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Nuclear Merchant Ships
1961-1964 - Ministry of Transport

The Admiralty pioneered the work on nuclear merchant ships, and when it was under its control there was a sense of urgency about it. By 1961 the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and the Ministry of Transport were mainly involved and the sense of urgency seemed to have gone. The Admiralty would like to see a nuclear powered Fleet tanker. The trouble with the first vessel is that she would be uneconomic, and that is a very good reason why she should wear the White Ensign, and a Fleet tanker seemed an ideal prototype for a study vital for the future of our shipping industry, which meant so much to the defense and trade of the UK.

The decision was made in 1961 to make a fresh start, because, apparently, no great progress had been made. In November, 1961, the Government decided to set up a working group on marine reactor research which had to report to both the Minister of Science and the Minister of Transport. The group was given £3 million of public money and asked to search for an "economically promising design". Bringing in the British Shipbuilding Research Association and the Atomic Energy Authority under the chairmanship of Sir James Dunnett, they were now described as a joint project team. Not long after they had been set up they formed another committee, the Technical Advisory Panel, under the leadership of Professor Diamond. Between them, they went through the whole procedure again, and, in the end, examined five reactors. One was the Vulcain, a joint effort by Belgium and Britain, an Atomic Energy Authority reactor; the second was the integral boiling reactor, another Atomic Energy Authority reactor. There were three designs coming in from industry, from Mitchell's, Vickers, and Babcock's. Recommendations were made then to the Minister by the Working Group under the new chairmanship of Sir Thomas Padmore.

It was then decided that there should be set up a special arrangement by which the Government would make a grant of £3 million, which was to cover three years' research into this question. It was expected that the £3 million would be used up by the end of December 1963. The Government's policy was to pursue a vigorous program of research aimed at a reactor system which was economically attractive to a wide range of shipping. This program would cost about £3 million spread over about three years and was being carried out by the Atomic Energy Authority in conjunction with the nuclear industry. Its scope was determined by a high level Working Group on which shipowners and Shipbuilders were represented.

On 16 May 1962 an agreement between the Atomic Energy Authority and a consortium of Belgian companies was initiated to develop an advanced version of the pressurised water reactor which showed promise for marine propulsion. The UK was co-operating in the studies which were being made by the European Nuclear Energy Agency of the possibility of constructing and operating a nuclear merchant ship on an international basis.

A nuclear ship design team had been established by the Atomic Energy Authority in conjunction with the British Ship Research Association and other interested organisations. This team was working on the design, safety and operating problems of nuclear ships of various types. The principal systems being studied were the steam-cooled and steam-generating heavy water reactors and advanced designs of pressurised water and boiling water reactors. Contracts for design study work had been negotiated with the Nuclear Power Group, the United Power Company, Rolls Royce and Babcock and Wilcox. Work was also in progress on reactor physics, engineering development, fuel element technology and reactor materials in support of the marine reactor systems.

In reply to a Question put by the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) on 5th December, 1962, the Minister of Transport said: ‘Although the research programme is going well, the stage has not yet been reached of deciding whether to have a prototype nuclear ship built."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th December, 1962; Vol. 668, c. 180.]’ Ten weeks later came the first optimistic statement by the Government. On 31 January 1963 the Civil Lord of the Admiralty Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing stated that "The implications of building a nuclear-propelled Fleet replenishment tanker have been considered but have not been followed up because of the increased cost, the additional time to build and the small military advantage. The new replenishment tankers about to be ordered will have conventional steam propulsion."

Prime Minister Macmillan, when he was opening the debate on the European Economic Community negotiations on 11 February 1963, said: ‘The House has taken much interest in the prospect of a nuclear merchant ship. We have always been anxious, not merely to build a nuclear engine which could propel a ship—that, of course, can easily be done—but the Atomic Energy Authority and its experts have been concentrating on how to get a nuclear reactor which is economically attractive. We are now getting very near to this point". The impression which he tried to create was that we were then on the threshold of building marine nuclear-propelled ships. That is the impression which the country got. Every shipyard in this country was alerted to the fact that very soon they would be building nuclear-powered merchant ships.

On 11 February 1963, the Minister of Transport announced that the Vulcain and the integral boiling reactor [IBR], both A.E.A. reactor designs, were the most promising. The decision to proceed with the Vulcain and the integral boiling reactor was not arrived at until the assessment had been completed. The work of assessment was undertaken in the first place by a working group under the chairmanship of the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Transport, and with representatives of the General Council of British Shipping, of Lloyd's, of the British Ship Research Association, of the Admiralty, of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. This group has been advised on the technical aspects of marine reactor research by a panel under the chairmanship of Professor Diamond, who was Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Manchester University, and he was also a member of the main working group. It was, of course, quite understandable that firms whose reactors had not been chosen by the body of experts should harbor disappointment.

The Integral Boiling Reactor [IBR] was abandoned in September 1963, almost solely, for the reasons which were exposed by Captain H.F.Atkins in the Press in early 1963. A great many marine engineers of great distinction supported the view which he put forward. When Captain Atkins appeared on television, it was regrettable that the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority was not prepared, I understand, to put up anybody on television to argue against Captain Atkins.

Atkins was charged by some people with having revealed something he ought not to have revealed, but he certainly saved the UK from what would have been enormous expense to no avail, if that basis of research had been continued. The reasons which have led to the abandonment of the IBRs were the very reasons which were made public by one who himself was a qualified naval engineer of great experience and who had been connected with the work that had gone on on the industrial side a year or two before — that in connection with Rolls Royce and associates. What happened? The Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority insisted that Atkins be dismissed from his post by the head of the firm concerned in Rolls Royce associates dealing with the matter; and he was promptly dismissed. A conversation initiated by Vickers took place at which Vickers apologised for their employee's "wild assertions" and said that those assertions did not represent the opinion of the Company. Vickers were terrified over the Captain Atkins affair of their relations with the Atomic Energy Authority and future work which might go out to them. But the IBRs have been abandoned for the very reasons that were exposed then.

On 03 March 1964 Earl Alexander of Hillsborough [First Lord of the Admiralty 1929-1931 and 1940-1946, and then Minister of Defence 1946-1950, 1st Viscount Alexander of Hillsborough, 1st, and Baron Weston-super-Mare], rose in the House of Lords to ask Her Majesty's Government to state what steps are being taken to put this seafaring nation on comparable terms and to match the progress of other nations in respect of nuclear propulsion in merchant ships. He said "I think it is essential for the reputation of our country in mercantile matters; and I think it is essential, also, that we should be making progress in this matter because of the likely future of nuclear propulsion of merchant ships.... no reply at all was made in this House to my contentions about the nuclear propulsion of merchant shipping. After all my experience (especially through practically 80 per cent. of the war period and then after, having been at the head of the direction not only of naval repair and shipbuilding but merchant repair and shipbuilding, when anything to do with the future of that great nautical industry of ours was of concern to me) I still fail to understand why no reply was given, either to my colleague in another place or to myself on this matter.... to my mind, knowing what has happened in the past in our general industries, and not without regard to our great seafaring industry, there is a future for nuclear power in the propulsion of merchant shipping."

The Padmore Report on marine nuclear propulsion was submitted to Ministers at the beginning of April 1964, and published on 14 May 1964. The Padmore Report noted that ‘There is a paucity of established facts and reasonably assured deductions on which to base conclusions…’ Although there is not a great deal between the six choices in the field, the Padmore Group, for one reason or another, came down in favor of the Vulcain as being the most likely. The Vulcain shows two distinctive marks of a reactor system: the first is its integral character, and the second is its reliance on the device called the spectral shift.

Captain Atkins' two criticisms on the technical advantages or disadvantages of the reactor were directed, first, to its integral character, and, secondly, to the feasibility of the use, in seagoing conditions, of the spectral shift. The unanimous view of the Padmore Group was that on both issues Captain Atkins was mistaken, and that any future reactor system that has a chance of success will incorporate the integral factor; and that the spectral shift, although there is some dispute about this, will be a perfectly feasible device to use in seagoing conditions. This device consists simply of adding a little fresh water to the moderating water of the reactor at intervals of, perhaps, three days.

The object of a prototype ship would be to obtain the maximum experience in typical merchant ship operating conditions with the optimum type of merchant ship selected for the purpose. This is something which cannot be left entirely to competitive private enterprise. A solution to the problem would be for the Ministry of Science and the Ministry of Transport to delegate responsibility for the operation of the ship to the Admiralty Board of the Ministry of Defence. The ship itself might usefully be some type of naval auxiliary manned by a mixed scientific, Ministry of Transport, merchant and naval crew operating under the administration of the Admiralty Board and under the direction of the Padmore Committee and probably also of the Diamond Technical Panel. A type of naval replenishment tanker would be the lowest common denominator for all the operating requirements and interests which are represented, in an effort to produce the best answer to this vitally important problem.

The long-awaited report of the Working Group on Marine Reactor Research (the "Padmore Committee") was inconclusive. There is no reactor type then under consideration which held firm promise of becoming economic. Three possible courses of action, suggested in the Padmore Report, to be followed in advancing nuclear propulsion in ships.

But as late as 10 December 1964 Mr Roy Mason, the new Labour Government's Parliamentary Secretary, stated "The Government are undertaking a review of the subject of nuclear ship propulsion. Discussions with the various interests concerned will be arranged as appropriate. ... Apart from the interest of Her Majesty's Government, two consortia are interested. As to the future interest of Her Majesty's Government, I think that we shall have to wait until the review is complete, and then we can decide whether any public money should be spent on a research and development programme, or whether there is the possibility of an economic nuclear marine propulsion unit.... I cannot see any reason why Her Majesty's Government should apologise for taking a little time over this very important matter. Public moneys may have to be spent on the project, and we want to review it very thoroughly before a decision is taken."

A year after the Padmore Report, the Government had done absolutely nothing to advance this project except to attempt concealment of a matter which was becoming increasingly evident—namely, that they have had to give up their favored type of reactor employing a moderator principle which was discarded by the Americans and the Germans three years earlier.

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