Are Nuclear-Powered Cargo Ships Making a Comeback?

Decarbonization has been a difficult challenge for the maritime industry in recent years. In view of this difficulty, some shipping companies are currently reconsidering the adoption of a polarising solution: nuclear-powered ships. A nuclear ship is basically one with a nuclear power plant onboard that heats water to generate steam, which, in turn, powers turbo generators and turbines that drive the ship.

The first-ever nuclear-powered ship was a military aircraft carrier called the “USS Enterprise,” which was commissioned in 1961. It proved successful, and by 1990, more nuclear reactors were in use on ships than on land-based power plants. Despite their initial success, the widespread adoption of nuclear-powered ships in the maritime industry has been hindered by the high costs associated with their creation and maintenance.

Safety concerns have also been raised regarding the use of nuclear cargo ships on the ocean. The NS Savannah, the first nuclear-powered merchant vessel, experienced a setback in its first year of operation, releasing around 115,000 gallons of radioactive waste into the sea. Despite these challenges, the maritime industry, grappling with the difficulties of achieving decarbonization, is witnessing a renewed interest in nuclear-powered cargo ships.

Is the World Ready to Embrace Nuclear-Powered Cargo Ships?

To date, there is only one active nuclear cargo ship in the world—the Russian-developed NS Sevmorput, which is small in size compared to the majority of fossil-fueled container ships. As mentioned earlier, cost and safety concerns have been the primary factors deterring many countries and businesses from pursuing nuclear-powered cargo ships. However, in light of the pressing need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there is a growing belief that it is time to embrace nuclear-powered merchant ships.

In South Korea, a consortium of organizations has signed a memorandum of understanding to develop nuclear-powered container ships using small modular reactors. While specific project details are not yet disclosed, the group is committed to making nuclear energy commercially viable. Similarly, Norway has initiated the “Nuclear Propulsion of Merchant Ships” (NuProShip) project, exploring the use of molten salt reactors.

Both the South Korean and Norwegian initiatives are considering the use of molten salt reactors, which involve the dissolution of nuclear fuel into molten fluoride salts. These reactors are nothing new, as they had already operated some time in the 1960s. However, technical problems have prevented their widespread rollout. For their proponents, these reactors are believed to have enormous safety and efficiency benefits over other kinds, such as pressurized water reactors.

In the United Kingdom, a company called CORE POWER is separately planning to come up with a prototype advanced molten salt nuclear reactor, which utilizes liquid fuel rather than solid fuel. These nuclear fission reactors involve the coolant and the fuel being mixed in a fuel-salt that is liquid at high temperatures. According to CORE POWER, the use of a liquid fuel where the coolant and fuel are the same eliminates the risk of loss of coolant, which is the most common failure associated with conventional nuclear reactors.

Meanwhile, in Italy, the company RINA, which is among the leading ship certification companies in the world, is currently studying the use of nuclear fuel and believes that container ships are among the shipping segments that may be viable for nuclear fuel. However, according to its CEO, Ugo Salerno, it will still probably take around seven to ten years before production becomes feasible.

In Brazil, researchers Delvonei Alves de Andrade and Ondir Freire, who both work at the country’s Nuclear and Energy Research Institute, have published several papers on the history and potential future of nuclear-powered container ships. They have a solution to the most common issues faced in developing these ships: small reactors that are able to detach from one ship and installed in another or in a certain type of facility.

Although building new reactors comes with high upfront costs, it is believed that swaying from dirty fossil fuels to nuclear fuels will be cost-effective in the long run. This is because nuclear reactors are able to operate for numerous decades, but of course, this could create a problem for ship owners. That said, the idea of switching to a world where nuclear-powered ships are used at commercial ports should be welcomed, provided that there will be a regulatory framework to define how these nuclear ships will operate globally in the commercial industry.

The Potential Applications of Nuclear Cargo Ships

Nuclear-powered cargo ships hold great promise for addressing the issue of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the maritime industry. According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), maritime shipping contributes over 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually. The use of low-grade bunker fuel and diesel engines in cargo vessels is a significant factor in this pollution, impacting air quality in nearby ports and communities.

By using nuclear propulsion systems to replace these diesel engines in the vessels, maritime emissions can be significantly cleaned up, and the entire maritime sector will be on its way to attaining the IMO’s carbon reduction objectives. However, for Mikal Bøe, CEO of CORE POWER, in order to be tailored to the needs of the maritime industry, nuclear technology must meet three essential criteria: (1) A fuel-for-life reactor system; (2) a reactor system that remains safe even in the event of an accident at sea; and (3) a system that is easy and compact enough to mass manufacture.

Besides powering cargo ships, advanced nuclear reactors can also be potentially used offshore and onshore. Offshore applications include the use of reactors for water desalination plants, power stations, and floating data centers. The construction of these floating small modular reactors would take place in shipyard facilities and be exported to other countries to provide access to a heat supply and clean electricity. Onshore applications involve using reactors at ports to generate heat, hydrogen, or electricity, contributing to the creation of carbon-neutral synthetic fuels.


In the face of ongoing challenges to meet decarbonization targets, the maritime industry is witnessing a growing trend among shipping companies: a reevaluation of nuclear-powered cargo ships as a potentially more sustainable option for transporting goods when compared to traditional fossil-fueled vessels.

However, the adoption of nuclear systems in this sector, laden with inherent risks, demands a meticulous approach. The integration of nuclear cargo ships necessitates a judicious strategy, underscoring the imperative need for a robust regulatory framework. This framework must establish clear guidelines to steer the development of nuclear-powered cargo ships, prioritizing safety, cost-effectiveness, and ecological considerations in the maritime landscape.

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