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Nuclear-Powered Merchant Ships - Rise

Marine nuclear powerplants (mainly pressurized water reactors) seem clearly technically feasible for widespread application to merchant shipping. Navy nuclear submarines and surface ships, the Russian navy's nuclear ships and icebreakers, were all propelled using a pressurized water reactor with engineering variations to suit the particular application. Only four nuclear cargo ships were built: the U.S. nuclear ship Savannah (1962-1972, 21 knots, 22 000 shp, 74 MWt reactor), the German Otto Hahn (1968-1979, 15 knots, 10 000 shp, 38 MWt reactor), the Japanese research ship Mutsu (1979-1992, 16.5 knots, 10 000 s'hp, 36 MWt reactor), and the Russian Sevmorput (1988 - still in operation, designed to carry barges or containers and being converted to the worlds first nuclear powered oil drilling vessel). The Italians planned but never built the N/S Enrico Fermi (22 000 shp, 80 MWt reactor), and the United Kingdom evaluated a variety of nuclear designs in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In simplified terms, the difference between a nuclear-powered ship and a conventional ship is that the nuclear reactor,rather than an oil-fired boiler, produces the steam to drive the turbines. In addition to different methods of boiling water,these two propulsion systems required different designs for the storage and delivery of fuel. A conventional steamshiprequires the storage of vast and fluctuating quantities of fuel, as well as complex pumping and piping systems. A nuclear-powered ship substituted a central, internally constrained storage, delivery, and consumption system.

In January 1955 nuclear engineering signalled a mighty breakthrough with the announcement that the US Navy's submarine Nautilus was in operation and running on nuclear power. While this was of enormous significance for submarines and military planning , it was also regarded by some as a first step along the road toward fleets of merchant ships propelled by nuclear reactors. Four years later, in 1959, the N/S Savannah was launched. This was an experimental 9,400 GRT cargo liner sponsored by the US Atomic Energy Commission and the Federal Maritime Commission, which was designed to examine the feasibility of nuclear merchant ships.

The trend in the shipbuilding and the shipping industries in the 1960s was increases in size and speed to accommodate the growing trade volume. It was found economically inefficient to infinitely increase output with the existing propulsion engine. The problems of oil prices and supply spurred discussion on nuclear powered vessels on a global scale. In order to operate nuclear powered vessels for commercial purposes, nuclear powered vessels must have a competitive strength against the existing vessels. They must also be proven safe and reliable. Technological development and global safety standard, as well as navigational regulations were required to put such vessels into practical use. Considering the strength of the shipbuilding industry and the future nuclear power era, Japanese government emphasized the research and development of nuclear powered vessels. It also emphasized active participation in the standardizing safety of nuclear powered vessels to enable early realization of their commercial applications.

The possibilities of this fuel economy encouraged a number of other nations to investigate nuclear power for merchant vessels, although only Japan and West Germany went as far as the US in building experimental merchant ships. The Japanese Mutsu and West German Otto Hahn were technically successful, although the former had initial reactor troubles. Meanwhile the Soviet Union, which like the US had rapidly turned to nuclear power for larger warships and submarines, installed nuclear power plants in a number of powerful icebreakers, which were commissioned to open up the Siberian and arctic ports of that huge country.

By 1970, although much has been written and said about the development of nuclear-powered vessels for commercial use, little had been accomplished in building them. The safety problems associated with operation of nuclear-powered vessels have been identified, and experience with both the "Lenin" and the "Savannah" had shown that safety control was satisfactory. As for liability of operators, in spite of the non-ratification of the international Convention on the subject which was adopted in Brussels in 1962, it is known that the United States has made provision for this contingency along the lines of the Convention, as have Belgium and Prance, the former in 1963 and the latter in 1965.

The Federal Republic of Germany launched the "Otto Halm" in 1964 and expected to commission it in 1967 or 1968. Japan had also decided to proceed with the building of a nuclear-powered special cargo vessel of 8,300 g.r.t., with a speed of 16.5 knots, to be completed in 1971 at a cost of about $15.3 million. Furthermore, the successful operation by the USSR of the icebreaker "Lenin" since 1958, led to the announcement of that country's intention to build two more nuclear-powered icebreakers, with two reactors each instead of three as on the existing ship, and of simpler, more compact, design with still more automated features and smaller crews.

As against these positive developments must be set the hesitation of the U.S. Maritime Administration to continue its financial support of the operation of the "Savannah"; the decision not to build the 67,000-ton vessel on plans for which a joint Norwegian-Swedish team had been working since 1963, after an earlier decision not to pursue a study initiated in 1960 under the auspices of the European Nuclear Energy Agency of OECD; and the British Government's decision not to proceed at the present time with plans for building a nuclear vessel, although a study and report in 1964 the Padmore Committee had urged action towards the building of an experimental ship, and the United Kingdom and Belgium had been associated since 1963 in the study of the reactor problems involved.

By 1970, Japan was reported to be planning for a second nuclear ship, which would be a container carrier with a speed of 30 knots, though nothing came of these plans. Italy appeared likely to build the "Enrico Fermi" as an unarmed supply vessel for its Navy, in preference to a 53,000 d.w.t. tanker planned earlier. The "Fermi" was expected to be of 9,000 d.w.t., 22,000 b.h.p., with a speed of 22 knots, and cost about $5,000,000. Its crew would comprise about 26 officers, 30 N.C.Os. and 240 seamen plus ten nuclear technicians and 20 skilled workers. Nothing came of these plans.

There were clearly a number of important problems which remained to be solved before nuclear power can become a practical proposition in the shipping industry and can compete on a commercial basis with conventional power. Nevertheless, by 1970 the view was held in some quarters that nuclear power might replace conventional power in ships within the next 40 years. In spite of higher first capital costs, some consider that such vessels will be able to compete with conventional ships because of the lower cost of nuclear fuel. In any case, international study and experimental projects, sponsored both by luratcm and the European Nuclear Energy Agency continued, as were studies in the United States and other countries.

By the early 1970s several developments brought about a substantial improvement in the economic attractiveness of maritime nuclear propulsion as compared to the picture as recently as 5 years earlier. According to one analysis, "The growth in population and in the volume of world trade has brought about a parallel and dramatic growth in ship sizes and propulsion power levels. The growth will accelerate...At higher power levels, nuclear powerplants for ships become more economical. Concurrent with the increase in power levels, there has been a continued increase in the price of fossil fuels and a growing uncertainty regarding fuel availability. Meanwhile, as a consequence of the maturation of the central station nuclear electric power industry and advances in nuclear technology, the cost of nuclear fuel has decreased significantly in recent years."

A 1971 MARAD study projected that in the year 1990 there would be a need for a worldwide shipping fleet of 500 ships over 100 000 shp and 2500 ships over 40 000 shp. The MARAD economic studies indicated that nuclear power for merchant shipping was presently economically competitive with oil-fired power above 100 000 shp. They also suggested that by 1978 nuclear power can be competitive at 40 000 shp and above. Thus there seemed to be a large worldwide market potential for marine nuclear powerplants.

In 1974 the National Research Council's Maritime Transportation Research Board report Nuclear Merchant Ships was prepared by the Panel on Strategy for Developing Nuclear-Powered Merchant Ships. This study recommended a strategy for developing U.S.-flag nuclear-powered merchant ships. It identified and discussed key problem areas, including comparative economics, safety and environmental quality considerations, and finincial incentives and options.

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Page last modified: 16-07-2012 18:49:43 ZULU