Photo: Eletric ships powered by nuclear propulsion; Image courtesy: Core Power

Nuclear ships regulations to enter into force in UK on December 8

The UK is about to pass legislation on nuclear propulsion for merchant ships, closing a loophole in its maritime legislative system on a propulsion technology that is gaining a lot of attention in the shipping world as the potential pathway for slashing emissions.

Namely, the UK Parliament is set to adopt the proposed Merchant Shipping (Nuclear Ships) Regulations 2022, which have been laid before the House of Commons and the House of Lords earlier this month. The ‘statutory instrument’ is set to enter into force on December 8, 2022.

The regulations will enable the “Nuclear Code” for merchant ships, which is found in Chapter VIII of the Annex to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974 (SOLAS), to become law.

The Nuclear Code itself however is old (1981) and refers only to the technology of its’ time (PWRs), and is therefore not suitable for a forthcoming fleet of advanced nuclear-electric ships. It is anticipated that – now the UK Government has closed the loophole of not having the Code as part of its DfT rules on the statute book – it will take the next logical step which is to update the Nuclear Code so as to be fit for purpose for the future,” UK-based nuclear power developer Core Power said commenting on the development.

Core Power specializes in scalable atomic power technology for ocean transport and heavy industry. The company is working on the development of a modular molten salt reactor (MSR) to propel ships and provide energy for manufacturing blue and green fuels. An MSR is a class of nuclear fission reactors in which the primary nuclear reactor coolant and/or the fuel is a salt mixture. The old salt can be reprocessed to remove the byproducts which can then be used as new reactor fuel.

Core Power has also shown how ‘green fuel‘ for shipping can be produced using a floating nuclear power plant design combined with an ‘ammonia refinery‘.

In September, the UK company showcased for the first time a nuclear electric propulsion system (NEPS) targeting the container ship segment. The demonstration showed how a 14k TEU vessel fitted with a single molten salt reactor could enjoy total lifecycle costs of about half that of a conventionally propelled sister ship, once current bunker fuel prices and conservative carbon taxes are taken into consideration.

Some of the key benefits the technology brings to the table are its independence from volatile fuel prices as well as the fact that running on nuclear would enable ships to abandon the slow steaming practice and boost vessel efficiency by sailing faster all while producing zero emissions.

Nuclear propulsion is gaining interest from the maritime world on the backdrop of growing challenges with respect to scaling up the production of green ammonia, e-methanol, and hydrogen which are believed to hold the key to the decarbonization of shipping.

The key obstacle to the wider implementation of nuclear technology in commercial shipping has been public acceptance due to safety concerns as well as the traditional business mindset of the shipping sector. That being said, the MSRs technology has been described as extremely safe as the reactor could be in a sealed, self-contained, lead-lined compartment built for complete security and containment. 

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There has been a rise in initiatives aimed at exploring the potential of nuclear power in the sector, hinting that the shipping sector might have been too quick to discard it as a pathway toward decarbonizing the industry. Ulstein, for example, is looking to power a vessel with Thorium.

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The first mover projects are crucial to unlocking the full potential of the technology together with further research into the design, operation, and life cycle. However, it remains to be seen whether public acceptance of the technology would shift prompting more shipowners to jump on the nuclear bandwagon. The regulatory advances in the UK definitely provide positive signals for technology developers that nuclear propulsion is likely to be part of the future propulsion mix in the shipping industry.