I’ll stick to something that we all understand – the crew. Nuclear-powered ships are a good idea for two reasons. We all know that they do not emit greenhouse gases, do not depend on the sun or the wind, can go for years without refuelling and can be of high power, i.e., fast. The other reason is that they will do more than anything else to improve the status, pay, and conditions of the seafarer.
People are going to be about as keen on the unmanned nuclear merchant ship as they are on the unmanned civil airliner. We want a nuclear ship to be carefully designed and built, to be carefully maintained, to operate under well proven procedures and to have a very good crew. Which means that the crew of a nuclear ship are going to have to be well paid, and well looked after.
Which leads me to the real problem with the nuclear-powered merchant ship. She needs a Reactor Officer. Reactor Officers are scarce, and the laws of supply and demand mean that they do not come cheap. They take years to learn their trade, starting – starting, mind – with that physics degree. And the nuclear navies – be they Russian, Chinese, American, French, Indian or British – hang on to their Reactor Officers, for fear that they might decide that running a power station and getting home to see the family every day beats going to sea, and word reaches me that in some of those nuclear navies, Reactor Officers are lured back to sea on film star wages until they are into their sixties.
You won’t be surprised to know that one of the operational issues with the USS Savannah was that her deck officers thought they ought to be on the same film star wages as their reactor officers, and went on strike…
Unlike fuel cells, which have been the Next Big Thing for decades, or ammonia, or sailing ships, which we used to know about, but have forgotten, nuclear power is a very well understood technology of the present day. It’s safe; it has killed fewer people per tera-kilowatt-hour than any other source of motive power, but if we are going to use it to help to get merchant shipping away from the oxidation of fossil hydrocarbons, we need to scale up our recruitment and training. In place of a couple of hundred submarines and less than two dozen aircraft carriers and icebreakers, owned by governments, we are going to need to man some thousands of ships, even if we confine the use of nuclear power – as we probably may – to large ships on long hauls, and as noted above we are going to need rather good people.
Nuclear ships are not silly, and they need not be dangerous. The public will accept them in the end, as will the ports and the Suez and Panama Canals, although they say they won’t. The problems are getting the first cost down to something more affordable (and let us remember that quite a few serious people, like Lloyds’ Register, are working on civil marine reactors) and finding and educating, as well as training, the crews. The real winners are going to be the crews. And that is a good thing.