The maritime industry is investigating the use of nuclear fuel to power commercial ships due to advances in technology. While any potential nuclear fuel solutions are at least a decade away, this option is being regarded as a cleaner alternative for the shipping sector.
Shipping contributes nearly 3% of global CO2 emissions, leading investors and environmentalists to pressure the industry to adopt cleaner fuel solutions. Ammonia, methanol, and wind are among the alternatives being considered. Nuclear energy, previously used to power military submarines and icebreakers, offers a viable option, albeit with cost and insurance-related challenges for merchant ships entering commercial ports.
The International Chamber of Shipping’s survey revealed increased interest in nuclear fuel compared to previous years, with expectations that nuclear-powered commercial ships could become viable within the next decade. Small and mass-produced reactors fitted on ships are less powerful and require less nuclear fuel compared to traditional nuclear sites, making them suitable for commercial maritime use.
Italy-based shipbuilder Fincantieri expressed interest in modular nuclear reactors, which could potentially contribute significantly to decarbonizing ships. RINA, a leading ship certification company, is also collaborating with Fincantieri and a nuclear technology company in a feasibility study on nuclear fuel use. Container ships, which require substantial power, are considered a suitable segment for nuclear fuel adoption.
The challenges associated with nuclear fuel adoption include fitting small reactors onto ships, evaluating potential radiation exposure, ensuring adequate safeguards during vessel movement, determining vessel ownership, and addressing security concerns at sea. UK-based company CORE POWER is exploring the development of a prototype advanced molten salt nuclear reactor that uses liquid fuel, reducing the risk of coolant accidents common in conventional reactors.
Despite the potential benefits of nuclear fuel, public opinion and concerns remain significant obstacles. It is estimated that it will take seven to ten years before nuclear fuel production becomes feasible. However, proponents argue that nuclear energy must play a role in achieving a clean, green transition.