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UK Nuclear Merchant Ships

The whole history of the British Government's efforts to develop a satisfactory nuclear marine unit, with the abysmal failure to get an operational vessel at sea, was riddled with vaccilation and indecision. British industry — the nuclear consortia and the other industrialists involved — felt that they had been let down. All that happened since 1958, when the British first became excited about the possibility of nuclear propulsion, was the buck being passed from innumerable committees through innumerable reports with innumerable recommendations, without any action being taken.

The initial studies (begining in 1958) were for a replenishment vessel, at about 50,000 shp and a reactor output of 140-170 MW (thermal). Designers were then invited (in 1960) to prepare a scaled-down design suitable for a 20,000 shp commercial vessel. Two reactor systems were selected for development: the Vulcain advanced pressurized-water reactor and the Integral Boiling Reactor. In 1960, the Ministry of Transport requested proposals for nuclear propulsion solutions for a 65,000 dwt freighting tanker (hull designation YJ127) with around 20,000 shp in a single-shaft arrangement. The hull was eventually defined as having a length of 775 feet, a beam of 112 feet 6 inches, and a maximum loaded draft of 43 feet 6 inches. Speed was 15.5 knots. The reactor was to be either a Boiling Water Indirect Cycle or Organic Liquid Moderated design. As this project was progressing, the designers were told to study putting a version of the same reactor into a naval replenishment vessel, designated the Fast Admiralty Replenishment Tanker (Y501) whil the commercial vessel became known as Y502. This would have been a 35,000 dwt vessel with two shafts. It appears that the intent was to use the one reactor to drive two turbines and to add a supplemental turbo-electric drive system to each shaft for 5,000 shp. (Presumably this was to provide get-home power in the event the reactor were disabled.)

In 1962 design studies of 45,000 DWT tanker utilizing a direct cycle boiling water reactor propulsion system were performed. The objectives of the studies were to find many problems which should be solved in near future and to get data which would be useful for nuclear ship construction. Both boiling-water and pressurized-water reactors were considered and the designs are described. Objections to the package reactor concept, comments on the brittleness of irradiated steel, and questions on the possibility of salt water corrosion.

In the 1950s Britain was still a maritime nation, the center of an oceanic Commonwealth, and it seemed vital to keep the lead in shipbuilding. Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told the Chamber of Shipping Dinner on 07 October 1957 that: ‘No industry is more important than the shipping industry to the maintenance of the economic strength of this country and its influence in the world.’ Emerson said: ‘The most advanced nations are always those who navigate most.’ The British shipping industry was built up in exceptionally favorable times. Britian had the first run of the steam engine, and in those days Britain had vast amounts of coal to carry out and grain to bring back.

Advocates claimed that the situation in regard to nuclear propulsion of merchant ships could be compared with that of the beginning of the diesel engine 30 or 40 years earlier. It was developed outside Britain for many years. As a result, Britain lagged behind and lost her predominant place in the ship engine market. Thirteen years of Conservative rule [1951-1964] accepted the Welfare State, economic policies and full employment of the previous Labour administration. The Conservative Government had not been hasty in reaching a decision on the matter of a Nuclear Merchant Ship. The economic difficulties into which the "Savannah" ran had an effect on the allocation of money from the Treasury to the Atomic Energy Authority and that section of the Ministry of Transport which was concerned with nuclear propulsion. The whole emphasis shifted from excitement to a rather dull pedestrian approach.

The Labour Opposition's oft-repeated request for a nuclear-powered ship were continually impressing on the Government the argument that Britain was falling behind in the race for an economic, or a potentially economic, nuclear ship. On every occasion the consortia of nuclear energy groups and other interested companies many times had been asked for designs, tenders, information, exhibition of models, and so on, and on no occasion — not once — had they met with success. The October 1964 election returned Labour to power under Harold Wilson. Despite a majority of only four seats, the new government was initially popular, successfully projecting an image of embracing technological and social progress.

Evaluations on possible ship reactor designs began as far back as 1956. As was stated in First Lord's Explanatory Statement on Navy Estimates in 1956, scientists and naval officers serving at the Atomic Energy Establishment at Harwell had for some years been collecting the knowledge necessary for the application of nuclear power to marine propulsion. Detailed work on the design of a prototype submarine nuclear powered installation, which was shore based, was well advanced, and some orders for the prototype machinery had been placed. It was planned to construct a basically similar plant for installation and extensive trials in a sea-going submarine. Experimental work on shielding problems was also proceeding at Harwell. The wider question for further application of nuclear power to ships for both the Royal and Merchant Navies was being carefully studied, and encouraging progress had been made with feasibility studies. The Admiralty, which had in the past successfully pioneered other forms of ship propulsion, was said to be "fully alive to the commercial opportunities opened by these new developments. ... in regard to research in respect of merchant shipping and research in respect of ships for the Royal Navy there is the fullest co-operation in order to obtain the best results."

The Admiralty pioneered nuclear propulsion with the submarine HMS Dreadnought, and in 1957 initiated a study of a gas-cooled reactor for fleet tankers. That led to the Galbraith Committee which, in turn, led to the co-operation of seven firms and to a most interesting exhibition of reactors for surface vessels.

In February 1957 a conference was held by the United Kingdom Atomic Research Establishment, Harwell, in collaboration with the British Shipbuilding Research Association on the possibilities of applying nuclear energy to the propulsion of merchant ships. The purpose of the conference was to give ship owners and ship builders an opportunity of hearing about the possibilities, as they appeared at present, of applying nuclear energy to the propulsion of merchant ships. No specific recommendations were made. A Committee was soon set up under the Chairmanship of the Civil Lord of the Admiralty, on which all the interests concerned are represented. This Committee was studying the application of nuclear power for marine purposes with a view to achieving nuclear propulsion of merchant ships in an economic form. A number of different types of reactor were being intensively investigated.

On 21 May 1957 the Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan) was asked during question time as to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, particularly as applied to the propulsion of ships. Mr. Hector Hughes asked the Prime Minister "does he realise that the United States and Russia are well advanced in this sphere, and that Britain's commerce and credit demand that, with the assistance of science, we should press forward quickly with the application of nuclear energy to ships?" The Prime Minister replied "I am not informed about the first point, but I can assure the hon. and learned Member that we are pressing forward with all possible speed."

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Page last modified: 16-07-2012 18:46:19 ZULU