Get With The Program

It's time that Chris Bowen opened his eyes, and his mind, the the potential of nuclear power.

Get With The Program
Photo by Shaah Shahidh / Unsplash

Hagar, I can’t get to sleep for thinking about her” declared Lucky Eddie to his Commander. “I can even concentrate, eat or do anything without thinking about her” he lamented.

Hagar put a hand around Eddie’s shoulder, “It’s alright Eddie, I was the same with my first boat !” he declared sympathetically.

Hagar the Horrible, a nautical mentor to millions, has dispersed such gems of wisdom, that I post them up in the office kitchen.

Along with 274,000 other Queenslanders who own boats, we proudly show photos of our boats while our spouses show off happy snaps of the kids or the grandkids.

Just for the record, I’ve noticed that some of these small people turn ugly in looks and/or personality when they get bigger, but a good-looking boat always stays a good-looking boat!

The amazing thing about boats is that they can be moved easily with very little horsepower.

I have a 1930 photo of one draft horse pulling 600 tonnes of coal on a barge that weighed 200 tonnes. Bringing that 800-tonne total weight ashore and putting it on railway wheels or truck wheels would take 30-40 horses to pull.

Hence, when US President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked his clever people in the early 1950s to nominate a project for his “Atoms for Peace Project” to a world terrified by the word “atomic,” the clever people in his administration offered floating solutions.

At the same time, the Soviet Union started considering nuclear energy for transportation in 1954 when the 5-megawatt nuclear power station at Obninskoye, near Moscow, went into operation.

Serious papers by senior Russian engineers at the time highlighted the attractiveness of nuclear power plants for ship propulsion, where “great range and endurance with the least amount of fuel weight” were the most desirable features. Seventy years later, they still are!

The first US project was the nuclear submarine Nautilus, commissioned in 1954, that could stay underwater, even under the polar icecap, for extended periods

The first US nuclear cargo passenger ship, 182m “Savannah”, was on the drawing boards early, launched in 1959, entering service in 1964, capable of circumnavigating the planet 14 times at 20 knots on just 22kgs of uranium.

The Russians at the time were obviously peeking over the counter at the Americans when they designed a passenger-cargo icebreaker, the 134m “Lenin,” which they launched in December 1957.

They pipped the Americans by getting her into service by 1959 and using a nuclear power plant similar to the Obninskoye unit.

These commercial nuclear vessels were setting significantly higher operational capabilities, particularly on the Russian Transarctic route known as the Northeast Passage, which is one-third of the distance of the traditional route through the Suez Canal. 

This Transarctic route also gave the Russians access to significant oil reserves, gas reserves and mineral resources

In January 2022, multinational engineering and construction company China Communications and Construction and Russian Titanium Resources agreed to cooperate on a mining project to develop a vertically integrated mining and metallurgical complex for the processing of titanium ores and quartz sands from the Pizhemsky deposit in the Komi Republic, north Russia. 

The parties also discussed the supply of marketable goods to the Chinese market, including rutile, titanium dioxide, wollastonite, iron oxide, calcined quartz sands, and premium glass sands with low iron content.

This project to create a national mining cluster involves the construction of the Sosnogorsk-Indiga railway and the deep sea ports of Tiksi and Indiga in the Arctic region of Russia. These developments have been boosted by the Ukraine war and sanctions against Russia, where Chinese trade has increased by 35%. These developments need reliable waterways, which only icebreakers can provide. 

Russia is boosting its 40-strong icebreaking fleet, with all of the new vessels being nuclear-powered, as part of its aim to improve Arctic shipping.

Shipbuilder Rosatomflot is a subsidiary of Russian state nuclear company Rosatom and JSC Baltiysjiy Zavod, part of the United Shipbuilding Corporation.

Recently, the company signed a contract for the construction of a unique, multifunctional nuclear service vessel that would operate from 2029. The vessel is designed to perform a full range of work on recharging nuclear icebreakers.

Successful Russian Floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs) have been working since 2018 in Vilyuchinsk in far easter Russia, and last month Russia agreed to supply the first FNPP to Guinea in Africa, with several others under contract with other African countries with power problems. These units will be leased by Russia and replacement of the reactors will also be done by the Russians.

China is building FNPPS for use in offshore mining and, as of April 2024, has built another 23 reactors.

Ships have been powering shore grids since 1929, but engineering advances with nuclear reactors have made power transfer much easier now, with voltage transformers and the latest technologies.

Several countries are designing the latest Micro Modular Reactors (MMRs), which are focused on 5-10mW. For context, these MMRs can fit on the back of a 40-foot semi-trailer and power merchant ships up to Panamax size (80,000 tonnes dwt), which is around 9mW. The largest production wind turbines are only around 7mW, with a capital cost of US$1.2 m per megawatt.

They have a significant footprint and a limited lifespan of 20-30 years. Check for yourself!

The MMRs offer a combination of power for propulsion and shore powering, which, for very remote nations, is highly attractive.  The highest national cost component of remote nations even with some hydro and renewables, is imported diesel, and averages $1bn per annum for a population of 1 million.

With MMR manufacturers offering a cost of US$0.35/kWh on a leased base, this is surely the future for low-emissions power solutions.

Again the marine industry is leading the nuclear industry and technological change with MMRs. Not having to carry fuel or do voyage deviations to pick up fuels, as mentioned earlier, are hugely desirable features.

The 100,000 cargo ships of all sizes carry 1,000-3,000 tonnes of fuel depending on size. Over a 30-year life span of a ship carrying this amount of cargo instead of fuel, together with the significant maintenance costs and manning associated with large diesel engines, amounts to millions.

Add the attraction of zero emissions with MMR’s and the nuclear strategy becomes compelling.

Over the last decade, shipowners have pursued the holy grail, flirting with ammonia, hydrogen, sail-assisted, methanol, and LNG. Nothing comes close to nuclear!

The 162 existing nuclear vessels in the world have been constrained to military, research, and icebreaking duties. They will soon have their numbers boosted with cargo ships, and the Chinese are already leading the charge with a nuclear container ship.

A boat that doesn’t need refuelling has a lot of appeal, especially if you can plug it into the power grid when alongside.

Hagar the Horrible and his long-term Director of Operations, Lucky Eddie, even as two-dimensional cartoons, would certainly agree!

Real-life three-dimensional people like Chris Bowen should get with the program.

Thought for the Day

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”
William Arthur Ward

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