Fincantieri, RINA team up with newcleo to test feasibility of nuclear naval propulsion

newcleo, a London-based nuclear technology company developing Generation IV reactors using nuclear waste as fuel, has signed a cooperation agreement with Italian shipbuilding major Fincantieri and RINA classification society.

Image credit newcleo

The trio has agreed to carry out a feasibility study for nuclear applications to the shipping industry, including newcleo’s lead-cooled small modular reactors (SMRs) technology.

The deployment of newcleo’s Lead-cooled Fast Reactor (LFR) for naval propulsion would involve placing a closed mini reactor on vessels as a small nuclear battery producing a 30MW electric output. This would require infrequent refuelling (only once every 10-15 years), very limited maintenance and easy replacement at the end of life.

Using clean nuclear energy to power marine vessels has the potential to rapidly decarbonise a sector grappling with huge fossil fuel consumption and its consequent carbon emissions.

The shipping industry, via the International Maritime Organization (IMO), has approved new targets for GHG emission reduction, to reach net-zero GHG emissions by or around (i.e. close to) 2050.

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While the shipping industry still carries 90% of the world’s goods, and the fourth IMO GHG Study 2020 confirms that its carbon dioxide emissions are less than 3% of the total global man-made CO2 emissions, the actions of the big players of this industry have the potential to drive trends and markets.

Nuclear power reactors have been in use in the naval industry for decades, and they have had a sound safety record. Switching to nuclear-powered ships would remove business uncertainty caused by fuel cost volatility, as they wouldn’t need to be refueled.

Fuel is at the center of the sector’s decarbonization puzzle as carbon-free fuels such as hydrogen, ammonia, and methanol are not available at scale and the maturity of propulsion technology is yet to be proven in practice, especially for ammonia.

The key obstacle to the wider implementation of the technology in commercial shipping has been public acceptance.

Namely, safety has been one of the major concerns of the wider public when it comes to integrating nuclear power into commercial shipping. Potential radiation leaks or explosions caused by collisions have rendered the technology in commercial shipping unacceptable in the public eye.

However, the trio claim that using nuclear power on ships would safeguard the marine ecosystem in the event of an accident. Namely, newcleo’s design features a liquid lead inside the reactor that would solidify as it cools down in contact with the cold water, enclosing the reactor core in a solid casing, and containing all radiation thanks to the shielding properties of lead.

Finally, at the end of its life, the whole LFR unit would be simply removed and replaced with a new one in the ship, and the spent unit taken away for decommissioning and reprocessing. 

“I am delighted that we are launching a project for civil nuclear naval propulsion with this important feasibility study. Fincantieri and RINA are two global leaders in the shipping sector, and combining their expertise with our technology innovation can bring a real solution to the issue of carbon emissions in maritime transport,” Stefano Buono, newcleo Chairman and CEO, said.

From our conception, newcleo’s ambition is to contribute to accelerating decarbonisation and providing clean, sustainable and affordable energy to meet the needs of communities and businesses.

I look forward to the results of the feasibility study and the next steps of the project.”

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“Today Fincantieri reaffirms its vocation to be a pioneer and catalyst for progress in the maritime sector with cutting-edge, efficient and sustainable technologies. Indeed, the agreement allows us to explore the possibility of adding a new and visionary solution among those at our disposal to achieve the ambitious decarbonisation goals the industry has set for itself,” Pierroberto Folgiero, CEO and General Manager of Fincantieri, said.

Nuclear power holds enormous potential and, as such, it needs the best expertise to be expressed, and we are proud to join with partners like newcleo and Rina to help get this done.”

“The improvement of fuel efficiency and vessel design is already giving good results in reducing shipping footprint. But, in order to reach the targets fixed for this industry, we need alternative fuels with low carbon content from well to waste,” Ugo Salerno, Chairman and CEO of RINA, added.

Nuclear will be one of the answers to these objectives.
In addition, small modular reactors will be the most efficient solution to apply nuclear to shipping.

We are proud to cooperate with newcleo and Fincantieri in order to make feasible, as soon as possible, the implementation of SMRs on vessels.”

After being disregarded for a while as a non-feasible option for shipping, numerous projects and initiatives are revisiting the idea as a transformative solution for shipping.

A modular MSR for vessels is also being developed by Core Power, a UK-based development company specializing in scalable atomic power technology for ocean transport and heavy industry.

In addition, one of the world’s biggest shipbuilders Samsung Heavy Industries (SHI) is also looking into the potential of SMRs. The company has teamed up with numerous partners including Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) and Seaborg Technologies with an aim to develop nuclear-powered vessels.

SHI plans to tap into the market of MSR-based floating nuclear power generation plants and nuclear-powered vessels. The partners are also looking into the development of hydrogen production plants and ammonia plants, as the CMSR is said to be an ideal power source for the supply of stable, clean, and safe electricity.

​The aim of the partnership is to manufacture and sell turn-key power plants, ready to be moored at industrial harbors and connected to the electric grid onshore. ​

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