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Live from CMA Shipping

Who will lead the world in nuclear propulsion for shipping regulation?

Photo: Seatrade Maritime Panel on nuclear propulsion for shipping at CMA Shipping 2024
As development of nuclear reactors for shipping continues, an opportunity arises on the world stage for a leader in regulation for nuclear commercial vessels.

At a panel discussion at CMA Shipping 2024, experts spoke on the benefits and challenges of adopting nuclear propulsion for the shipping sector, including public perception, technology immaturity, and handling nuclear waste.

One of the current difficulties deterring investment in nuclear power for shipping is the lack of a regulatory framework to handle the development, licensing, and permitting for mobile nuclear assets like ships, and for moveable nuclear assets like floating power plants.

The conclusion of an analysis applying the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) rules to nuclear-powered vessels was that the regulatory structure does not prevent the development of such vessels and floating power plants. Scott Edwards, Director of Regulatory Development at Core Power said he expects the IAEA to produce a document in the next 18 months with statements to the effect that existing rules can be applied to the marine environment.

This document will send a signal to national nuclear regulators that while gaps may be identified in the regulatory coverage which will need to be addressed, the IAEA rules do not present an obstacle to pursuing the technology. Edwards expects that national nuclear regulators will develop their own initial guidelines to set appropriate safety standards for nuclear ships before a global system is developed and adopted at IAEA in collaboration with the IMO.

Speaking to Seatrade Maritime News, Mike Salthouse, Head of External Affairs at NorthStandard said the current lack of a robust regulatory regime for nuclear shipping presents an opportunity.

“Which country is going to come up with that first stab at a set of standards that shares the liability [for nuclear shipping?] A country like the UK, with its lawyers, with the intellectual capital within the UK and its maritime services is not just one of the few places to do that, but the best place to do that,” said Salthouse.

If the opportunity to take the lead in developing such regulation is squandered, other countries like the US, China, or another player will happily fill the role, he added.

At the CMA shipping conference session, the geopolitics of the nuclear shipping race were evident. 

“The longer we wait to get this technology out there, the more ahead of us, the Russians get with their own technology,” said Jonathan Stephens, Manager, Nuclear Core Design at BWX Technologies. “I know that they have ambitions to try to sell it to other parts of the world too, and I would rather get our own plants out there before they have a chance to do too much of that.”