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Nuclear Merchant Ships
1964-1970 - Ministry of Technology

The Ministry of Technology was created on 17 October 1964 following the General Election. As Minister of Technology, Cousins, with his Parliamentary Secretary, Sir C. P. Snow, his Permanent Secretary, Sir Maurice Dean, his private secretary, Christopher Herzig and Professor Blackett, had to build the Ministry from scratch.

The Select Committee on Science and Technology reported on an investigation that it carried out in 196667. That report contained evidence taken from Lord Penney, who was at that time the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority. Lord Penney suggested that the oil-fired ship was still considerably in advance, in economic terms, of the nuclear-powered ship, but he went on to remark that perhaps the matter ought to be looked at in two or three years.

Over this period there had been changes in ship design. Super-tankers of up to 200,000 tons deadweight were sailing the oceans. There had been considerable growth in the use of the container ship and the container as a general means of transportation. Obviously, if the container ship was to be a profitable and useful vessel it must have a quick turn round and a higher speed than would normally be expected of a conventional merchant ship in past years. These two matters the massive size of the tanker and the demand for greater speed from the container ship called for a more powerful propulsive unit. The figures being talked about are anything between 60 and 70 megawatts of output.

The Technolgy Ministry's cost-benefit study of a nuclear ship project was described in The Times on 24th February, 1969, and its existence was confirmed in a Commons answer of 15 April. The Minister of Technology put in hand a new study by the Ministry. This was announced to the House on 15 April 1969. This study has been undertaken in considerable depth, By 1969 government consultations were ongoing with the Shipbuilding Industry Board about the use of marine nuclear propulsion for merchant ships, in particular, container ships. The study of the probable costs and benefits of a nuclear ship project was proceeding. Information was being sought from shipbuilders, shipowners, the Shipbuilding Industry Board and others. Several shipbuilding companies, including Cammell Laird, have now submitted propoals for a feasibility study.

In reply to Questions and promises were made that some of the results of the study might in due course be made known. On 9th July the Minister stated in the House: Information is being sought from shipbuilders, shipowners, the Shipbuilding Industry Board and others. We hope to have the first results of the study by the autumn."[OFFIcIAL REPORT, 9th July, 1969; Vol. 786, c. 1347.] However, it seems that nothing definitive has yet emerged, although on 26th January 1970 the Minister stated in the House:: When the current study of the costs and benefits of a nuclear ship project is completed, it will be possible to consider how best to respond to the interest of hon. Members."[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th January, 1970; Vol. 794, c. 2278.]

In the House of Commons debate of 17 March 1970 on Nuclear Propulsion (Merchant Ships), Mr. Edwin Brooks (Bebington) stated that The nuclear ship has obvious potential advantages over conventional oil-fired vessels, as the Padmore Committee of 1964 on Nuclear Power for Ship Propulsion fully recognised in principle. But its high capital costs will be offset only if vessels of very large installed shaft horsepower operating at high rates of utilisation can be introduced. Without a high rate of turn-round the nuclear ship cannot realise its optimum operating costs; in other words, a nuclear ship subject to fits and starts is as uneconomic as a nuclear power station subject to peaks and troughs in load factors.

Similarly, a small vessel is unlikely to be worth considering, which is partly the reason for the Padmore Committee's conclusion that the time was not yet ripe for a nuclear ship. The committee had, in fact, taken as the effective upper limits of power and weight a mere 20,000 shaft horsepower ship reactor and 70,000 deadweight tons. But only last month we saw 200,000 ton super-tankers on the Mersey, and much larger monsters seem only a matter of time.

Perhaps even more significantly, there has been a dramatic increase in shaft horsepower in container ships since 1965. The O.C.L. and A.C.T. vessels now in service have shaft horsepower in the range 30,00035,000, and in a recent paper prepared by Messrs. Gaunt, Rouse and Wilkinson, of Vickers, a table was published showing a range of container ships now on order of between 60,000 and 120,000 shaft horsepower. These three authors had already, in October 1969, presented a design study for a nuclear-powered container ship, with parameters which included a limitation of power to 60,000 shaft horsepower and a service speed of 27 knots. It was planned to carry 1,800 containers, and would have been broadly comparable in speed and tonnage of cargo carried to the present generation of steam turbine and diesel container ships due to be delivered to O.C.L., Hamburg Amerika, Ben Line and Scanservice during 1971 and 1972.

The authors concluded: The results gained from the economic comparison made between the conventional and the nuclear-powered vessel for this particular study were found to be most encouraging, and did further reinforce our long-held belief that the application of nuclear power to certain types of vessels over specified routes could be economically justified. More recently the authors have extended there design study to accommodate further itineraries, including the Panama Canal route for a global circumnavigation taking in Yokohama and Sydney. Further, in order to make meaningful economic comparisons between the nuclear and conventional vessels, a fleet of six nuclear-powered container ships was assumed to be operating on the specified itinerary, capable of transporting 4.9 million tons of containerised cargo a year. From this, a comparable conventional fleet could be calculated which proved to be one of seven vessels when using the 1575 container 27 knot vessel which it was calculated would have the same principal dimensions and displacement as the nuclear vessel.

In the case of a nuclear ship, I have seen numerous and probably highly speculative forecasts of cost, but the Vickers study proposed a figure of 12.8 million for each of the six nuclear container ships that it envisaged. The cost of a prototype ship is therefore likely to be in the range of 10 to 15 million, which means that the whole project is likely to cost little more than 1 per cent. of the total research and development which Britain and France will largely write off as a net loss on the Concorde. But, apart from this, the vessel will have an active life ahead of her following this expenditure, unlike the "Ark Royal".

Three years ago, as my hon. Friend will recall, the Select Committee on Science and Technology heard Lord Penney argue that oil-fired propulsion would have a 10 to 20 per cent. economic advantage over a nuclear reactor. Lord Penney was not talking about the present generation of container vessels of 60,000 shaft horsepower upwards which would benefit nuclear power owing to its smaller incremental costs with size. Nevertheless, even on his necessarily pessimistic forecasts, it would seem that the nuclear vessel, far from being a write-off as will the Concorde's research and development, will ply the high seas for many years at a cost only marginally more expensive than the conventional vessel.

Since the conventional vessel will also cost money to buildone of comparable size would be in the range of 9 million to 10 million in all probability I am simply arguing that investment in a nuclear prototype vessel, even on the more pessimistic forecasts of recent years, would cost the taxpayer far less than a mile of urban motorway in London.

For us to spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar, in a manner of speaking, would be to risk missing the boat for ever. In terms of technological spin-off, or, say, of benign nuclear fall-out, there is a strong argument for being up among the leaders in research and development, and I suggest that the potential rewards for the balance of payments ten years and more from now would alone justify the scale of risk which now seems to be implicit in such a venture.

I end by quoting the optimistic, if tentative, conclusion of the Vickers team. It states: It is clear from the results given in this paper, that provided the actual cost figures for reactors and for nuclear fuel are eventually established to be within certain favourable ranges of possible values, then nuclear power is more than competitive in the type of ship we have described, when operating in the given itinerary. I simply remind my hon. Friend that he who hesitates is lost."

The first task of the study group was to consider whether, in the present and foreseeable conditions, there was an economic or commercial advantage for the ship operator. This is the vital question, and, quite rightly, the first one that the study group had to consider. Its second task was to estimate what the demand might be for the kind of ship in which nuclear propulsion might be in competition with the more convential power unit. Its third task was to consider what part the Government ought to play in any nuclear-powered ship project and what the cost to public funds might be. Its fourth task was to assess the benefits to the country's economy if the Government embarked on such a program.

In carrying out its task the study group has given due weight to many factors. These include changing technical factors such as the increase in the size of tankers and the demand for faster container ships. Individual ships and the fleet concept have equally been studied. The various sea routes acress which a ship might reasonably be expected to operate have also been considered. In addition, more waas now known about the cost of marine oil fuels than was known a little while earlier, and also about their likely trends in future.



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