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Nuclear power investigations for LNG carriers

News Release - 14 September 2010

Babcock International Groups Marine Division has completed a study to investigate the commercial implications of developing a nuclear-powered LNG carrier a move that would be a first for LNG vessels. Among its findings, the study has identified that recently updated legislation and available classification society rules allow for a fresh approach to the design of nuclear powered vessels.

The study has been undertaken at a time when the maritime industry has shown renewed interest in nuclear powered commercial ships. The first nuclear propulsion in merchant ships was introduced in the 1960s, following successful exploitation in submarines and aircraft carriers, but while these were technically successful, they were commercially less so. Recently, however, a number of factors have led to a renaissance in interest. These include environmental concerns (notably over CO2 emissions and other air pollutants), and the rising price of fossil fuel (beginning to make nuclear power far more competitive), along with the development of nuclear propulsion that has been on-going over the years (largely centred on icebreakers but also including other merchant ship types) with recent papers concluding that the adoption of nuclear propulsion for high speed container ships is technically feasible. According to Lloyds Register, some 600 or so nuclear reactors are operating in the world today, of which approximately one third are serving at sea.

Babcocks high level study was undertaken to determine the commercial feasibility of utilising nuclear power for the main propulsion and auxiliary power generation on board an LNG carrier. The company believes that a number of benefits could be realised by the use of nuclear powered vessels for LNG. Low emissions is one of these, as the nuclear plant would eliminate CO2, NOx and SOx emissions. Additionally, the vessels large power generation requirements would be supplied by a relatively compact power source compared to normal power methods for this vessel type a space saving that would maximise cargo capacity. Further benefits would include the significant reduction in noise generation, reducing the environmental impact of the vessel.

Babcocks comprehensive investigation and report covered a breadth of key aspects relating to nuclear vessels. These ranged from engineering and design issues, recent technical developments, and statutory regulations, to operational aspects, through-life maintenance, training requirements, and vessel disposal.

Babcocks unique combination of deep technical knowledge and relevant experience in this field means it is ideally placed to have carried out this study. The companys Integrated Technology arm within the Marine division has many years experience in complex vessel concept work and on LNG projects. Further, Babcocks Marine division is the sole UK in-service support contractor for the Royal Navys nuclear submarine flotilla, undertaking refits and upgrades, supporting operational submarines, and providing engineering design and technical support services. Babcock experts in ship design, nuclear plant systems installation, maintenance, and decommissioning were involved in undertaking this feasibility study.

Babcocks Integrated Technology commercial projects director David Dobson said that the study indicates that particular routes and cargoes lend themselves well to the nuclear propulsion option, and that technological advances in reactor design and manufacture have made the option more appealing. It has also confirmed significant benefits in terms of environmental impact and sustainability. Further, in reviewing the latest updated legislation, it is evident that newly issued design codes from Lloyds Register allow the design of nuclear powered vessels to be re-visited. On the other hand, initial capital costs are high (although they will reduce significantly when more applications for commercially produced marine reactors are found) and commercially available building and maintenance facilities would need to be established if significant numbers of these ships were to be planned.

Nuclear power for commercial vessels is becoming significantly more attractive on a number of counts, not least from an environmental perspective, but there are a great many issues to weigh and consider in determining the feasibility of nuclear propulsion for any commercial vessel, Dobson says. Our knowledge and experience puts us in a particularly strong position to identify and advise operators on these issues. We have worked with several of the major operators in the marine and oil and gas sectors on a number of ground-breaking developments in FPSOs and LNG vessels over the years, and are delighted to be again investigating new ground.

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