Home > Environment > Nuclear isn’t looking promising either

Nuclear isn’t looking promising either

November 27th, 2015

For quite some time, I’ve argued that, if nuclear power is to make any substantial contribution to reducing CO2 emissions, its growth will have to accelerate in China and to be based on the AP1000, the only Gen III+ design likely to be built in numbers significant enough to achieve any kind of scale economy.

It now appears highly unlikely that this will happen. Although China notionally restarted its nuclear program in 2012, a year after Fukushima, approvals have slowed to a crawl. This article, from Nuclear Engineering International, explains some of the reasons.

More significantly, China appears to have abandoned the idea of using a Western design, and is instead pushing two designs of its own, the CAP-1400 (an adaptation of the AP1000) and Hualong 1, Chinese design with French antecedents, variously rated as Gen II, Gen II+ and “comparable to a Generation III”.

It appears that the cost of imported inputs to the current projects is seen as prohibitive. The hope that the Hualong will generate an export market, and the British government has just agreed in principle to the construction of one such plant, conditional on approval of the design. In the absence of any operational plants, that looks problematic, to put it mildly. The announcement looks to be driven more by diplomatic considerations than by economics, which suggests that actual construction may be a long way off.

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  1. Ikonoclast
  2. BilB
    November 28th, 2015 at 11:22 | #2

    I am going to go against the trend here, although futilely. I have been saying for a while, now, that the world desperately needs shipping to be going nuclear. There are 45,000 large ships plying the worlds waters,……………entirely out of sight and therefore out of mind………….., and the amount of CO2 released from them is huge.

    Aviation is more visible but the prospects of nuclear there are near zero for obvious reasons.

    It is assumed that there are technical reasons why the worlds bulk and container carriers are not nuclear, but I think that this is a false assumption. One thing is true, and that no one wants to see a nuclear powered ship stranded on the Barrier Reef. Preventing that, however is a matter of proper organisation. Another issue is what do you do with spent reactors? I have been thinking that the best disposal site is right at the edge of any of the worlds deep ocean geological subduction zones where the periodic tectonic plate movements will carry the material into the mantle where hundreds of thousands of years, to hundreds of millions of years, are the normal turnover time frames.

    The by-product of manufacturing tens of thousands of 80 megawatt reactors for shipping is that such production scales just might serve to solve the reliability issues that land based reactor designs suffer from, mostly due to insufficient constructional experience and insufficient research and development funding.

    I argue that making lots of smaller reactors will produce the economies of scale that the nuclear industry desperately needs, and just may yield the compact and safe fast breeder reactor that the industry claims is the energy silver bullet. The other advantage of operating in this field is that there is absolutely no way that the naval nuclear industry will come into economic conflict with solar energy technologies (I am happy to argue this at length with anyone who thinks otherwise). If algal oil bio-fuels develop to the extent that millions of tonnes of fuel become a viable production delivery, the aviation industry is going to soak up all that can be produced.

    One final advantage of a Naval Nuclear Industry (NNI) is that ships in port will have the ability to support land based energy systems. Run the numbers to see just how much that energy delivery can be, it is quite huge. 45,000 ships with 80 megawatt power supplies will have a total capacity of 3,600 gigawatts (currently supplied from bunker oil) which if in port for 10% of the time can deliver 360 gigawatts of electrical support for port cities.

    Where is the fallacy? Well I have assumed that these ships would be nuclear electric, which they might not be. They might be steam turbine directly to the propeller. That comes down to costs and relative advantages.

    So if you choose to examine this possibility you will find that it is a total information dead zone.


  3. Will Boisvert
    November 28th, 2015 at 12:39 | #3

    “More significantly, China appears to have abandoned the idea of using a Western design, and is instead pushing two designs of its own, the CAP-1400 (an adaptation of the AP1000) and Hualong 1, Chinese design with French antecedents, variously rated as Gen II, Gen II+ and “comparable to a Generation III”.

    The Chinese are turning to the CAP1400 because of economies of scale and also because they won’t have to pay licensing fees to Westinghouse as they do for the AP1000 proper. Their agreement with Westinghouse says the Chinese get intellectual property rights to any AP1000 derivative larger than 1350 MW.

    The Hualong 1 is a Gen III design. It is basically a scaled-down version of the EPR. The chief technical challenge is whether the Chinese can build the double-hulled containment building economically. Maybe having practiced on the EPR projects at Taishan they know how to do that now. The first Hualong 1 is already under construction and proceeding pretty fast. China just signed an agreement to build a Hualong 1 in Argentina, along with a Candu 6. China’s strategy is to Sinify clones of the AP1000 and EPR, so as to offer whichever type an export market prefers.

    And don’t forget the South Korean APR1400. That’s a Gen III design. The first APR1400 at Shin Kori 3 loaded fuel this month and will probably grid-connect by year-end. There are 5 others under construction in Korea and UAE, with more about to break ground. There are many Gen III designs, and they are now starting to come on line and maybe develop series efficiencies.

    Nuclear construction starts certainly need to speed up, but this year’s starts are already 4.3 GW, nearly double last year’s. That crop will produce as much clean electricity yearly as Germany’s entire current solar sector, and nearly twice as much as all the wind and solar currently on the continent of Australia. They will also last twice as long as wind and solar generators and provide a much better quality of power without the need for grid expansion, storage and constant backup from gas. The nuclear capacity coming on line this year, 8.6 GW so far and climbing, will likely outstrip the yearly generation from all of this year’s new solar capacity worldwide (and probably the lifetime output of this year’s global crop of wind turbines, taking into account the greater longevity of nuclear plants).

    So I think the nuclear industry does look “promising.” But there is a need for supportive industrial policy to make deployment of reactors cheaper and faster (as there is for renewables).

  4. BilB
    November 28th, 2015 at 13:37 | #4


    Considering that the installed capacity for Nuclear to provide 30% of global electricity consumption before population growth and transition to electric transport needs to be some 840 gigawatts or 560 gigawatts more than present.


    I think JQ’s argument holds up.

    Current plants under construction need also to be seen as the low hanging fruit of nuclear construction interest. The NEI is hoping for a speed up of starts when the probability is for a slow down as insurance risk mounts.

  5. BilB
    November 28th, 2015 at 16:16 | #5

    Here is a paper from 1995 on Nuclear shipping explaining the benefits and some factors


    and another


  6. BilB
    November 28th, 2015 at 16:18 | #6

    Oh yeah. the two link rule.

    Here is a paper from 1995 on Nuclear shipping explaining the benefits and some factors

  7. BilB
    November 28th, 2015 at 16:19 | #7

    ….and the other link on nuclear propulsion.

    and another

  8. Simon Fowler
    November 28th, 2015 at 18:35 | #8

    I think the reason why nuclear hasn’t taken off in the merchant marine is simple: cost.

    Cost for install/conversion would be enormous. Converting an existing large diesel to a nuclear plant would be /major/, since you’d need to build a whole seawater cooling system into the hull from scratch. An existing steam plant would be relatively simple technically, but there’s a /lot/ of diesel out there that would need to be converted for your plan to work.

    And also cost for insurance – I doubt there’d be many maritime insurance companies that wanted to take the risk of coughing up for cleanup after an in-port nuclear containment accident, for example, and if they did agree to insure against such a scenario they’d charge so much that it’d be uneconomic for the shipowners.

    The technicalities are pretty simple to overcome, since this is the one part of nuclear engineering where we have lots of experience with building at scale. I’m not sure I’d want to trust maintenance of the reactors to a cut-price crew, but that’s made pretty moot by the amount that the shipowners would be paying for insurance – the cost of ex-navy engineers would be minimal in comparison.

    The only way this would go ahead is if governments of the world funded the conversion, and if they underwrote the insurance and potentially a lot of the maintenance costs.

    Not that I’m saying sticking with the status quo is a good idea, but converting to nuclear isn’t the solution.

  9. Simon Fowler
    November 28th, 2015 at 18:46 | #9

    The other thing I’d note about nuclear propulsion for the merchant marine is that safety would be a /really/ big issue. The first of your links mentions that the naval record with nuclear safety is excellent – that’s hard to argue with, but having talked to a couple of US nuclear engineers about this stuff I’m pretty confident that they’d agree with the proposition that accidents don’t happen (very often) because they’re /extremely/ disciplined and careful and thorough. Nuclear power plants stay safe because they’re maintained very carefully, not because they’re inherently safe.

    I don’t think I’d feel comfortable having 45,000 nuclear reactors floating around the world’s oceans, each one in an unknown state of repair and maintained by a crew who may not really care too much if the machinery they look after is functioning properly . . .

  10. Douglas Hynd
    November 28th, 2015 at 19:50 | #10

    Latest cost estimates for nuclear in Australia, giles Parkinson has the latest news – http://reneweconomy.com.au/2015/nuclear-priced-out-of-australias-future-energy-equation-in-new-report-67465

  11. Ikonoclast
    November 28th, 2015 at 19:55 | #11

    @Will Boisvert

    Dream on mate. If believing in a nuclear future makes you happy that is fine. 🙂

    I don’t feel the need to argue on this topic any more. I’m free! Only those who suffer uncertainty feel the need to keep arguing.

  12. James Wimberley
    November 28th, 2015 at 20:09 | #12

    @Will Boisvert
    They [new nuclear reactors] will also last twice as long as wind and solar generators ..” IIRC you have said this before and been corrected before.

    There is no reason to take 60 years as a reasonable expected life for nuclear reactors, though the industry would like us to think so. According to the WNISR, “while in the USA about three-quarters of the reactors have already received license extensions for up to a total lifetime of 60 years, in France only 10-year extensions are granted and the safety authorities made it clear that there is no guarantee that all units will pass the 40-year in-depth examinations.” The extensions come with expensive upgrade requirements. Plants are being closed in the USA not because their licenses have run out but because they are no longer economic, as with the retirement of commercial aircraft. For back-of-the-envelope calculations, a life of 50 years looks reasonable.

    The comparison with wind and solar is not simple, but does not justify your 2X life estimate. In wind, the progress in design and in controls has been so rapid that in Germany it pays to repower 15 or 20-year-old turbines. The investment decisions are based on 20/25 year lives, but nobody really knows how long the current crop will last, nor whether complete or partial replacement will be optimal – offshore, with expensive foundations, probably partial.

    In solar, the often-quoted 25-year life is a massive underestimate: it’s what the panel makers give an 80% output warranty for, clearly conservatively. There are no 30-year-old utility solar farms to go by. The limited number of 30-year-old rooftop installations are going fine. The degradation is gradual, not catastrophic. One of the very few solar oldtimers, John Wohlgemuth, suggests that they won’t reach 50 years as the encapsulation is separating. So a half-life of >40 years looks reasonable, especially as encapsulation has improved. It will rarely pay to rip out an old solar installation merely because it has dropped to 80% output.

    Conclusion: nuclear reactors are somewhat more long-lived than wind and solar plants, but not by much. On the other hand, the chance of initial failure to start is negligible, except for envelope-pushing CSP projects like Ivanpah.

  13. James Wimberley
    November 28th, 2015 at 20:16 | #13

    The Nuclear Engineering article is dated March. Does anybody know how many approvals for new reactor starts have been given in China in 2015 to date?

  14. November 28th, 2015 at 20:34 | #14

    Will Boisvert knows. He’s very good with that specific kind of knowledge.

  15. John Quiggin
    November 28th, 2015 at 21:08 | #15

    On sea even more than on land, I’d bet on wind ahead of nuclear


    There is a long track record, after all.

  16. BilB
    November 28th, 2015 at 21:34 | #16

    Simon F, Thanks for taking up the challenge, you’re very brave to step out of line. The cost issue is covered in one of the items there. at the time of the early NP ships bunker fuel was just $40 per tonne. In recent years it has been $700 per tonne, well above the $500 said to be the Nuclear affordability level. But there is the bigger issue of the climate to consider. The reactors for shipping are very small relative to land based gigawatt plants, and are entirely sealed units not designed for maintenance. They have just one moving part, neutron reflector/absorber panels that regulate the reactor’s intensity level. This sort of unit is design to quench without the presence of the neutron reflectors so they are inherently safe from the nuclear point of view. Any maintenance is to do with ancillary equipment which is pretty standard for all ships. As you astutely point out the Marine Nuclear reactor is floating in its cooling medium, and this removes many of issues to do with reactor operation.

    Yes there is the risk of the occasional sinking and it would need the knowledge of the experts to comment on the consequence factors here. My expectation would be that the risk of oceanic contamination is nil due to the relative amount of fissile material to the mass of water it would be immersed in. As to in port accidents, I think the risk here is not one of a nuclear accident nature (self extinguishing reactors), but again that is a matter of expert opinion.

    Your last point on the nature of crews over such a vast fleet is the only solid argument in my opinion, and it would be a very real concern. Ships would not be converted they would be built from scratch as bulk carriers generally have short lives. the turnover rate is fairly high I believe. Nuclear bulk carriers would be far more competitive for their relative speed over oil fuelled carriers able to achieve more trips with the same fleet, and perhaps significantly reducing the global fleet size in time.

  17. BilB
    November 28th, 2015 at 22:13 | #17

    JQ, to test the thinking behind sails on modern shipping I think we need to go to the harbour and observe the physical size of modern ships, then imagine the size of the masts and the very high risk of capsize. Of course they could build much wider ships to counteract this but the speed would go down and the use of passages such as Panama and Suez would be minimized or eliminated. I invite you to contemplate the masts and rigging here


    Ships such as the Cutty Sark were minnows compared to current ships at just 1.25 percent of the Emma Maersk tonnage.

    Personally I think that converting the global merchant shipping fleet to Nuclear is a vital part of keeping more oil in the ground, (just looked at bunker oil price and since August it has been below $700 per tonne).

  18. BilB
  19. Simon Fowler
    November 28th, 2015 at 23:11 | #19

    Affordability isn’t related to the cost of the fuel, or even the cost of the plant, it’s primarily the issues of conversion costs and insurance costs, along with the maintenance and support issues.

    To convert a large diesel ship over to a steam plant is going to be /very/ intrusive – essentially cutting out the whole engineering section of the ship and replacing it with a new one designed to support the requirements of a Rankine cycle steam plant. That’s an expensive and lengthy process, during which the ship isn’t making its owners any money. To cover those costs the ship would need to be making significantly better profits than before, which (without doing any research on this – too late on a Saturday night to go grovelling around the Internet for the real numbers 😉 seems likely to be a challenge . . .

    I did go grovelling around for numbers on the operational lifespan of merchant ships, and it seems to be 25-30 years – to achieve any kind of quick transition to a nuclear fleet you’d need to convert a large portion of the existing fleet rather than wait for them to be replaced. The vessels that would most demand conversion and would gain the most from the conversion (the new, big, fast ships, most of which are diesel powered) are exactly the ones that would cost the most to actually convert.

    The cost of insurance is very much dependant on safety and risk factors, so I’ll talk about those first.

    The kind of pressurised water reactor that your links refer to (the kind used by all current nuclear vessels) are /not/ self quenching. Take out their primary coolant and they’ll suffer a meltdown. In fact, this is one of the things that constrains the design of submarine reactors: the desire to remain completely silent is at odds with the fact that they need to circulate coolant in order to stop the reactor core from overheating – without that circulation they’ll overheat and be at risk of failure up to and including a core meltdown. This is one of the core issues with /all/ current nuclear reactors regardless of whether they’re stationary or mobile, surface, subsurface, whatever. Unless there’s been new work done that I’m not aware of there are no production ready reactor designs that are fully fail safe – they all rely on a) the moderator being able to take the core sub-critical, and then b) some mechanism for getting the remaining heat out of the system. If the moderator fails for some reason ( /soooo/ much more likely given the rigours of operation in the open ocean) then you’re basically screwed. You may get lucky if your design incorporates passive safety features, but even then it ultimately gets down to the reactor being critical by default unless you actively moderate it.

    Imagine, if you will, a scenario where an equipment failure on a large nuclear powered container ship happens while the ship is being unloaded in Singapore, and it’s not handled properly by the engineers on duty. Since it’s not a fail-safe system there’s a real possibility that the reactor would suffer some kind of failure – possibly even a simple containment failure where “hot” steam is released into some of the surrounding port facilities. Would you like to try and estimate the financial damage suffered by the Port of Singapore Authority due to that kind of accident, even if it was genuinely minor? Nuclear cleanup is insanely difficult and expensive even at the best of times. Then consider how much they’d sue the ship’s operators for, and consider the flow-on effects on the insurers for all parties (PSA, the operators, owners and /all/ their underwriters).

    Now consider that /before/ any port was willing to accept that risk they’d want to be confident that the real chance of risk was small, and that they were able to get effective insurance coverage. Likewise, any operator considering introducing nuclear powered merchant vessels would have to be sure that /all/ the prospective ports they’d want to work with were willing to take that risk, and if they were reluctant then you either live with the constrained list of ports or you take full responsibility for the insurance yourself.

    The insurance companies are going to be taking a /big/ gamble on any nuclear powered cargo ships, because despite the history of naval operation they’d have /no/ idea what the real level of risk was. I know if /I/ was considering that insurance contract I’d err on the side of caution, since the worst case scenario is a mini-Chernobyl in the middle of one of the biggest ports in the world – at that point we’re not talking about cleanup costs, we’re talking about writing off many billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and trying to find (or make) another harbour to match the one we just covered in radioactive waste.

    The only organisations that could ever even consider that kind of risk profile are governments, and not even most governments – you can pretty much count them on the fingers of one hand, and right now I’d suggest you’d only need two fingers.

    Historically, the only nuclear merchant vessels built have been operated by the US and the Soviet Union, and in both those cases it was more gimmick than serious attempt at anything really useful. Right now I reckon you could swap China in place of the Soviet Union, though they still have a relatively fledgeling naval nuclear industry. But even in the few places that could realistically pull it off the idea is on no-one’s radar, because governments taking on all the risk for commercial shipping operators is plainly insane.

    If the whole merchant fleet of the world was “nationalised” or something like that, maybe it’d be doable, but that’s way outside the range of options under consideration.

    I really don’t know what other options will win out, but I’m confident it won’t be nuclear. In fact, I suspect that shipping and aviation will be the biggest fossil fuel holdouts for a very simple technical reason: there’s no other way to store the amounts of energy with the energy density needed by the raw power requirements of the technology. It /may/ be possible to replace a reasonable chunk of marine fuel with wind power, but it could only scale all the way at massive costs to the speed and effectiveness of global trade. Certainly it won’t be possible to sail cargo around the world as quickly and reliably as can be done with current technology.

    Maybe the only solution will be for us to live much more locally.

  20. Simon Fowler
    November 28th, 2015 at 23:15 | #20

    The wind can’t blow hard enough to capsize a ship the size of the Emma Maersk – there’s just not enough power available. In fact, anything above a few thousand tonnes will be fine with any sail plan you could feasibly build.

    The problem is, /because/ of that lack of available power in the wind, you can’t rely on the wind to push a large ship at any good rate of knots.

  21. BilB
    November 28th, 2015 at 23:45 | #21
  22. BilB
    November 28th, 2015 at 23:54 | #22

    Simon F,

    I think that you are completely wrong about the insurance issue for Nuclear Shipping. For such investments there is not the same permanent risk that land based reactor facilities have on the one hand, and the far smaller reactor size substantially minimises perceived risks. I am pretty sure that the insurers would take the ship value as the primary risk to cover, though I am doing some searching to find precedents that might offer some guidance to how this would be considered.

    On the shipping conversion issue I would expect a very different path. To begin with a new Marine Nuclear Industry would have a slower delivery rate which the fleet replacement programme would match reasonably well. You really do have to use the calculator on these things. Maintaining a 45,000 strong fleet of ships with a commercial life of 30 years requires 1,500 new ships each and every year. After 10 years at that rate there would be 15,000 ships in the fleet. These would be the largest of the container and bulk carrier fleet. Next I believe that there would begin a new trend where mid life ships would have their entire rear sections cut off and sealed off flat to be thereafter powered by Nuclear Marine Prime Movers very similar to today’s road truck fleet. The advantage would be that the Nuclear Prime movers would continually be in motion except for the time that it took to reconnect to a different bulk transport hull. Such marine prime movers would be faster doubling the delivery rate for bulk freight and would not be powered down due to port hold ups and offloading time. I know that it is tempting to think of that as being bizarre but have a look at


    …what is possible in the shipping world. Not the same limitations as road transport.

    Smaller ships in the merchant fleet would have the option for wind power enhancement.

  23. Salient Green
    November 29th, 2015 at 06:54 | #23

    I think the first priority must be to reduce the number of ships. Some of the environmental damage includes release of oils and chemicals – spills, anti-fouling biocides, operational discharges – transfer of alien species, dumping of garbage, noise and physical damage to marine species and of course sulphur, NO2, CO2 and particulate emissions.
    Much of the trade plied by shipping also enables environmental destruction on land and exploitation of developing nations.
    That said, I think there is a strong case for using fuel cells in some future shipping. Ceramic and molten carbonate fuel cells can reform natural gas or even syngas from bunker fuels with large increases in efficiency.
    I would worry about nuclear powered merchant shipping as there are many horribly maintained ships out there but passenger lines could make it work I think.

  24. Collin Street
    November 29th, 2015 at 08:34 | #24

    The problem is, /because/ of that lack of available power in the wind, you can’t rely on the wind to push a large ship at any good rate of knots.

    One of the key ratios is sail area to parasitic — non-lift-producing — area: hull and superstructure above water. Bulk carriers and tankers sit low in the water, and you could probably rig them up nicely, but container ships or car carriers or liners are wall-sided, and the drag from that is more than any plausible sails.

    [ships get more stable as they get bigger, because righting forces come from volumes and the upsetting forces come from areas; this is why model yachts can have ballast keels deeper than the hull is long and square-riggers can be flat bottomed. Stability isn’t an issue.]

  25. Ikonoclast
    November 29th, 2015 at 08:46 | #25

    On the shipping question. It is interesting to look at deadweight tonnage (dwt).

    “In terms of carrying capacity in dwt, however, the great variation in ship sizes gives quite a different picture. From this perspective tankers and bulk carriers each account for 35 per cent, container ships 14 per cent, general cargo ships 9 per cent and passenger liners less than 1 per cent. In all, the global merchant fleet has a capacity of just under 1192 million dwt.” – World Ocean Review.

    Thus tankers carry 35% of the world’s dwt. Get rid of crude oil and most of its fuel products and we could have about an overall 30% reduction in global dwt right there. With bulk carriers, I assume this covers everything from bulk coal and iron ore to wheat. A reasonable assumption is that we could get rid of the requirement for shipping thermal coal since we are moving away from coal. Countries with coal and iron ore should make the pig iron domestically and then ship it unless the increase in rail freight outweighs the decrease in shipping costs, which I doubt. You can take the coal to the iron ore across a country or continent rather than ship coal and iron ore to a distant country. Assume an overall decrease in shipped deadweight of 20%. Already we have saved 50% of the world’s deadweight shipping tonnage.

    Assume container ships and cargo ships remain necessary as do bulk carriers for wheat etc., assuming the latter is carried in the category “bulk cargo” and not “cargo”. The saving of 50% of the world’s deadweight shipping tonnage stands.

    See, we have to get smart and think about what other savings ditching coal and a lot of the oil would bring. Given that many of the large bulk carriers will no longer be necessary in such an economy, the viability and savings of sail or auxiliary sail (to save fuel) for cargo ships becomes more pronounced. Nuclear power is not the answer for shipping. For various reasons I won’t go into here, I confidently predict it will never happen. It’s unecessary anyway. We get an automatic 50% reduction in world deadweight tonnage by ending the coal and oil sectors of the world economy! Too easy!

  26. November 29th, 2015 at 08:56 | #26

    BilB, you know the UK? That crazy country that is so looney they agreed to pay 20 cents a kilowatt-hour wholesale in today’s money for electricty from new reactors that might be built in a decade or more? The country that apparently loves nuclear power so much they are willing to pay 5 times the current Australian average wholesale electricty price for it? Well, they rejected nuclear reactors for their Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers because they are too expensive. Their Ministry of Defence instead decided to go with gas turbines that will power all electric engines.

    Note that this is despite the fact that aircraft carriers receive definite military advantages from being nuclear powered. The most important one being they don’t need a fleet of supply ships to keep them fueled that could be vulnerable to attack. And this is an advantage that does not apply to cargo ships.

    Nuclear reactors cheap enough to power cargo ships simply do not exist and this is the case even if for some strange reason insurance doesn’t have to be paid on mobile nuclear reactors.

    If we want shipping to be carbon neutral then the total cost of nuclear propulsion, including insurance, waste disposal, decomissioning, extra ship construction costs, and comic book sentinal robots that will be required to provide security; would have to be less than burning natural gas for fuel and then removing and sequestering the carbon released, whether it is in trees, at the bottom of the ocean, in biochar, or whatever. And it would also have to be cheaper than using a carbon neutral fuel of which there are a wide range – from fuels produced by genetically modified microorganisms to hydrogen.

    But if I am wrong and small nuclear reactors cheap enough to compete with other alternatives aren’t a dream, and which are so tremendously and obviously safe they require very little in the way of insurance or security are possible, then show me some. Nucler power has now had 60 years to come up with them, so it’s not as if they haven’t had a chance to demonstrate what they can do. Show me the success the Russians, French, Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Argentinians (we bought a small reactor off them, it wasn’t cheap) or whoever are having in the field of nuclear cargo ship propulsion. But you can’t because no one is working on it, because they don’t see it as worthwhile. In fact, I think I’d be impressed if you could just show me an exisitng nuclear powered military vessel that sends power into the grid when tied up at dock instead of taking it. And if you can show me some cost effective small nuclear reactors, then the UK could build a whole stack of them and not have to build Hinkley C and pay the ridiculous 20 cents a kilowatt-hour wholesale electricity price.

  27. November 29th, 2015 at 09:11 | #27

    And I’ll mention that there is no room for a containment building on a nuclear cargo ship. This skipping the containment dome thing was carried out as a cost saving measure for the reactors at Chernobyl, much to the chagrin of anyone downwind of the place.

  28. BilB
    November 29th, 2015 at 09:14 | #28

    That is a good growth of information contribution there, SG. I agree that assuming the Molten Carbonate Fuel Cell had a very long operating life it sounds well placed on the numbers to be a diesel replacement. An important negative would be that from Bunker fuel there would be a high sulphur content sludge to contend with at each refuelling. But based on the broad numbers here


    …the Emma Maersk would need an 80 Mw MCFC weighing 640 tonnes for propulsion and the waste heat would power the additional 30 Mw via steam turbine that the Emma requires to power the ships needs. So that is a believable alternative to the Wärtsilä-Sulzer 14RTFLEX96-C engine which weighs in at 2300 tonnes and costs an estimated 80 million dollars (this is a guess based on claims that the engine is half the cost of the modern container ship). That figure gives you something of a budget for either nuclear, fuel cell or other power option.

    However the MCFC only reduces the CO2 emissions, it does not eliminate them as Nuclear would in this category. I only propose Nuclear for shipping as I do not see from my design perspective any other viable options, and what ever is used cannot take another 50 years to develop. Toshiba’s 4S reactor is a ready made candidate in this category, and a programme to build 1500 new reactors a year would, I expect, cause a rapid development of a viable thorium SMR or perhaps the travelling wave reactor.

    The fact is that 100 Mw reactors have a very small amount of fissile material in them and the risk to the environment is near zero, even in the event of a sinking. The Toshiba 4S is a sealed unit designed to run for 20 years without refuelling (ie no maintenance) and requiring very little supervision.

    Apart from that the MCFC link refers to “The German company MTU Friedrichshafen presented an MCFC at the Hannover Fair in 2006”, and it looks like MTU is owned by Rolls Royce. More investigation required.

    Regardless the subject of Maxi Marine Power Systems requires urgent study and debate, IMHO.

  29. November 29th, 2015 at 09:25 | #29

    Governments will not allow nuclear powered cargo vessels into their ports. For example, Sydney is not going to risk a reactor fire contaminating some of the most expensive real estate in the world. And even if the chance of such an accident is very low, someone always could do it intentionally. The US Cole had a large hole blown in it with an explosive dingy and planes have been used to put large holes in and set fire to many things. Remember, there’s no room for a containment building on a cargo ship, and if you build your cargo ship like a battleship, then you’ve really increased its price.

    And what about private ports owned by mining companies and such away from population centers? Well, even if their government allows it, whoever owns the port won’t allow nuclear powered cargo ships to dock there unless the ships carry insurance to cover the port’s economic losses in the case of a nuclear accident. They are so picky like that.

  30. Ikonoclast
    November 29th, 2015 at 09:35 | #30


    You have noticed my post at number 25 above haven’t you? If we move away from thermal coal and most oil (which our land economies have to do to save the planet) this will directly lead to a 50% reduction in the need for shipping as measured by deadweight tonnage.

    Then there is the issue of energy efficiency for our land based economies. Efficiency measures would save many times the CO2 emissions that nuclear cargo ships would and these savings would be made at much lower cost and risk. It makes sense to gather all the low hanging fruit first. Then you might well discover you don’t need to gather the risky high-hanging fruit anyway. On a risk-benefit analysis it just won’t be worth it.

  31. BilB
    November 29th, 2015 at 09:35 | #31

    Ronald before you do hand waving objections please do some research. The problem of Marine Propulsion is no joke. The CO2 emissions are quite serious from a Global Warming point of view, as are the sulphur emissions which come under new more stringent rules (supposedly) in 2015 (I believe, and if enacted this will increase Global Warming from the removal of the aerosols).

    Whereas I respect your comments your attention to detail has slipped a little lately. You might want to, for instance, review your comment #18 on the coal thread where you refer to Australian (household) electricity consumption being 7.5 kw where I believe you were thinking 7,500 Kwhrs (correct me if I am wrong) and for the life of me I cannot see how electrifying transport this will bring DOWN the household electricity consumption. It would surely put it up but bring down the household fuel bill. So all I ask you is please give this some serious studied consideration rather than flippant hand waving. At the end of the day the probability of change is near zero, but at least we can say that we gave the subject some serious thought. Where is Robert Merkel when you need him?

  32. Ikonoclast
    November 29th, 2015 at 09:56 | #32


    Ronald is handwaving? I take some excerpts from your post number 22, addressed to Simon F.

    “I think that you are completely wrong…”
    “I am pretty sure that…”
    “I am doing some searching to find precedents that might offer some guidance…”
    “I would expect a very different path.”
    “Next I believe that there would begin a new trend…”
    “I know that it is tempting to think of that as being bizarre…”

    Now I sure we can all be picked apart like that at times, including me. But really, you are indulging in rampant speculation here.

  33. BilB
    November 29th, 2015 at 10:08 | #33

    Ikonoclast, I see that now, and yes there will be a drop in tonnage from reduced coal movements and other commodities. But don’t forget that the worlds population is still growing so that reduction will not immediate or rapid.

    If you followed the comment you would see that as I am thinking this through I am seeing that after 10 years of 1500 reactors a year there would be 15,000 high speed transport. After that I am thinking that there is likely to be a huge reduction in the number of vessels with the notion of nuclear powered “tugs” moving converted bulk carrier powerless hulls around at double the speed they currently move at. So the total fleet might round out at some 25,000 down from 45,000 with those poorly maintained hulks being the dropoffs.

    Going on SG’s information I can see the possibility for combined MCFC fuel cell and sail vessel hybrides growing up from the small 5000 tonne level to a new class of vessel as global awareness improves. The negative there though is the risk to ships from intensified storms as Global Warming continues.

    “Nuclear power is not the answer for shipping. For various reasons I won’t go into here, I confidently predict it will never happen. It’s unecessary anyway. We get an automatic 50% reduction in world deadweight tonnage by ending the coal and oil sectors of the world economy! Too easy!”

    I do believe that Nuclear is the answer for shipping, on the one hand, but on the other I am inclined to agree that it will not happen. I don’t believe that just imagining a reduction in shipping tonnage will make it happen any time soon. As you apply the brakes you have to be aware of the stopping distance, and any seriously considered study will reveal that in all factors related to Climate Change action, the stopping distance is nearer the end of the century, and for that reason factors that can make a real difference should be evaluated. Also recognise that the very process of adapting to climate change requires huge movements of materials to build the new energy infrastructure.

    I don’t see a place for land based nuclear in Australia, or any other country in the sun belt, but I do see the need where solar is just not practical, which for me that is the bulk shipping and ice bound countries without geothermal or extensive hydro.

    There is way too much double counting going on for bio fuels. It will take decades to get algal oil up to be a volume contributor for aviation, and that is, and should be, a high priority. Don’t be tempted to hand wave that fuel to solve the shipping fuel problem, that will just make us all look foolish, for a whole raft of reasons.

  34. BilB
    November 29th, 2015 at 10:16 | #34

    Ikonoclast, Yes, I am hand waving too, but I am trying to do it with verifiable content. All I ask is that we look seriously at the options. SG did that and came up with technology completely new to me. So, dig deep while you work to demolish the proposal, you never know what you might find.

  35. Ken Fabian
    November 29th, 2015 at 10:21 | #35

    For land transport I rather like the idea of solar rail – solar on, over, beside the tracks rather than on the trains. It would undoubtedly connect to the grid and power could go both ways. I suppose that’s as loony as solar on, over, beside highways for road transport – loony because there’s no real requirement for solar to be so nearby – although there’s no real reason it can’t be either. A decent distribution system and batteries – and trains and trucks could carry a lot of batteries and quick swap them woulld do quite well. Still seems more likely than nuclear trains. Extravagant speculations aside I think rail has a lot of potential in a low emissions world if only because of it’s relative energy efficiency.

  36. BilB
    November 29th, 2015 at 10:49 | #36

    Ronald B, the port access argument is a common one, and to some degree valid. However there are enough countries where nuclear shipping (naval) is allowed and I would expect that these ports would quickly become “preferred” shipping terminals for cheaper and faster freight movement. As nuclear shipping proved itself I imagine (hand waving) that the number of available ports would rapidly increase.

    Please do some research on SMR’s. The reactive part of these devices is very small. Nothing like the size of a land based 1.4 Gw reactor.

    This is a detail of the Toshiba 4S (the 100Mw version) which shows the containment vessel at 30 metres high and 3.5 meters in diameter. But the actual reactor is only about 650mm in diameter and 1800mm high. That contains sufficient fuel for 30 years operation. The liquid sodium coolant might be replaced with lead for marine safety (hand waving) which would make it the 4L model. The point is that the volume of volatile material is negligible in the mass of a container ship, and its placement makes it impregnable from a terror point of view.


  37. Ikonoclast
    November 29th, 2015 at 10:54 | #37


    Prof. J.Q. in recent former posts on the nuclear power topic conclusively demonstrated that;

    (1) A nuclear renaissance is not happening;
    (2) A nuclear renaissance cannot happen in time to prevent dangerous global warming.

    Point 2 had to do with nuclear project lead times, delays in higher Gen level projects and so on.
    This logic applies equally to nuclearising shipping.

    I added to that debate the claim of “peak uranium”. In centers around the issues that;

    (a) peak uranium production (yellow cake) is past;
    (b) known reserves are not great enough to obviate that claim;
    (c) the world is substantially “prospected out” WRT uranium reserves;
    (d) the current reactor fleet will use all known reserves by about 2050.
    (e) there is no sign of the world substantially moving to more than once-through fuel cycles;
    (f) there is no sign of higher Gen reactors being both technically And financially viable.

    I linked to scientific papers and data supporting these claims. I also dealt with the “uranium from seawater fantasy”. The energy return is poor. Maybe 1 to 1 or maybe 2 to 1 at best though I doubt the latter. Another fleet the size of the world fishing fleet would be needed to run it. Solar and wind power have much better returns.

    Nuclear power is another one of those zombie ideas that won’t die. I think (here I go with my own hand-waving) that the reasons are historical and psychological. Nuclear power has a particular hold on the psyche of many people born in the 1950s (baby boomers) and on people who are fascinated by big explosions and the lure of militarism. That’s not to say that you fit those profiles. This suggests that when baby boomers mostly die or go senile then the zombie idea of peaceful nuclear energy will die with them. (BTW, I am a baby boomer.)

  38. BilB
    November 29th, 2015 at 11:03 | #38

    Ken F,

    I’ve done a number of trips between Prague and Brno in the Czech Republic on their trains at 160kph, and that was both smooth, fast, and fun. I am a great fan of rail and would do a lot more travel that way if it were nearer the 200 kph. I don’t think that faster than that is practical for Australia. We do not have the population size to support very high speed rail. Sydney to Melbourne in 4 hours would be competitive with air travel for both people and courier freight.

  39. BilB
    November 29th, 2015 at 11:16 | #39

    Ikonoclast #37 (WARNING: hand waving is used in this comment)

    Points 1 and 2 are not relevent in this discussion. A Maritime Nuclear industry is entirely possible as there is no real estate required, and the buildings are the vessels themselves.

    I can counter items a to e simply by suggesting that ships moving through the ocean over the 30 years of their reactor life can quite possibly collect from the ocean the uranium fuel required for their regeneration. I would have to do some serious research to see if that is actually possible, but it is a believable proposition in principle.

    As for f, that is beyond my argument here and really up to the scientists, engineers, accountants, and economists.

  40. Simon Fowler
    November 29th, 2015 at 11:25 | #40

    @Ken Fabian
    I can see value to a “solar rail” system, simply because the land represents a sizable area that’s already well connected and otherwise unused – particularly where the rail line is electrified it’s already got high-voltage high power connectivity to the grid.

  41. Simon Fowler
    November 29th, 2015 at 11:33 | #41

    Before you posit mining seawater for uranium to power ships I suggest you consider the fact that the interesting naval reactors all require /enriched/ uranium. Sure, small stationary civilian reactor designs are out there that don’t use enriched uranium, but the lead time for converting them to a production ready (and production at /scale/) system for marine use makes them almost as handwavy as taking uranium out of seawater en-route in order to fuel a ship.

  42. Simon Fowler
    November 29th, 2015 at 11:36 | #42

    (reposting a very long post that’s awaiting moderation – splitting it in two)

    I rate the in-port risk as significantly higher than the en-route risk, because that’s the point where power changes are common and extreme, and it’s also the point where a failure in machinery that happened en-route will come to light – during the trip itself the reactor would be essentially a stationary power plant, operating at nominal capacity the whole time, but when the ship needs to slow down and come into port it’ll be expected to cut power, but it will also be expected to transition from idling to substantial power output multiple times as part of the maneouvering process. That’s when reactors are at risk of mechanical failures, and that’s where I’d assess the highest risk of accident is.

    As far as insurance risks goes, there are two critical questions: what are the potential adverse events and what are the associated probabilities. With nuclear reactors the potential adverse events include catastrophic meltdown in port, major machinery fires while in port, release of radioactive material through a containment failure . . . all of which affect not only the vessel and its cargo but also the surrounding port environment.

    What are the associated probabilities? No one knows. We have existence proofs for all of these kinds of events in stationary nuclear power, but given the technical differences between stationary power plants and much smaller shipboard plants there’s no way that anything aside from the existence proofs can be carried over to assess the risks. Given the catastrophic nature of the worst case, I don’t see how any competent insurer would low-ball their assessment.

    The conversion versus new build question is kind of moot, for a reason that only occurred to me this morning: right now there are a handful of companies capable of building naval nuclear reactors, and they’re only building them at the rate of a handful a year. While technically it’s simply a matter of building more of the things, even if we generously assume that there’s capacity to build 8 of the things every year right now, it’s still a factor of four hundred increase in capacity before we can meet the yearly requirement (by your numbers). And remember, these aren’t civilian reactors running on unenriched or lightly enriched fuel, they’re using highly enriched fuel that would normally be considered a /massive/ nuclear security risk. In order to produce these reactors at the rate you’re talking about we’d need to /massively/ ramp up enrichment capacity as well as massively ramping up reactor build capacity. Outside of a full government war footing that scale of ramping up a major industry is basically impossible on anything less than a timeframe of multiple decades.

    And then consider the security risks of having highly enriched nuclear fuel floating around on the open ocean on very lightly crewed vessels that regularly get attacked by pirates while traversing some of the busiest shipping lanes on the planet . . .

  43. John Quiggin
    November 29th, 2015 at 11:49 | #43

    Stepping back from my whimsical suggestion of sail, and in agreement with Salient Green above, fuel cells seem like the obvious solution where energy density is crucial. Still some work to do, but nothing obviously impossible

  44. Ivor
    November 29th, 2015 at 11:53 | #44

    The core problem with nuclear is not diplomacy or economics. It is “safety” in the face of:

    1) accidents, disgruntled employee sabotage
    2) poor maintenance, shoddy construction, competitive cutbacks in running costs
    3) natural disasters,
    4) war and terrorism,
    5) spread of nuclear weapons and
    6) long-lived waste.

    If these are all resolved (not possible this century) then nuclear can solve climate change irrespective of the cost or diplomacy.

    I do not think that cost should be an issue – if the technology arises – then the only problem is that the wrong people control the wealth and finance.

    There’s your problem.

  45. November 29th, 2015 at 12:22 | #45

    BilB, the watt is a unit of power. It can be used for electrical power, but is also used for any other sort of power. For example, my car’s engine has a maximum output of 70 kilowatts, but that doesn’t mean it produces electricity, instead it produces wheel spinny power.

    70 kilowatts is 94 horsepower. One horsepower is 746 watts. Interstingly enough, my horse produces 1.34 horsepower or one kilowatt. Sigh…If only Tonto 23 had been used to set the standard for horsepower life would have been just that much simpler.

    Australia’s power use averages about 7.5 kilowatts per person. Or rather, that’s our anthropogenic power use. Using the power of the sun to see where I am going during the day doesn’t count. What does count is burning coal, oil, and natural gas when it is done for a purpose. Accidently setting a coal mine on fire and gassing a town with toxic fumes doesn’t count. Hydro power, wind power, solar power, and biomass are also included.

    A petrol powered car might only be about 25% efficient at turning the burny pushy hot power of exploding petrol mist into wheel spinny power. An electric car can be over 85% efficient at turning electric power from the battery into wheel spinny power. That’s how electrifying transport can reduce power consumption.

    If you are interested, the Wikipedia article on power is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_%28physics%29

  46. BilB
    November 29th, 2015 at 12:42 | #46

    OK, RB, I stand corrected.

  47. Will Boisvert
    November 29th, 2015 at 15:33 | #47

    @ Simon Fowler

    “ there are no production ready reactor designs that are fully fail safe – they all rely on a) the moderator being able to take the core sub-critical, and then b) some mechanism for getting the remaining heat out of the system. If the moderator fails for some reason ( /soooo/ much more likely given the rigours of operation in the open ocean) then you’re basically screwed. You may get lucky if your design incorporates passive safety features, but even then it ultimately gets down to the reactor being critical by default unless you actively moderate it.”

    Simon, no, the moderator has to be present for the fission reaction to go critical; when there is no moderation, the reactor is sub-critical by default. Neutrons need to be slowed down—“moderated”—so they can efficiently fission U-235. When a reactor loses its moderator, fission ceases. In a naval light-water reactor the moderator is the coolant water, so loss of the coolant automatically and instantly shuts down the reactor.

    There is still the problem of removing the decay heat from the (no longer critical) reactor core—failure to do so is what causes meltdowns when coolant flow is lost. But that problem is tremendously easier to handle in a marine reactor because there is unlimited water at hand and because, as BilB notes, marine reactors are small and therefore easy to cool.

    Simple safeguards virtually preclude a significant nuclear release, like putting the reactor in a compartment that can be flooded. Then the surrounding water prevents the reactor vessel from overheating and failing. And even if it the reactor vessel were to crack, the water would absorb the dangerous radionuclides, radioiodine and radiocesium, and thus prevent an airborne release. (Existing filtered vent systems bubble steam and gasses from the reactor through a water tank.) Features like these are present in SMR designs.

    And of course, if a ship’s reactor develops problems it can be towed out to sea and, in a pinch, scuttled.

    So it’s just not plausible that a ship’s reactor (with a radioactive load twenty times smaller than the Fukushima reactors’) could cause any serious onshore contamination, let alone destroy the port of Singapore as you have suggested. Hundreds of nuclear-powered vessels have plied the seas for decades, sailing in and out of busy ports. A few of them have had reactor failures and sunk—harming no one except the men who went down with the ship.

  48. Will Boisvert
    November 29th, 2015 at 15:45 | #48

    @ James Wimberley

    We should distinguish between economic and political factors that cause premature retirements and service life proper, the time until irreparable physical decay impairs operability.

    The service life of a nuclear reactor is probably well beyond 60 years. Dominion Power in Virginia is planning to apply for a license extension for its Gen II Surry plant out to 80 years, and NRC is preparing to vet it; no suggestion so far that there’s any decrepitude that would prevent that, or even extensions out to 100 years for Gen II reactors, let alone Gen III reactors. It’s unlikely that wind turbines or solar panels will last half that long.

    “Plants are being closed in the USA not because their licenses have run out but because they are no longer economic, as with the retirement of commercial aircraft.”

    Right, but that’s because the plunge in natural gas prices has drastically depressed wholesale electricity prices for merchant power plants. If the same wholesale prices prevailed as 7 years ago, before the fracking boom, the retiring plants would still be profitable. They need a subsidy of about 1-1.3 cents per kwh to make up their losses. (Wind and solar are protected from the price plunge because they get large subsidies and other preferments.) The reactors are in fine working order, and should get subsidies to weather market fluctuations; then they could stay in business a good 30 to 40 more years.

    “ in France only 10-year extensions are granted and the safety authorities made it clear that there is no guarantee that all units will pass the 40-year in-depth examinations. The extensions come with expensive upgrade requirements.”

    To clarify, in France reactors have to get recertified every 10 years after their initial license, but there is no limit to the number of extensions. Virtually all US reactors that have applied have received extensions to 60 years. French reactors are quite similar, so there’s no obvious material reason why they should not last as long, apart from political opposition by France’s much stronger anti-nuclear movement. The upgrade requirements are partly to retrofit the plants to meet new regulations that were not in place when they were built; that’s not a service-life issue. EDF has put the cost to extend at about $55 billion, which over 30 years comes out to about 0.45 eurocents per kwh, though it’s not clear how much of it would already be budgeted under O and M.

    “In solar, the often-quoted 25-year life is a massive underestimate: it’s what the panel makers give an 80% output warranty for, clearly conservatively.”

    Then we should factor the decline in solar output (or wind’s) over time into the productivity comparison, which I did not do.

    ”Does anybody know how many approvals for new reactor starts have been given in China in 2015 to date?”

    Not sure what you mean by “approvals,” but 3 reactors of about 3 GW total have officially begun construction YTD in China, meaning the foundation of the reactor building has been poured. (Up from zero last year.)

    Anyway, my point was that the global crop of reactors coming on line this year will generate considerably more clean electricity than this year’s new solar capacity and probably more than new wind capacity. Even this year’s skimpy crop of nuclear construction starts still represents a weighty contribution to clean energy by the standards of intermittents. So it’s not clear why we should consider nuclear “not promising” while rejoicing over wind and solar. But then “promise” is in the eye of the beholder.

  49. Ken Fabian
    November 29th, 2015 at 15:51 | #49

    BilB, I was not actually proposing high speed rail, as enticing an idea as that is, and was thinking of electric rail, powered by solar more for freight than passengers. Which I suppose is a significant shift as electrification of rail to date is usually for passenger trains.

  50. Donald Oats
    November 29th, 2015 at 15:56 | #50

    Same here.

    Unfortunately, South Australia is currently being subjected to a political push towards either nuclear power, or at least storing everyone else’s nuclear waste, somewhere in the desert, presumably. Naturally the local newspaper (wonder who owns it…) is prepping us plebs for it. If it does happen, no doubt they’ll ignore the imputed future sea levels and bury the waste in some really low lying part of the continent, near a coastal area. In leaky drums.

    Meanwhile, wind and solar are both entirely satisfactory in this sunny, windy, state of Australia.

  51. BilB
    November 29th, 2015 at 16:38 | #51

    There are a lot of problems with that notion, Ken, the biggest being who pays for the infrastructure ie who is the investor. Available land is not the primary viability factor. Neither is the proximity to the rail line. Feeding power to a train moving along a track over a great distance is not quite as straight forward as you might think. The feed is broken into sections and the power for those sections is not necessarily fed along side the track. However the biggest impediment is that the railways are hard pressed to fund their operation and rolling stock let alone generate their own power.

    But I think that you already suspected all of that but thought the kite worth flying anyway.

  52. Ken Fabian
    November 29th, 2015 at 17:03 | #52

    BilB, Yes I was just floating a not altogether serious thought bubble, but ultimately we do need to face the decarbonising of transport and rail, if we lived in a nation that could plan for a decarbonised future, would almost certainly be significant.

  53. David Duffy
    November 29th, 2015 at 17:58 | #53

    Re a return to sail for cargo, there is some literature on retrofitting kite sails and a return to the older longer sailing routes.

  54. John Quiggin
    November 29th, 2015 at 21:32 | #54

    The argument about the lifetime of nuclear vs solar reminds me of the story of the man who said he still used the same axe as his grandfather 50 years previously. Sure, he agreed, he’s replaced the axehead when it wore down, and got a new handle when the old one split, but he still had the same axe.

    Similarly, this 2009 Scientific American story on nuclear plant life extension says

    “Today, virtually every component in a reactor plant has been replaced at one point,” said Tiffany Edwards, a DOE spokeswoman. “The exceptions are the reactor pressure vessel and the concrete [containment] structures. However, even those could be considered.

    So, if you set up a big solar PV array, and replace modules as they fail (or as new ones become so efficient, the old ones aren’t worth keeping) the setup can presumably last forever.

  55. BilB
    November 29th, 2015 at 22:39 | #55

    Indeed that is the case,JQ. Dr Franz Trieb of the DLR told me that the experience for CSP Solar the mirrorannual breakage rate was about 1%, and this was covered by the insurance. So after 100 yearsall of the mirrors would be replaced.

  56. November 29th, 2015 at 23:21 | #56

    BilB, I think you’ve overlooked the amount of nuclear fuel required for the type of ship reactors you have suggested. You wrote:

    “The fact is that 100 Mw reactors have a very small amount of fissile material in them and the risk to the environment is near zero, even in the event of a sinking. The Toshiba 4S is a sealed unit designed to run for 20 years without refuelling (ie no maintenance) and requiring very little supervision.”

    A (currently fictional) 100 megawatt reactor that doesn’t need to be fueled for over 20 years would have to have more nuclear material inside it than a one gigawatt reactor as the maximum refuelling cycle for current reactors is 24 months. Reactor number 4 at Chernobyl was one gigawatt.

  57. BilB
    November 30th, 2015 at 05:09 | #57

    Go back and read the information, Ronald. I gave an example of a particlar machine, even a published illustration with dimensions. I can only go on what is publically available. The Toshiba reactor is not fictional, it just is not in production as it has no customers to date.

  58. Will Boisvert
    November 30th, 2015 at 05:27 | #58

    @ John Quiggin,

    No, it’s not like replacing an axe-head and handle and calling it the same axe. Nuclear plants will replace many parts and pieces of equipment, but the civil works are permanent. For example, the turbines may be replaced but the building housing the turbines probably won’t be. (Dominion is certainly not going to replace the reactor or containment building for Surry’s 80-year license extension.) If you replace your furnace and refrigerator and bathroom fixtures you wouldn’t say that you had replaced your whole house.

    And of course, much of the repairing and replacing comes from the ordinary maintenance budget, not new capital expenditures. As I noted above, EDF’s plan to extend its nuclear fleet licenses to 60 years would require investments costing about a half-penny per kwh, not too much (and much of that is due to retrofitting for new regulations, not service-life issues).

    Maybe solar farms will also rejuvenate themselves through piece-meal replacement, although the cost of that could be comparable to or even higher than the original capital cost. Building one big solar farm all at once is much more efficient in terms of labor than is replacing small sections of it or individual panels as they break down.

    In Britain many developers have stipulated that they will entirely remove the solar farm after 25 years and return the site to nature, at Tewkesbury, Chailey, Chorly, etc. Maybe that’s just a British planning custom, but it doesn’t speak well of the longevity of these facilities. It may indicate that the developers themselves think it’s cheaper to trash them and build from scratch than to repair them.

  59. Collin Street
    November 30th, 2015 at 06:34 | #59

    Feeding power to a train moving along a track over a great distance is not quite as straight forward as you might think. The feed is broken into sections and the power for those sections is not necessarily fed along side the track.

    Enh. Seriously this isn’t a real-world problem: if you’re using 1500V like sydney or melbourne, voltage drop means you need a substation every couple of km, but high-speed trains use 25kV: nearly twenty times the voltage means a twentieth of the current and twenty times the substation separation. And power consumption isn’t a huge issue: a train uses about as much electricity as a reasonably-sized factory, which the modern grid is built to handle. And AC rather than DC means no rectifiers — old railway power substations were built to house rotary transformers — and that the substation is about the size of one of those roadside transformers that can be put anywhere you’ve got a few spare square metres.

    If you read old documents in a time of lower distribution voltages and grids that weren’t designed to handle the ubiquitous electricity demands of today you’ll see references to issues like this, but these days it isn’t a problem.

  60. BilB
    November 30th, 2015 at 06:42 | #60

    You are making the assumption that if hardware is removed from a site that it is to be scrapped. If the hardware has failed that may be the case but if it is still functional and commercial it is most likely to be redeployed elsewhere. That does not reflect on the life of the hardware.

  61. BilB
    November 30th, 2015 at 06:48 | #61

    I have no specific knowledge here, CollinS. I am going on comments made about why regenerative braking on our Blue Mountains line is only marginally useful due to the way power is fed to the line. I will ask some more questions.

  62. tony lynch
    November 30th, 2015 at 07:28 | #62

    Realclimate, quite rightly, have a borehole for this stuff.

  63. November 30th, 2015 at 10:18 | #63

    When we’re talking about nuclear reactors on ships we ought perhaps to remember that if present policies are anything to go by the ships will be manned by minimally qualified minimum-wage workers from whatever part of earth has the lowest wages – Somalia, say, or one of the Congos. Not a recipe for expert professionalism.

  64. November 30th, 2015 at 12:03 | #64

    BilB, the main point of my last comment is that if a 100 megawatt reactor has enough fuel to run for over 20 years, then it must have more than 10 times as much nuclear fuel as a 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor which is refuelled every 2 years. It is not possible for it to have, as you wrote, a very small amount of fissile material in them.

    The reactor that blew a hole in its roof at Chernobyl was 1,000 megawatts, so a 100 megawatt nuclear reactor that runs for over 20 years would have about as much or more nuclear material in it than reactor number 4 at Chernobyl.

    And since the reactors at Chernobyl appear to have been on a yearly refuelling cycle the 100 megawatt reactor would have to contain about twice as much nuclear fuel.

    About 5+% of a reactor’s fuel at Chernobyl went up in smoke and dust and spread itself around the place. The Chernobyl exclusion zone is currently about 2,600 square kilometers. That area as a circle would be 57 kilometers across. A circular exclusion zone 57 kilometer wide centered on Sydney Harbour might require most of the city’s population be evacuated.

    While the risk of a major release of nuclear material into the atmosphere may be very small, the effects can be extremely expensive. If three million Sydney siders have to be compensated $1 million each for loss of property, livelihood, life, etc. that would come to $3 trillion. And that makes insuring nuclear propelled cargo ships extremely difficult.

  65. November 30th, 2015 at 12:08 | #65

    @Will Boisvert
    Will Boisvert, I just mentioned the Chernobyl exclusion zone above, and since you made some interesting comments on the exclusion zone at Fukushima in the past, I was wondering do you think the exclusion zone at Chernobyl is necessary?

  66. BilB
    November 30th, 2015 at 13:01 | #66

    Ronald , the chance of a meltdown of a 100 Mw reactor of the SM kind is zero. The reason is largely to do with thermal mass as much as it is to do with the amount of fissionable mterial active at any time. It is the difference between fire crackers and dynamite. You are getting hot and bothered about nothng much at all.

    By the way, I have been scratching my head over your average 7.5Kw per person. Could you please show me how you arrived at that figure. From an average I should be able to determine the total, so 7.5Kw times 24 million Australians gives 180 Million Kilowatt/Australians. What ever does that relate to? The total Load of all domestic Appliances?? Please help me here I do not understand your thinking.

  67. James Wimberley
    November 30th, 2015 at 19:40 | #67

    @Will Boisvert
    The promises by developers of rural solar farms in Britain to remove them after 25 years are certainly sops to pre-empt local NIMBY objectors. They don’t cost the developers anything. The economics of the plants are calculated round 25 years. There is a fifty-fifty chance that in 25 years nobody will mind any more, and removal plans may even spark a “save our pioneering solar heritage” movement.

  68. Will Boisvert
    November 30th, 2015 at 20:08 | #68

    @ BilB

    “You are making the assumption that if hardware is removed from a site that it is to be scrapped. If the hardware has failed that may be the case but if it is still functional and commercial it is most likely to be redeployed elsewhere. That does not reflect on the life of the hardware.”

    Maybe, but I’m skeptical. The notion that the hardware will be dismantled, carted off to a different site and reinstalled doesn’t make much sense. If the performance is degraded will it still have commercial value? And if it’s fit for service, why dismantle the first solar farm?

    Solar panels are getting cheap enough that the main capital costs are becoming installation and ancillary electronics that have pretty short service lives. That means that the costs of carefully dismantling the hardware, transporting, refurbishing and reinstalling it piecemeal will outweigh the value of reusing it. It likely will be cheaper just to trash it and buy new hardware in bulk.

  69. Will Boisvert
    November 30th, 2015 at 20:11 | #69

    @ Ronald Brak,

    “ I was wondering do you think the exclusion zone at Chernobyl is necessary?”

    There’s a strong case that mandatory exclusion zones do more harm than good, and that it’s better to let people decide for themselves whether they want to stay in an area after a nuclear accident.

    The health risks of living in a fallout zone, even the Chernobyl and Fukushima evacuation zones, are well within the ordinary range of risks that people take every day and that society allows us to take. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the radiation health-risks for people living in the Fukushima EZ would be less than the health risks of driving a car.

    Risks may be somewhat higher in some places near Chernobyl. But they are certainly no higher than the health risks of smoking or drinking, which society lets people do. And they are no higher than the health risks of living in Beijing or Mexico City, with their toxic air pollution, yet we don’t evacuate those cities.

    They are no higher than the health risks from other radiation sources that we blithely accept. The US EPA estimates that 21,000 Americans die every year from lung cancer caused by household radon gas, which is nearly as many people as the Union of Concerned Scientists conjectures will die from the Chernobyl release over all time. Yet there are no laws in the US (or anywhere else that I know of) requiring people to evacuate houses with high radon levels, or even to test for radon and abate it. I’ve never seen Greenpeace protest radon.

    So the practice of mandatory exclusion zones after nuclear accidents is drastically out of line with society’s response to other risks that are objectively comparable, or much greater.

    And it surely has victims. Upwards of a thousand old and sick people died from the stress of the Fukushima evacuations, a number likely larger than the number of cancers averted.

    One poignant thread in the Chernobyl literature is the plight of people uprooted from the EZ and packed off to strange cities, where they suffer from loneliness, unemployment, depression, alcoholism, etc, which definitely do have health risks.

    As a counterpoint there are the stories about the Chernobyl babushkas, the thousands of people who filtered back to the EZ despite the ban on living there. They tell journalists that they feel happier in the villages where they grew up. Maybe they do face a higher cancer risk; I haven’t seen any scientific studies of that. But accepting heightened cancer risk is something people do willingly as a matter of course, because they like to smoke, drink, eat bacon cheeseburgers, get a deep suntan or live in Beijing.

    The alternative to mandatory evacuations is for the government to do comprehensive radiation surveys, inform residents of the health risks if they stay in the area (using LNT to estimate cancer risk), then let people balance for themselves the costs and benefits of relocating.

    The current binaristic exclusion protocols, where (as in Japan) the government declares an area uninhabitable if the air-dose is 21 msv per year and safe if it’s 19 msv per year, just perplex and infuriate people. But if people get good scientific information about radiation effects, put in the context of other familiar risks, the mystery and terror surrounding radiation could be dispelled. Then people can think more rationally and make better decisions about how to respond to a nuclear accident.

    I live about 30 miles from the Indian Point nuclear plant. It’s not going to melt down, but if it did my risk of getting cancer would rise from the normal 40 percent to maybe 41 percent. Am I going to flee Manhattan because of that? Nope.

  70. December 1st, 2015 at 00:34 | #70

    I also think nuclearization of the shipping fleet would be a very good temporary solution to the problem of shipping emissions, possibly the only one until fuel cells get up to speed. I wonder what the environmental consequences of an accident at sea would actually be? Potentially obviously very bad for the crew but I suspect that once it’s dumped in the ocean the plant won’t cause any harm at all.

    I don’t think it’s going to happen though and the shipping industry needs to be cleaned up hugely for it to be wise. It could be worthwhile switching the largest ships to nuclear and having the navy run them though …

    I’ve also wondered if putting solar panels over railway lines would be a good idea. In Japan the bullet train runs huge distances on a dedicated, separated line and would be very easy to put solar panels on, though I don’t know if that would interfere with its fluid dynamics. Would the solar panels be sufficient to power the train? I guess not, but it’s about a thousand kms of land surface being used for nothing else …

  71. December 1st, 2015 at 01:24 | #71

    BilB, regardless of what the chances of a dangerous amount of radiactive material being released into the environment are, did my explanation of why a sealed 100 megawatt reactor that operates for over 20 years will have to have at least as much nuclear fuel in it as reactor number 4 at Chernobyl make sense to you? And you can see that they won’t have “a very small amount of fissile material” in them?

    There is no point in discussing the chances of nuclear material being released if you don’t think there is enough there in the first place to be a problem.

  72. December 1st, 2015 at 01:25 | #72

    @Will Boisvert

    Will Boisvert, thank you for that quite extensive reply.

  73. December 1st, 2015 at 01:31 | #73

    On the subject of British utility scale solar, with the one I’ve looked into the initial lease is for a period of 25 years but with an option to extend it. So I presume the landowners have the opportunity to get their land back after 25 years if they want to do something else with it, and if they don’t they will leave it as a solar farm provided the solar farm wants to continue to operate.

  74. BilB
    December 1st, 2015 at 06:32 | #74

    RonaldB #71,

    I do not have any information on the design of the Toshiba reactor. However, the point is taken that there has to be sufficient fuel for the duration of the burn. Looking at the published diagram it seems possible that the way the designers coped with the 30 burn life was to have sufficient fuel in the heat chamber but only a portion of it is active at any one time, and the way that they achieve this is by progressively raising the neutron reflector plates. This type of control would be likened to keeping wet wood burning. You can achieve that by providing the wood with either an external heat source or by blanketing the wood with a reflector so that any heat escaping is reflected back to dry the wood so that it will burn. It this technique the neutron reflectors start at the bottom of the fuel and over the years progressively move to the top of the suspended fuel. Regulating the burn is achieved by lowering the reflector plates over the spent fuel, or to where there is no fuel. That is a very robust design, but again, I am only guessing based on what I can see in the simplified diagram.

    The other variable is the type of fuel and the type of reaction that is possible with the various fuels.

    As far as final disposal is concerned for long lived nuclear wastes I am proposing that there should be an internationally managed site at a deep ocean tectonic plate subduction zone where the periodic plate movements will carry the waste material into the earth’s mantle effectively sequestered beyond the affect of all life.

  75. Ikonoclast
  76. Collin Street
    December 1st, 2015 at 07:37 | #76

    However, the point is taken that there has to be sufficient fuel for the duration of the burn.

    When points are actually taken the active voice is generally used, and you generally see a bit more emphasis of the point “yes I am changing my mind”, some sort of explicit statement. Two sentences?

    That’s how people act when they’ve changed their minds.

  77. Ikonoclast
    December 1st, 2015 at 07:48 | #77

    This excellent, fact-based article concludes;

    “… nuclear’s prospects as a significant climate change mitigator are feeble to nonexistent.”


    The uneconomic high cost of nuclear power, compared to solar and wind power, spells the end of nuclear power even aside from issues of “… the potential for severe accidents, the linkage to nuclear weapons and the production of long-lived radioactive waste.”

  78. BilB
    December 1st, 2015 at 08:31 | #78


    Please demonstrate and quantify how this

    ‘The uneconomic high cost of nuclear power, compared to solar and wind power, spells the end of nuclear power even aside from issues of “… the potential for severe accidents, the linkage to nuclear weapons and the production of long-lived radioactive waste.’

    ….is true in relation to marine propulsion.

  79. BilB
    December 1st, 2015 at 08:41 | #79

    Collin Street,

    It was stated at the outset that the marine reactors were fuelled for 20 to 30 operating life. No mind changing at all. It is a matter of figuring out how that has been achieved ie as the fuel is there, where is it within the design or structure.

  80. Ikonoclast
    December 1st, 2015 at 09:42 | #80


    It’s not my job to do this. In business and ecological terms, it is the job of those in favour of merchant marine nuclear propulsion to make the case and then make it a reality if they can. To date, the latter has not occurred. The failure of merchant marine nuclear propulsion to take off to date is a clear piece of evidence in itself. What this raw evidence actually means of course is a debatable issue.

    There is a recent paper which makes the case for merchant marine nuclear propulsion. I think only recent papers are worth reading. Papers from the 1960s are out of date in several important ways. Technology has moved on since then. Here is the paper. I haven’t even read it myself. People are trying to make the case. Let us see if they materially succeed in the mid to long run in getting a nuclear-propelled merchant marine on the water.


  81. BilB
    December 1st, 2015 at 10:39 | #81

    Thanks for that, Ikonoclast, that is a good discussion document.

    I have no skin in this game at all, but my instincts tell me that if the issue of marine propulsion is not addressed it will ultimately come around to bite us in the worst possible way. Strategically the Nuclear industry needs to have somewhere else to go rather than into our back yards. There are places where Nuclear is needed in the most northerly locations and the world needs a healthy and safe industry. The best way to achieve this is by giving it the scope to work in a field where there are few if any renewable options. The other strategic factor is that by giving the oil industry a volume life line in marine bunker fuel it will keep a lot of wells, that could other wise be capped off, active. Furthermore reducing the profitability of oil will increase the cost for aviation progressively providing the impetus for more rapid development of hybride electric airliners that both Boeing and Airbus are researching.

    The MCFC battery that Salient Green could be very relevent to aviation particularly if it is integrally built into an engine. I will be looking closely to see what Rolls Royce is doing with this technology. There is a huge amount of new technology to be rolled out to make a zero Carbon world. We have to be realistic about which battles can be won and which will be lost no matter how much effort is applied (CCS for instance).

    On the up side it is going to be an exciting next 30 years. I was watching the French news coverage of the leaders arrivals in Paris. It is looking very positive.

  82. BilB
    December 1st, 2015 at 10:43 | #82

    Apologies for the excessive use of hand waving!

  83. December 2nd, 2015 at 17:15 | #83

    With regard to nuclear safety, there have been 16,000 or so reactor years of nuclear power generation so far. And there have been two accidents where large amounts of radioactive material was released into the environment. We don’t have enough information to say that the chance of a nuclear reactor having a major disaster is one in 8,000 each year. The real chance could be one in 32,000 and we’ve just been really unlucky, or it could be one in 2,000 and we’ve just been really lucky. But it’s what we have to go on.

    If the chance is 1 in 8,000 then with about 438 reactors in the world we can expect a major nuclear disaster once every 18 years or so.

    To be clear, by major nuclear disaster I mean the release of a large enough amount of radioactive material into the environment to cause a lot of damage, whether to people’s health or economic damage only. How the radioactive material is released isn’t the issue. It doesn’t matter whether there was a design flaw, an act of war, organised mass murder, operator error, intentional operator sabotage, a meteorite strike, or whatever. Radioactive isotopes don’t care how they got out, they act the same regardless.

    If the chance of a nuclear cargo ship having a major disaster is one in 8,000 then if there were 10,000 nuclear propelled cargo vessels in the world we could expect about one and a bit major nuclear disaster resulting from them each year.

    If modern safety methods reduce the chance of a major disaster down to one in 100,000 then we could expect about one a decade.

    However, getting the chance down to only one major nuclear disaster a decade may be difficult. And even that low rate of one major nuclear disaster, which is only 3 times higher than what has been experienced with land based reactors, may not be considered acceptable thanks to scaredy cat nations full of sissies who are afraid of being irradiated and demand compensation when when only 100 citizens die of cancer as the result of a nuclear disaster, despite the fact that those same citizens would have eventually died of something anyway.

    Some factors that could contribute to making it difficult to lower the risk of major nuclear disasters with nuclear cargo vessels are:

    – Ships need to be mobile, which makes building a containment vessel that can withstand a very wide range of eventualities both difficult and expensive.

    – The sea is a corrosive environment.

    – Providing enough skilled personel on board to provide effective responses to potential disasters is likely to be difficult.

    – Lifeboats and the fact that a disaster isn’t likely to happen in the area where the crew’s family lives creates a moral hazard.

    – Cargo vessels can travel through or near regions that are in conflict or where piracy is common. Last year there were 212 pirate attacks on cargo ships.

    – Providing security equivalent to that possessed by land based reactors is problematic.

    On the bright side, while nuclear disasters that happen in the open ocean far from population centers can still cause disruption and major economic damage, for example by contaminating fishing stocks, the destruction is likely to be trivial compared to a nuclear disaster in a major port, which is where large cargo vessels spend a great deal of time.

  84. Ikonoclast
    December 2nd, 2015 at 19:07 | #84

    @Ronald Brak

    You are only counting level 7 incidents on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). I think you really should be counting incidents down to level 4 and possibly level 3.

    In railway terms, it is like saying only Lac-Mégantic level rail disasters count and anything less can be completely disregarded.

  85. Ikonoclast
    December 2nd, 2015 at 19:13 | #85

    Footnote to above. Actually it’s worse than I said. You would be completely disregarding even Lac-Mégantic level rail disasters and counting only Queen of The Sea, Sri Lanka, the Bihar derailment, India and Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, France.

  86. December 3rd, 2015 at 03:18 | #86

    Ikonoclast, nuclear accidents where only the plant is lost and/or workers die could be covered by existing forms of insurance. But major nuclear disasters that can result in hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars worth of damage and hundreds or thousands of premature deaths cannot be covered by existing private insurance and are not covered. So I think it is reasonable to consider them separately and perhaps examine what it might cost to insure against such disasters in the purely hypothetical case of nuclear propelled cargo ships being built.

  87. December 3rd, 2015 at 04:33 | #87

    On insurance: Nuclear powered cargo ships cannot be covered by current existing private insurers because none of them have the capital to cover a (hopefully) low probability but very expensive event such as city needing to be evacuated.

    This means that governments will have to provide insurance. However, a small portion of the insurance required could be covered privately in order to discover what the market rate for nuclear cargo ship insurance is and then the government could set a similar rate for their insurance.

    Now let’s say a govenment is extremely kind towards nuclear ship propulsion and offers to cover the cost of major disasters and only asks for insurance payments that are enough for the government break even on average over time. This represents a large subsidy and also supposes the government can somehow accurately determine what the risks are, but let’s just go with this very simple idea as the absolute minimum in insurance payments that would have to be made. For simplicity I’ll assume constant dollars so we don’t have to worry about inflation. And I’ll assume that smaller disasters simply don’t happen and don’t need to be covered.

    Estimates of the total economic damage caused by the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters vary depending on who you ask. But there are estimates of $500 billion or more for each.

    If there was a 1 in 10,000 chance per year of a nuclear cago vessel being involved in a major nuclear disaster that causes $500 billion in damage, then the minimal, government subsidised insurance payment to cover that would be $500 billion divided by 10,000 or $50,000,000. If this is for a 100 megawatt reactor that operates at an optimistic 90% of capacity and spends most of it time either propelling the ship, or as suggested, providing electricity to the grid when in dock, then it would come to 6.3 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity the reactor produces. That is a lot of money and alone is higher than the average wholesale cost of electricity in many locations. If a fifty megawatt reactor that operates at 90% of capacity has to pay the same insurance it would come to 12.7 cents per kilowatt-hour. Note that this is a subsidised amount that only covers major disasters and the actual amount would be higher.

    Modern land based nuclear reactors hopefully have a much than 1 in 10,000 chance per year of experiencing a major nuclear disaster. However, as mentioned previously, putting nuclear reactors in cargo ships presents many challenges which may make it difficult to make them as safe as new modern land based reactors. And we won’t have any accurate idea of the actual risk until we have a very large amount of data on real world operation. And until we have that information, insurance will have to factor in that risk which will increase premiums.

    So, the cost of insurance alone is probably enough to make nuclear cargo ship propulsion a complete non-starter.

  88. BilB
    December 3rd, 2015 at 07:59 | #88

    I think you are compleatly wrong in your argument on insurance, Ronald. For starters of thd ship bord accidents to date there have been no land consequences (that I am aware of) upon which to calculate risk. Further, your obsession is operating in a vacuum of knowledge fully unaware of the huge amount of sulpherous polution that ship bavd been aloub to release for decades but are now to be monitored.

    Your handwaving dismissal of marine nuclear propulsion is meaningless. Insurance assessors base their decisions on actual performance, and from what I can tell that safety performance is quite impressive.

    You are attempting to paint a picture of naked reactors with masses of dangerous nuclear material desperately wanting to be released. The reality is the complete opposite. If you look at the photo of the reactor fuel loading of the Savannah in the link upthread (that being one of thirty two bundles for a 20 year running life) you will see just how small the volume of material is needed. Secondly, you have been suggesting that there is no containment, false. The whole ship superstructure is the reactor containment, and that is far more than land based far larger reactors have. Thirdly marine reactors have more management options than land based reactors in the event of failures.

  89. Ikonoclast
    December 3rd, 2015 at 09:30 | #89


    Sarcasm warning! Do not read if you are too sensitive! 😉

    Oh yeah great, let’s sink a few malfunctioning reactors on the great barrier reef or in significant fishing grounds. That will solve all the problems. If it doesn’t immediately kill or inconvenience land dwelling bipeds of (purported) high intelligence then it just doesn’t matter.

    Honestly, I think you are going up and out on a high limb on this one. Not sure why. There is plenty of low-hanging, low-risk fruit on the same tree.

    (1) As I showed, substantially removing coal and oil from the economy removes 50% of the dwt (deadweight tonnage) need for shipping.

    (2) Reducing the current absurd number of global sea-freight kilometers could probably drop the remnant dwt need to 25%. Nations and regions can become partially self-sufficient again by reducing off-shoring and returning manfacturing to “home”. See Footnote.

    (3) Continental areas (Asia, Europe, Americas, Australia, Africa) could all advantageously increase intra-continental rail freight and electrify these rail routes. In some cases this could be more efficient than coastal shipping (internal routes versus external routes).

    (4) We can become energy efficient.

    (5) We can stop being so materially greedy and consume less material goods whilst very likely consuming more high-quality goods with a higher service component like health, welfare, education, arts.

    Footnote: As technology progresses, it may well be the case that 3-D printed cars (for example) will become more viable than other forms of manufacture (large robotised factories). In that case the 3-D car printing factory kit will be what countries like USA, Germany and China export. Then countries like Australia will set them up and print their own cars. Some resources (metals etc. will be on hand domestically, some may still need importing. Don’t forget 3-D printing has progressed beyond plastics and into metals. A proportion of machining or maybe all machining will be replaced by 3-D printing in metals. They are already making jet turbine components in this fashion. Technology can reduce freight needs.

  90. BilB
    December 3rd, 2015 at 11:58 | #90

    I don’t know if you have noticed Ikonoclast but there is a huge need to be doing everything to reduce CO2 emissions all at the same time. There is no longer the luxury of trying one thing to see how it works before moving on to another.

    Sinking ships in fishing grounds? Apart from being highly improbable, I see that as a good thing for the fish, extremely low risk of contamination, extremely high safety from trawlers. Reefs are an issue, but as I said earlier that can be managed with automtic navigation systems. If they can have driverless quarry trucks with higher safety outcomes, the same technologies just might work for ships as well.

    A simple test for a knowledgable commenter. See if you can come up with a servicable alternative to fossil fuel powered shipping that moves the same product tonnage at the same rate of faster, but without CO2 emissions.

  91. Ikonoclast
    December 3rd, 2015 at 14:20 | #91


    I guess I am not a knowledgeable commentator but I will give it a go.

    a. We don’t need to move the tonnages we are moving now. See my post above.
    b. Use hybrid sail-gas turbine ships for the much lower necessary tonnages.
    c. Use natural gas (CH4) and shift over as possible to solar manufactured CH4.

    Your solution would be interim anyway. The current fleet of land-based fission plants will substantially exhaust all recoverable uranium resources by about 2050 anyway. Add ship propulsion to that and the time is brought forward.

    On top of this, the nuclear plant fleet, land or sea, can’t be expanded fast enough to deal with CO2 emissions in a timely manner (even if there was enough uranium to last indefinitely which there aint). All of this has been explained before on J.Q.’s blog.

    According to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS);

    “Global shipping, which transports around 90% of world trade, only produced about 2.2% of the world’s total GHG emissions during 2012 compared to 2.8% in 2007. Total shipping emissions have reduced by over 10% during the same period.”

    It seems shipping is not the big, wicked part of the problem anyway. So again, your obsession with all-nuclear shipping looks decidedly off the mark with respect to the real parameters of the problem.

    “Electricity and heat generation is the economic sector that produces the largest amount of man-made carbon dioxide emissions. This sector produced 41% of fossil fuel related carbon dioxide emissions in 2010.” – What’s your impact.

    “Transporting goods and people around the world produced 22% of fossil fuel related carbon dioxide emissions in 2010.5 This sector is very energy intensive and it uses petroleum based fuels (gasoline, diesel, kerosene, etc.) almost exclusively to meet those needs. ….

    Road transport accounts for 72% of this sector’s carbon dioxide emissions. Automobiles, freight and light-duty trucks are the main sources of emissions for the whole transport sector and emissions from these three have steadily grown since 1990.” – What’s your impact.

    Getting rid of private internal combustion engine autos and small ICE trucks and replacing them with mass transit, freight trains and electric vehicles is far more important. You want to ignore all this low-hanging fruit and push nuclear martime propulsion as an idea. It makes no sense.

  92. December 3rd, 2015 at 14:21 | #92

    BilB, the 1 in 10,000 chance of a major disaster per reactor year which I considered as a possibility, is less than the 2 major disasters we have experienced in 16,000 or so reactor years of nuclear power generation.

    Do you consider the world’s fleet of nuclear power reactors to be, “…naked reactors with masses of dangerous nuclear material desperately wanting to be released.”? Because if not, you may wish to take steps to avoid appearing inconsistent.

  93. BilB
    December 3rd, 2015 at 17:34 | #93


    There is a huge amount of wishful thinking and hand waving in your comment there. You’ve got to do a little bit more than throw a few words around, you have to also demonstrate that the words are quantitatively plausible.

    On the percentages


    ….you have just made the case for most of the countries in the world, Australia included, to do nothing about Global Warming, as each only contributes such a small amount to the total. Well done. However the shipping group in the link talk about their commitment to reducing their emissions as per their agreement. Go right to the bottom where they go to great lengths to not mention Nuclear propulsion while at the same time saying there hands are tied for the primary propulsion engines. In other words having squeezed efficiency to above 50% with the Sulzer engine and the use of ever larger ships, there is nowhere left to go. Also you clearly demonstrate that nuclear fuel will not run out due to Marine Propulsion.

    All of the other sectors have solutions in development and or various stages of deployment, the exception being long haul trucking.

  94. BilB
    December 3rd, 2015 at 18:29 | #94

    Ronald B,

    Your failure figure is purely imaginary and has absolutely no relevance to the nature of the hardware designs under discussion. I’ve just had a long browse through reactor component failures to do with cores, and they predominately involve failures which can constrict the movement of internal components that moderate the reaction. In the Toshiba design the reaction enabler body, there is the primary design difference the reaction cannot proceed without this (external speed up device) versus inserted moderator rods (internal slowdown device) in traditional designs, and the other is that the reaction enabler is outside the reaction high heat zone.

    The combination of those two features ensures that the reaction cannot run away and become super critical. The reactors are internally safe, as well as being contained in many layers of steel protection ie the ship itself. That does not mean that other things cannot go wrong, it just means that failures are not of a nuclear nature. Hence your insurance argument is dead in the water.

  95. December 3rd, 2015 at 19:13 | #95

    BilB, I will attempt explain this to you simply.

    Previously I discussed what it might mean for insurance if a nuclear powered cargo ships experienced major nuclear disaster on average once every 10,000 reactor years. A rate that is about 20% lower than what we have actually experienced with nuclear power generation.

    So when you wrote in reponse, “You are attempting to paint a picture of naked reactors with masses of dangerous nuclear material desperately wanting to be released. ” You lied.

    Or, rather than you lying, I could charitably interpret that as meaning you think the world’s current nuclear power fleet can be accurately characterised as “naked reactors with masses of dangerous nuclear material desperately wanting to be released.”

    So which is it? Do you have a poor opinion of today’s nuclear fleet, or did you lie? Or is there some other option that I am missing. I would hate to present you with a false dilemma, such as cake or death, or sulphur pollution or nuclear cargo ships.

  96. Ikonoclast
    December 3rd, 2015 at 19:31 | #96


    Fine m8, you believe what you want to believe. 🙂

  97. BilB
    December 4th, 2015 at 03:06 | #97


    “naked reactors with masses …..” that is how you were describing the current fleet in risk terms, is the third option that you are missing. You are so determind that small marine nuclear reactors will fail, and in ways that will destroy endless amounts of property.

    Cars are a machine that has thousands of violent explosions every minute occurring within their engines. In the early days of motor vehicles there was the occaisional cylinder block that would explode. Now with hundreds of millions of cars cylinder blocks never explode. Engineers changed their materials and their designs to eliminate those problems. Such failures have not required insurance coverage for a hundred years. The point is that when machinery is scaled appropriately and the designs refined and optimised even dangerous materials can be used safely.

    Argentina decades ago decided to make small safe reactors that operate of decaying nuclear material. These are effectively nuclear compost piles the heat from which is used to generate power. The move to smaller reactors that operate on different principles is a good direction particularly where these reactors will only operate at full power well away from our populated areas.

  98. John Quiggin
    December 4th, 2015 at 13:18 | #98

    I haven’t been following this one closely, but has anyone come up with a decisive objection to fuel cells (with the original energy being supplied by renewable electricity)? They seem like the obvious way to decarbonize shipping.

  99. December 4th, 2015 at 15:03 | #99

    Fuel cells are currently being used for purposes such as providing electricity and heat to buildings and swimming pools. It is certainly possible to use them to power ships, but because of weight and cost issues they are not currently competitive for mobile applications. (They are not really competitive for stationary applications either.)

    But there is no need to wait for fuel cells to improve and come down in cost and weight because we already have devices that extract energy from fluids with an efficiency that is close to what is possible with fuel cells. For example, burning fluid in a turbine with a Heat Recovery Steam Generator which makes it combined cycle, can be, in practice, about 60% efficient. A combined cycle reciprocating generator can burn fluid at 50% efficiency and is more durable and has lower maintenance costs. And it would be difficult at the moment to get more than 60% total efficiency using fuel cells.

    There are a wide variety of potential fluids (liquids and gases) that could be synthesized using renewable energy. I will use the example of hydrogen, not because I am saying it is necessarily the best, but because it is simple and presents a hurdle anything else has to clear to be a contender.

    If the production of liquid hydrogen from water is 50% efficient and is burned in a combined cycle turbine at 50% efficiency then 4 kilowatt-hours will be needed to make enough liquid hydrogen to produce one kilowatt-hour onboard a ship. If the average cost of electricity is 3 cents a kilowatt-hour then it will cost 12 cents to produce one kilowatt-hour for the ship’s electric engines.

    Currently, at about $7 a gigajoule internationally, Liquid Natural Gas burned at 50% efficiency will cost about 5 cents per shipboard kilowatt-hour and it will emit about 0.13 kilograms of CO2. With at least a 7 cent a kilowatt-hour fuel cost difference, a carbon price of $540 or more a tonne would be required for hydrogen to be favoured over Liquid Natural Gas.

    Since we are definitely able to remove and sequester CO2 from the atmosphere at a lower cost than this, hydrogen and other synthetic fuels appear to be non-starters since they all require more energy to go into making them than they give out.

    However, if the cost of electricity decreases this could change. The 3 cent figure I used is already very low, but as wind and solar generation increase their penetration there could be regular extended periods where electricity prices are extremely low which would make the electrosynthesis of fuels for ships more attractive.

    So at the moment, with current prices for industrial electricity, it would be far cheaper to use an efficient natural gas powered cargo ship and remove and sequester the CO2 it releases into the atmosphere than to electrically synthesize fuels. (Just to be clear, the CO2 would be removed from the atmosphere and not captured on board the ship.)

  100. Ivor
    December 5th, 2015 at 08:13 | #100

    @Ronald Brak

    I do not understand the logic here.

    Who says switching to renewables such as hydrogen has to be subject whether more energy comes out than goes in???

    This is not a suitable principle to declare hydrogen a non-starter.

    If it takes 10 kw to get 1 kw with zero carbon – then this is what we should do.

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