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Shipping needs nuclear says Core Power

Photo: Core Power Mikal Boe, CEO Core Power
Mikal Boe, Chairman and CEO of Core Power
Solutions to the emissions riddle for the maritime sector will come thick and fast over the coming decades, and one answer often touted is the nuclear option, which, according to Core Power, is coming back in fashion.

Core CEO Mikal Bøe told a gathering of reporters in a high-rise meeting, at the top of the Shard in London, that the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl Fukushima accidents had given the public at large a warped view of the technology.

In fact, Bøe suggests, that the molten salt reactor (MSR) design that Core Power is working on, using heated and liquefied chloride salts, can solve a number of issues for the maritime sector in a safe and emission free way.

MSR technologies were first tested as a nuclear option for aircraft in the 1950s, before a six-year experiment at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, near Knoxville Tennessee, tested the technology, after which it was deemed unreliable.

That was using old technology and designs said Bøe, the new designs will not suffer a similar fate.

In fact, Bøe believes that the first vessel using MSR technology could be launched as early as the mid-2030s, with the company about to build a micro-reactor to test the design, in Idaho National Laboratory, before then producing a commercial prototype.

A cool $2.5 billion will be spent on the development before a commercial ship is even ordered, much of the financing coming from the US government funds.

That money is additional to the $150 million Washington has already invested, while Core Power shareholders, Wan Hai, Express Container Lines, Terrapower and Hyundai Heavy Industries have all invested in the MSR development. And a new funding round is expected in 2025-26.

On a back of the envelope calculation Bøe calculates that the capex of a 20,000 teu nuclear powered vessel would set an owner back around $250 million, including around $120-150 million for the nuclear electric twin-screw propulsion power system.

Operating costs are estimated as comparable to a conventional vessel, operating on HFO at $400-500 per tonne.

However, Bøe points out that the fuel can be filtered and re-used in an MSR, and the vessel could offer green electricity to the local grid as there are no emissions from a nuclear vessel, and producing the electricity could, for example, be used to operate gantry cranes handling cargo containers.

Nevertheless, most of the cost of the MSR powered ship is paid up front, which increases the capex and the risk. While the ship, which Bøe rightly points out will not attract the costs of new fuels like ammonia and methanol, nor the carbon costs for HFO, but there may still be an environmental cost on a lifecycle basis.

MSRs operate on Uranium 238 fuel and the process for mining and extracting uranium is anything but environmentally friendly.

Mined in either shallow or deep mines, rock is then taken to a mill where it is crushed and treated with sulphuric acid to extract the uranium, with the radioactive rock residue then disposed of.

Alternatively, uranium can be extracted through in situ leaching (ISL) which requires the pouring sulphuric acid or ammonium carbonate into an aquafer and returning the leached uranium to the surface.

Clean water, soil and air protection specialists Environment America noted: “Uranium waste can be radioactive for thousands of years, meaning mining sites can be dangerous for years after they stop operating.”

While the US Environmental Protection Agency also said that uranium mining can sea toxic chemicals leach into the soil and water table.

Such costs could be calculated into the final deliberations for the lifecycle of nuclear-powered vessels in the future.