Analysis: Study Finds Benefits for Nuclear-Powered LNG Vessels

Utilizing nuclear power for liquefied natural gas (LNG) vessels would provide a number of benefits, including low emissions, as the nuclear plant aboard an LNG vessel would eliminate carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide emissions, a recent study has found.

In its study, Babcock International Group's Marine Division sought to determine the commercial feasibility of utilizing nuclear power for the main propulsion and auxiliary power generation on board an LNG carrier.

"The study indicates that particular routes and cargoes lend themselves well to the nuclear propulsion option, and that technological advances in reactor design and manufacture have made the option more appealing," said David Dobson, commercial projects director for Babcock's Integrated Technology. "It has also confirmed significant benefits in terms of environmental impact and sustainability."

"On the other hand, initial capital costs are high (although they will reduce significantly when more applications for commercially produced marine reactors are found) and commercially available building and maintenance facilities would need to be established if significant numbers of these ships were to be planned."

The maritime industry has shown renewed interest in nuclear-powered commercial ships. The first nuclear propulsion in merchant ships was introduced in the 1960s following successful exploitation in submarines and aircraft carriers. These efforts were technically successful but less successful commercially.

However, environmental concerns, especially over carbon dioxide emissions and other air pollutants, and rising fossil fuel prices, which have made nuclear power more competitive, have sparked renewed interest in utilizing nuclear power.

Other factors have led the renaissance in renewed interest, including ongoing development of nuclear fusion focused on icebreakers but also other merchant ship types. Recent papers concluding that the adoption of nuclear propulsion for high-speed container ships is technically feasible also has helped generate interest.

"Our knowledge and experience puts us in a particularly strong position to identify and advise operators on these issues. We have worked with several of the major operators in the marine and oil and gas sectors on a number of ground-breaking developments in FPSOs [floating production, storage and offloading vessels] and LNG vessels over the years, and are delighted to be again investigating new ground."

The company's Integrated Technology arm within the Marine division has many years' experience in complex vessel concept work and on LNG projects. Further, Babcock's Marine division is the sole UK in-service support contractor for the Royal Navy's nuclear submarine flotilla, undertaking refits and upgrades, supporting operational submarines, and providing engineering design and technical support services.

Lloyds Register rules for nuclear powered vessels were originally written and published in 1966 and thereafter updated regularly until 1976 when they were withdrawn. Lloyds are now revisiting these rules and intend to publish a new set of rules in the near future. Lloyds Register personnel have presented technical papers in the UK during 2010 on the subject to highlight the current technical advances.

According to Lloyds, some 600 or so nuclear reactors are operating in the world today, of which approximately one-third are serving at sea.


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John F. Faseler | Oct. 8, 2010
I'm curious about what security precautions would be built into the design. I'm not talking about the safety of the reactor systems themselves. The US Navy has been using them for decades and there are multiple redundant systems built into them to ensure they are safe. I'm talking about the physical security of the fuel rods themselves. (Ensuring no one can steal them for terrorist purposes like making a dirty bomb.) All of those Navy ships have Marines on board whose only job is to guard the nuclear materials onboard (both in the engine room, and the weapon stores, if they have them). Since were not going to station Marines aboard commercial vessels, they need to engineer something into the design of the power plants that will make it non-feasible for someone to remove them easily. (You cant make it impossible, but you can make it extremely difficult and time consuming to do without being in a major shipyard.)

Jonathan Maxey | Oct. 4, 2010
Long overdue! As an prior Navy with a nuclear technology background on a nuclear-powered vessel,these options should have long been explored. There is the technical workforce available to support this endeavor as long as govt. is not short sighted nor heavy-handed with its regulations and industry is responsible as not to generate another Three Mile Island or Deep Water Horizon. We'll see.


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