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The nuclear option

Mikal Bøe, CEO of CORE-POWER, argues atomic batteries make the most sense for shipping to slash its carbon footprint.

Finding a ‘magic bullet’ that will provide shipping with dramatically reduced GHG and CO2 emissions, looks like a long and tortuous road, as pressure increases from governments and environmental groups. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has mandated with unanimous approval from 197 countries that shipping must reduce emissions by 50% of the 2008 total before 2050. This means an actual emission reduction of almost 90% by 2050.

Atomic batteries are being developed that would not need refuelling for up to 30 years

The ‘seascape’ is that there are some 60,000 cargo ships plying their trade on the oceans of the world and it seems a mammoth undertaking to implement the necessary changes to ensure that shipping reaches those targets within the mandated timeframe. New ships may be designed as ‘zero carbon’ or ‘carbon neutral’, but what of the energy sources that will deliver those reduced emissions? Pushing emissions from sea to land and relying on super-low density, intermittent renewable energy will only make matters worse, not better.

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. Not ‘old nuclear’, like the technology that is used on naval submarines, aircraft carriers and ice breakers which is totally unsuited to commercial shipping, but new advanced ‘atomic battery’ technology. This would provide all the positive benefits of atomic energy, without the negative problems of old nuclear.

Zero emissions would come as standard

Old nuclear has a major image problem. Large, ugly, evil looking machines that require billions spent on containment to make sure they don’t blow up. They don’t usually, but public opinion is a big hurdle. For most people, it’s all about the fear of exposure to strong radiation from accidents, and of nuclear material falling into the hands of the ‘wrong people’.

Now, excitement is building at the centre of our industry around the development of ‘atomic batteries’ for marine propulsion. These would be mass-manufactured power units based on marine Molten Salt Reactors (m-MSRs), a radical departure from nuclear as we know it. m-MSRs promise delivery of ample, reliable energy for fully electric large ships (suezmax to VLCCs, cape to VLOCs and panamax to Triple-Es etc) that would not need refuelling for up to 30 years. Zero emissions would come as standard.
Safety is in every respect the primary aspect of any atomic machine, it is also the basis on which public opinion is formed. Losing coolant in a reactor is potentially disastrous and is a challenge that is largely responsible for the poor public image of ‘old nuclear’. In the m-MSR atomic battery, the fuel is the coolant and the coolant is the fuel, so coolant cannot be lost. What happened at Chernobyl or Fukushima is unthinkable with an m-MSR.

Since there would be no refuelling, there would be no handling of spent fuels and therefore no practical proliferation issue of atomic material to deal with. That level of passive, walk-away safety is unprecedented, even in gas and diesel technology. The m-MSR ‘atomic battery’ promises enormous liquid energy under no pressure to run a 35MW VLCC for 20 years at close to 30% less than the cost of VLSFO, and as much as 70% cheaper than green ammonia, with no emissions and no refuelling stops.

Core-Power, based in London, is working with a consortium of leading m-MSR developers to build atomic batteries that can be used for electric propulsion in very large ships. The technology can also provide green electric power and industrial heat for rapid mass-production of synthetic electro-fuels such as green ammonia for smaller ships.

Plans include installing m-MSRs on floating production vessels to make synthetic green fuels for smaller ships, producing fuel where it is needed, substantially reducing infrastructure costs when compared to other natural energy sources such as super-low density solar and wind power.

M-MSR spent fuel can be recycled into terrestrial power production and used for up to 150 years per load, leaving a small amount of waste.

A leasing model for these batteries could be similar to those for aircraft engines

There will be opportunities to eliminate the need for smokestacks or exhaust systems, so the ship’s engine room size can be reduced and the additional space used for more cargo. The number of onboard engineers can be downsized, as only turbines and electric systems will need regular maintenance.

Ports will also be able to use energy from ships installed with m-MSR to power equipment and machinery while the ship is at berth, through reverse cold ironing. Power generated by m-MSR will be cost competitive when compared to terrestrial energy sources available to the port.

Vessel operators have the opportunity to create revenue or reduce ports costs by bartering energy supply for port charges, while the port will also reduce its carbon footprint.

While volatility in the cost of bunker fuel during the last 20 years has been a constant headache for ship operators and shippers alike, m-MSR batteries deliver zero volatility in the cost of propulsion, enabling longer term cargo contracts without BAFs or rate adjustments, leading to profit visibility and better financing of ships.

A leasing model for m-MSR batteries could be similar to those for aircraft engines with through-life maintenance and ‘battery’ monitoring provided from remote.

While the debate continues about which fuels or energy sources should be developed for shipping’s greener future, the m-MSR atomic batteries ticks all of the boxes. Faster, cheaper, clean electric ships, is a game changer for ocean transport.

Comments

  1. Very interesting article. What would the minimum size vessel that m-MSR system would be useable on be? IE weight and size? Could offshore wind jack-up vessels benefit from it or even the small Crew Transfer Vessels rather than focusing on hydrogen, hybrid or pure electric. SOVs would be interesting too.

    1. By far the most nuclear is built in or by the the Chinese and Russians. I would guess that most nuclear knowledge is there as well.

  2. Not for the Pacific thanks, we’re still dealing the last disastrous wave of nuclear fall out and testing. And if I could just correct one small point at the start of the article. IMO signed up for AT LEAST 50% overall GHG reduction by 2050 in its initial strategy. We expect that level of ambition to be greatly increased in the revised strategy in 2023.

  3. What miracle technology is proposed to treat the generated nuclear waste? Throw them overboard, as has been done to date?

  4. I wouldn’t lose sleep over a sunken nuclear vessel because the entire planet is a radioactive furnace and radiation is as natural as the sun which is a big nuclear reactor. Almost 100% of nuclear “waste” is reusable as fuel. Given that nuclear power is over a million times more energy dense than all it’s alternatives the “waste” stream is a over million times smaller and whatever is not burned is either valuable in Space Robotics or Nuclear Medicine or as a rare mineral or precious metal. Other industries should have such “waste” problems.

      1. I wonder whether anybody reacting to this article has bothered to look up Core Power.
        They’re easy to find.
        “What about the waste?” you ask?
        Well, what if there is so little that the answer
        “There is none.”
        is a sufficient answer?
        https://corepower.sg/articles/f/solving-the-waste-issue

        “What about the waste” is a question asked by the ill-informed and the fear-mongers.
        The waste of current reactors can be divided into to portions, based on half-life.

        The one part is the dangerous part. It has short half lives. Fear it. The shorter the half-life, the greater the fear.
        This part is safe in 10 half-lives, at most about 300 years.

        The other portion has long half-lives and (in current reactors) is mainly Uranium 238 (U-238). The stuff which was mined. Stuff which is considered non-threatening if left untouched yet is described as horrendously dangerous after mining!
        If critics really wanted to go after the nuclear power industry, they should be asking:
        Why is that U-238 being wasted?
        Core Power’s answer?
        We intend using it – and it’s cousin, thorium (Th-232).

        Note that Th-232 is 6 less than U-238. Six less neutrons. That’s why they can say “produce no plutonium”. That would require 7 neutron absorptions – an outcome with a probability close to zero.

        In short, I wish respondents to articles like this one would make it clear they understand half lives – and hence why the question “what about the waste” is so ill-informed.

        Now, if they responded “what about the short-half-life waste?” I might have more respect for them – but that’s not going to happen. “What about the waste” only has impact if you are asking “What about the long-lived waste”. To which the answer is a big yawn. Really. Material with a long half-life is – by definition! – practically inactive. The stuff to be concerned about is the stuff with short half-lives!

        Guys, please qualify you question in future, OK? Thanks!

  5. Sounds fascinating and I hope you follow up with more stories. Nuclear has always been the energy answer to meet the satisfaction of the green weenies. I’ve never heard of these atomic batteries before. But sounds like something worth pursuing.

  6. Is it April Fools Day?
    Where does the waste go? There will be waste from the operation of the reactor and much more waste at the end of its lifespan. And who will pay for it then?
    Furthermore MSR’s breed plutonium, so there is strong proliferation risk and despite its usability for nuclear bombs it is alse one of the most toxic substances known.
    Have these guys ever been to these places or talked to people from there:

    Majak, Russia
    Windscale/Sellafield, UK
    Harrisburg, Pennsylvania/USA
    Tschernobyl, Ukraine
    Fukushima, Japan
    Hiroshima, Japan
    Nagasaki, Japan
    Tokai, Japan
    Tomsk, Russia
    Goiania, Brasil
    Kramatorsk, Ukraine
    and many more…

    At least it gets these guys off the streets…

  7. The most frequently asked questions about the m-MSR as ‘deep future’ technology is related to ‘waste, or spent fuel, as it’s rightly called, what would happen to the atomic batteries and their fuel in the case of a catastrophic accident, and the issue of proliferation; could the atomic fuel fall into the wrong hands and become a danger to the public and the peace?

    These are not issues that are left for last, but are front and centre in the design development of the technology. In the case of catastrophic accidents, and we know that ships will at some point sink with atomic batteries on board, the passive safety aspects of the m-MSR really come into their own.

    The safety cut off would immediately drain the fuel from the battery, stopping any reactivity and thereby allowing the fuel to cool. This would happen quickly whether the battery is upright, on its side or even upside down. The fail-safe is not a matter of operator activation, but a natural fail-safe of the system. When the fuel cools below 400degC, it freezes into a solid rock-like substance and entombs the battery, stopping all energy production. There is no release of gas, because no gas is produced, and there would be no spread of toxins into the environment. This is an ultra-modern, highly resistant green energy source, operating passively in an environment designed to meet our strictest demands for clean energy.

    Spent fuel and proliferation are two sides of the same issue. If we were to constantly refuel reactors, as indeed would have to be the case if we were running conventional ‘nuclear reactors’ which consume less than 1% of the energy that’s loaded into them, we would generate growing quantities of spent fuel. If we were to use conventional nuclear on ships, we would have to refuel reactors once every one or two years, and spent fuel would become an issue in ports. This is a non-starter for shipping, and quite rightly the concern expressed by some of you above.

    With the m-MSR, the entire system works differently. The cycle of the liquid fuel can be made as long as 150-165 years, but we can’t build ships that will last that long. Neither are we likely to build ‘batteries’ that can provide power for that amount of time. So, the ‘fuel cycle’ is therefore calibrated to the expected life of a ship (20-30 years), and only at the point of decommissioning would we recycle the fuel for use in new atomic batteries.

    That would leave no ‘waste’ in ports for the lifetime of a ship, and hence pose no realistic proliferation of spent fuel that could fall into the wrong hands. Hijacking of an m-MSR powered ship, would not leave the batteries in the hands of the pirates. Remote controls and further fail safes would either render the ship unsteerable, or the batteries unusable. Getting to the fuel itself would certainly be a non-trivial matter. Besides, we have all managed to avoid piracy by simpler means for some time already.

    At end-of-life, the ship would have to ‘come home’ to the site of manufacturing for energy recycling. There’s lots of work to be done on logistic around that still, but it’s not a big challenge. At the very end of the fuel cycle, having re-used the fuel many times over a long period (150-165 years), the total volume of spent fuel would be equivalent to the fuel load that went in to the battery at the start. That’s a small volume which we are good at managing now, and will be even better at managing when the flow of spent fuel increases. Final-cycle spent fuel can also be chemically separated so that ultra-rare isotopes can be entered into supply chains for medical treatments, imaging and space programs. There’s not much left that can’t be used.

    As we are now, we generate over a billion tons of GHG from shipping and transport which decays slowly in the atmosphere and heats up the world. Some of those emissions will stay with us for hundreds of thousands of years. We have to stop it. With solar and wind, we create more mining, more energy intensive manufacturing and potentially billions of tons of un-recyclable waste in the form of old panels and broken blades with little in the way of actual energy to show for it. The quantity of spent fuel from the m-MSR, even if widely adopted across transport and industry would be tiny in orders of magnitude compared to any those.

    We need new technology solutions that can take us deep into the future. To do so we have to embrace the possible, and leave our preconceived biases behind.

    1. Very impressive; detailed yet simple to understand, and none of the condescension displayed by some of the more reactionary commentators here. I appreciate that, thank you.

      To understand more about m-MSR, Marime Molten Salt Reactors after coming across this article, I was reading various articles regarding it and was amazed that the technology was already available in the 60s, when the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment took place. For marine usage, would Fluoride Salt-cooled High Temperature Reactor be better? Knowing the fact that the the coolant is already in solid form, unable to cause flows in the even of catastrophic leakage?

      It really seems like segment of energy that has been overlooked due to the dangers of its predecessor (Light water Reactors) and needs support in order to advance to contain issues like corrosion, regulatory issues and waste management.

      1. The greatest challenges faced by MSRs lie in material compatibility. The fuel/coolant salts are very corrosive, the stresses on the materials used for core and conduit necessitate new materials not yet available to us.

        So while the concept is beautiful, there are substantial steps to be taken until commercialisation

  8. It is very easy to be dismissive of nuclear energy. However, the alternatives if we are to achieve decarbonisation of shipping e.g. hydrogen/ammonia are also not simple, easy or cheap options. Indeed Global Maritime Forum have produced an estimate of cost to achieve IMO’s 2050 goal of between US$1 trillion and US$1.4 trillion dollars based on ammonia. https://www.globalmaritimeforum.org/news/the-scale-of-investment-needed-to-decarbonize-international-shipping

    We should keep all options on the table if we are sincere about addressing climate change.

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