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Nuclear Merchant Ships
1957-1961 - Admiralty Studies

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith) was chairman of the Admiralty committee on the application of marine nuclear propulsion. On 04 March 1958 he stated in Parliament that "The Admiralty regarded the development of nuclear propulsion for ships as of the greatest importance both for the Royal Navy and for the Merchant Navy.... we intend to go ahead with nuclear propulsion for merchant ships. The Committee of which I am chairman was formed less than a year ago, and in that time it has examined a great many nuclear propulsion systems to see whether any of them could be put straight into a ship without first building a prototype on shore. Unfortunately, this has turned out to be impossible, and it will first be necessary to build a shore prototype. The Atomic Energy Authority, in collaboration with the various shipping and shipbuilding interests, is now engaged on preliminary work for this project. What we want to do is to build an economic, or near-economic, ship to start with. The atomic-powered ships which one hears so much about and which are supposed to be building in other countries now do not even profess to be paying propositions, and we believe that it is much better to go for what is economic rather than to seek to make a splash with a machine which can have no commercial application. ... if everything went welland in this kind of work there is no saying whether it will go wellwe think there might possibly be a ship in the water about 1964..."

By early 1958 there was a great deal of research in progress on nuclear developments in the mercantile marine. Britain and America had safety organisations working with their atomic energy organisations; the Admiralty had a safety committee working on problems of nuclear behaviour with shipowners and shipbuilders, and they were studying also problems of nuclear behaviour in ports and coastal waters. In Britain object was not to "do a Sputnik", but to build a nuclear-powered merchant ship which could be run safely and profitably.

By May 1958 no reactor was being developed specifically for propulsion of merchant shipping. The Atomic Energy Authority was working on a land-based advanced gas-cooled reactor which, while not specifically designed for use in merchant ships, was expected to yield information which will be of value to the Authority and the Admiralty in developing an economic propulsion unit. Surveys of other reactor systems which might be suitable for marine application were continuing.

The principal task of the Committee on Nuclear Propulsion for Merchant Ships was to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of nuclear reactors with a view to deciding which one should be developed. By March 1959 the decision had not yet been made.

On 8th and 9th May 1959, the Admiralty arranged facilities for firms to present reactor systems in which they were interested and that as a result of this presentation a technical appraisal of the respective merits of the various systems was put in hand. This has been carried forward as a matter of urgency by a Sub-Committee of the Admiralty committee on the application of marine nuclear propulsion, of which the Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith) was chairman. Seven consortia prepared designs and plans for a nuclear-propelled merchant ship, and presented eight different systems of using nuclear propulsion. Each had its own advantages, in size, weight, safety, economy and time. Some of these factors, in some types, were better than in others.

The next step following the presentation of alternative reactor systems arranged by the Admiralty was a technical appraisal of the respective merits of the individual systems. Besides investigating the feasibility of the eight systems concerned, the Sub-Committee was examining the associated problems of safety, economics, the potential of the various systems for future development and the time scale in which each could be put into service. Of these eight different forms of nuclear propulsion machinery, two or possibly three were actually perfected and complete units and the others were no more than the skeleton of some future project.

By November 1959 the sub-committee which was appointed to make a technical appraisal of the different reactor systems designed for use in merchant ships had presented its Report and the Government were considering the recommendations made to them.

In 1960 the replacement of the "Queen Mary" by a Committee under the Chairmanship of Lord Chandos. The size, speed, accommodation and physical characteristics of the new ship will be as recommended. All appropriate shipyards in the country will be invited to tender. The Committee advised that the capital cost should not exceed 30 million, and the Government agreed. Nuclear propulsion was not yet adequately developed and, frankly, the Government was not prepared to wait for the replacement of this ship.

In 1960, however, at the invitation of the Ministry of Transport, five companies, after a great deal of thought and effort, were asked to send in tenders and designs of two possible types of marine reactors. The Galbraith Committee, which had been specially set up to recommend to the Minister of Transport the types of marine reactors that should be encouraged for marine propulsion, suggested two special types a boiling water reactor and an organic moderated reactor. These five companies submitted designs for these two types of reactors as suggested by the Minister. Of course, having done that, the projects were turned down. The Galbraith Committee, having done its job, naturally had now died.

After being pigeonholed for 18 months, all these designs were turned down, mainly because, as the Minister stated, they showed little promise of ever becoming competitive. All the companies were bitterly disappointed, and they strongly resented the way the Minister had handled the matter. Design teams had been built up and during this frustrating waiting period they had all been held together. A fight ensued between the companies and the Ministry for compensation, and only in 1963, in the Supplementary Estimates, was it agreed that 250,000 should be granted to these five companies 50,000 each for the work they had done. These tenders were clearly uncompetitive and incapable of further development.

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Page last modified: 16-07-2012 18:46:21 ZULU