Why nuclear power would be catastrophic for the shipping industry

Nuclear power being used to propel ships could be catastrophic, according to one of the most famous names in shipping, but the damage would be to the fundamental shipping markets rather than the usual environmental concerns about using atomic energy.

Speaking at a shipping webinar organised by the Norwegian Business Association Singapore yesterday, Andreas Sohmen-Pao, the chairman of BW Group, discussed multiple fuels of the future. On nuclear, he warned of the potentially huge market shifts the fuel could bring to shipping.

Nuclear power for shipping has been making headlines this year, and Sohmen-Pao said BW had looked at three nuclear-related companies recently.

On the possible advent of nuclear powered ships becoming widespread in merchant shipping, Sohmen-Pao said: “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.”

He argued that in the advent that safe nuclear technology is developed on land and at sea there would be far less ships needed as vessels would travel faster and they would not be needed to transport energy. Approximately 40% of the world’s fleet today carries energy.

“It’s probably a long way off,” Sohmen-Pao conceded.

Speaking on the same panel, Laurence Odfjell, chairman of Odfjell Group, said nuclear power for ships was a “long shot” as ships move around the world and would then need approval from authorities across the globe. It was more likely safe new nuclear technology would be deployed at fixed locations, Odfjell suggested.

Mikal Bøe, founder of marine nuclear battery company CORE-POWER suggested in an article for Splash last month: “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.”

“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,” Bjørn Højgaard, the CEO of Hong Kong shipmanager Anglo-Eastern told sister title Splash Extra last month.

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. Shipmanagers are skilled in primitive technology. Let’s not force them to go beyond the crank!

    1. Yep, a pipe, a pump and a tank are about all they would have to manage with a MSR, so maybe they could handle it.

  2. Interesting (albeit academic) argument against a nuclear-powered merchant marine fleet …
    Methinks a forum of sailboat owner/operators may have pointed out a similar list of concerns as engine-powered vessels made their debut on the high seas …

  3. Electric vehicle transformation is imminent. This is going to lead to a collapse of energy fuel transportation by ships. Nuclear powered ships are still a futuristic dream.

    1. The US, England, France, USSR, China, Japan navies all have decades of experience with nuclear powered ships of all sizes and purposes with minimal problems. It’s stupid not to use this experience where is could so readily be applied.

    1. 50 years ago, recall as a very young lad, our English teacher saying to the class that one day we would be able to talk on a phone and see the person we were talking to. However he failed to mention about banking, watching videos on a mobile phone etc. As sure as night follows day Nuclear powered merchant vessels will be plying our oceans with minimal fuss and concerns with all the increased skill levels required for operation and monitoring.

  4. In any case fifty percent of oil (Petroleum) is consumed by vehicles, won’t be the there in the near future, because of the battery technology. What is left is the shipping industry …….

    1. I think the concern about that is covered here. EV’s still have to charge from somewhere, and right now a lot of that is provided by fossil fuels that still need shipped to power plants at massive scales. If those power plants convert to nuclear, the subject of the article speculates, the shipping industry will loose a lot of market.

      There are lots of problems with the argument. Changing from shipped fuel sources to locally generated or ultra-high energy density fuel (nuclear, either fission or fusion) has to come. Electrifying our vehicles is part of a means to that end, bit ultimately there is a limited supply of low energy density chemical fuel to be mined. Also, it’s absurd to think that the world will just suddenly not want stuff shipped as the price and costs of shipping go down. But shipping WILL have to adapt, and frankly they are already behind.

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