back to article Nuclear merchant ships could open up Arctic routes for real

British business interests are suggesting that it may be time to revive the idea of nuclear-powered commercial shipping. Media reports to the contrary, the Arctic is not yet open to normal merchant ships - but it might be opened up by nuclear ones, which would also offer zero emissions and freedom from high oil prices. Concept …


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  1. DaWolf

    4 pages of discussion

    and not a mention of terrorism or the threat of nuclear hijackings (unless I missed it?).

    Or a mention that this means nuclear being available to every country in the world - bye bye any non-proliferation treaty.

    1. pablo011
      Thumb Up

      For anyonw who is interested:

      Terrorists will not have too much of a problem getting certain nuclear materials anyway. It's enriching it in that certain way to make an A-Bomb thats the problem for them... along with handling it without the use of equipment. Uranium from these ships will be useless for making anything useful for the terrorists without the facilities. (thats even before the transportation of it without alerting powerful/trigger happy nations)... and no, bombing modern ships and nuclear power stations will not result in a nuclear bomb like explosions.

      I'm sure someone with more knowledge would be able to explain the science behind it.

      1. Fireice

        bombs and plant

        A nuclear bomb and a nuclear power plant are two completely different physical processes. For starters bomb uses fast neutrons and a power plant needs thermal. Worst that can happen in a plant is a meltdown, which stops the chain reaction but leaves behind extremely radioactive lava followed by a conventional explosion (most probably steam, as was the case in Chernobyl). Rest is just Hollywood stuff, I'm afraid.

        1. the spectacularly refined chap

          Re: bombs and plant

          For starters bomb uses fast neutrons and a power plant needs thermal...

          So you've never heard of fast breeders then? Thermal power plants are very much the exception rather than the rule. Uranium, even unenriched, is incredibly expensive stuff. It doesn't make sense to take that investment and piss 90% of its potential away in a thermal reactor.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      What are terrorists going to do?

      I'm a little puzzled by your response. What are nuclear terrorists going to do when they steal a nuclear powered merchant ship. I can just see the exchange:

      Pirate: I've just hijacked a nuclear merchant ship, given me $5mn

      Government Official: Or what?

      Pirate: Or we will generate some cheap electricity...

      Perhaps instead of generating cheap electricity, which is a threat I'm willing to accept, we are worried that they might take the reactor and ship it somewhere to be exploded with conventional explosives in a dirty bomb incident. Well, the reactor will likely weigh of the order of 20 tonnes at least, and have an extremely large containment cask that would require vast quantities of conventional explosives to blow up. Why bother shipping something of that size that won't really work that well, when instead 4 guys with homemade explosives in back-packs can cause so much damage to the London Underground. What about splitting open the cask to get the "dirty" insides, nice idea if you fancy getting fried by the radiation inside the thing.

      Overall, a marine reactor is pretty low risk, especially when you take into account that the Uranium inside it is, at best, 5% U235, so to get anything approaching weapons grade you still need a whole bunch of gas centrifuges, 20000sq ft of warehouse space, about 12 miles of class lined pipes, and a few dozen tankers full of Hydrofluoric acid - just like you do for Uranium pulled out of the ground.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Adding to my last

        I wanted to add something to my post. This is a quote about a submarine nuclear reactor:

        "The reactor core of an S6G (26MWe) submarine nuclear power plant (just the vessel that holds the fuel and the fuel itself) weighs about 110 +/-3 tons. It needs 20000 gallons (80 tons) of water for coolant. After you add in the rest of its systems you are looking at at least 1000 tons of machinery. "

        So it appears I considerably underestimated the weight of a marine nuclear plant.

        1. Annihilator

          Not to mention

          even in the case of meltdowns, low doses of radiation as you'd expect in this sort of fallout are actually a "pretty piss poor carcinogen":

    3. This post has been deleted by its author

  2. Ian K

    What could possibly go wrong?

    Build commercial nuclear-powered ship. Let it operate for a few years to build up an inventory of nice active fission products. Terrorists board ship in port, attach shaped charges to reactor, detonate. Cue harbour full of active isotopes (at best) or entire surrounding city dusted with same (at worse).

    Regular trade ports, with vast amounts of goods passing in and out every day, can't be made anywhere near as secure as military dockyards or nice, immobile nuclear power plants.

    This idea might be workable for icebreakers, which _can_ be maintained in secure facilities, but more general commercial cargo-carriers? <shudder> Please don't!

    1. Anton Ivanov

      This will never fly for a completely different reason

      Russians, Canadians, Norwegians and even Americans consider the Arctic to be their economical interest zone. Even if their claim on the extensions is rendered invalid, both the north east and north west passage are within the UN-convention decreed economic zone boundaries.

      Anyone thinking that they will permit a selfpropelled nuclear driven ship through their economic zones instead of their own icebraker escorts is off the rails. So even if this ship is built, it will not be allowed anywhere near the route which is key to its economic viability.

      1. Marcus Aurelius

        Economic Zones

        Whilst they may be economic zones for mineral extraction purposes, they'll probably be regarded as "open seas" for the purpose of Maritime Traffic. The only probable problem areas are choke points such as the Bering Strait, where traditional territorial limits meet without any space in between.

  3. andy gibson

    Somali Pirates

    What happens if a nuclear vessel gets boarded by Somali Pirates? I'm sure any nuclear material on board a ship would be worth more than the ship or crew.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      re: Somali Pirates

      They'd probably wait for a container-ship full of Chinese extension cords to come along, hijack it too. Use them to wire the country for lights and sound.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Somali priates in the arctic

      ...or ice breakers off Africa?

  4. WonkoTheSane

    Nuclear Wessels?

    Just don't run one past the Somali coast!

  5. TeeCee Gold badge

    It's happened then?

    "Nuclear power for commercial vessels is becoming significantly more attractive.............not least from an environmental perspective,"

    <Sad old git>

    When I were a lad, it were simple in the environmental activism business: Nuclear bad, non-nuclear good and every long-haired, kaftan wearing freak that could carry a banner knew it. Now there's all these bright young lads with thir sharp suits and their carbon emissions figures touting nuclear power as a good thing.

    It's enough to make you want to take off your sandals and shave.......

    </Sad old git>

  6. Velv Silver badge

    Hazardous Cargo

    Given LNG is already classed as a Hazardous Cargo to which other shipping is advised to give a wide berth, is it really a good idea to stick it in the same ship as a Nuclear reactor???

    Just how far would the reactor be "blown" if there was a gas explosion?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Unless it was a very funny design indead I doubt the reactor would be blown anywhere, the LNG containers being on the top and the nuclear reactor almost certainly being at the bottom and close to the rear and probably very secure.

      I know it's suprising but people that design these things tend to think about these kinds of problems.

      The worst thing to happen would be it sinks.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @AC 1916

        I believe the expression that you are looking for is:

        o a had na fort ov dat.

    2. 10over7

      Hazardous lack of common sense with relevant results:

      This video is really rather stupid, but illustrates what happens when hot melty thing (In this case, thermite) meets flammable compressed liquid gassy thing (In this case a propane cylinder).



      It doesn’t actually explode, due to lack of oxidising agent in the tank - but makes a nice pretty tall flame that would probably make life on deck uncomfortable enough.

  7. Anonymous Coward


    ...we could get a handle on the NIMBYs and build Thorium Breeders on land and fuel *everything* with them for the next 5000 years.

    CANDU and THTR demonstrated it is possible on a large scale at competitve prices.

    The Chinese are building plants "like crazy" (sorry for sounding like a merkin) and they are eager to copy/extend *all* western and russian designs they can get hold of.

    Meanwhile, the science-illiterates bring Europe back into the Age Of The Windmill.

    Flame powered by Siberian Gas.

    1. Fireice


      I admire your faith in accuracy of wikipedia. I wonder why then capacity of fast breeder reactors is less than 1% of all nuclear power generation? As usual wiki is correct, but they haven't mentioned that monetary cost of enabling safe access to a live reactor far outweighs any benefits. Since we are not going to run out of U-235 in this millennium this is a pretty sensible decision in my opinion.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Thorium, CANDU, THTR

        Indeed breeder reactors are more difficult than simple U235 fission-reactors. Nevertheless Thorium is *already* a viable source of energy. THTR already operated and all the technological problems are fixable. Thorium reactors do *not* require liquid sodium.

        Indeed U235 is currently so cheap that Thorium is not yet competitve. Still, Thorium is much, much cheaper than Windmill energy. I also don't accept that "finance" argument. China currently has 10 reactors *under construction*, so the EU does not manage to finance reactors ? After all it is just the single biggest economic entity on the globe ???

        The Illiterates With Political Clout (aka "Green Party") are the problem. I would not be surprised to learn that they are financially supported by Vlad Gas Inc. and IbnSaud Oilco.

  8. Havin_it

    Hundreds of tonnes of gas + nuclear reactor?

    I probably shouldn't say this, but that is an explosion I want to see.

    ...which I probably would, from anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere...

    1. Arctic fox


      I vote we take off and watch them from orbit whilst they nuke it (if I may be permitted to coin a phrase!).

  9. Roger Varley

    Nuclear Powered Merchants

    <Ring Ring>

    <Ring Ring>


    BCM: Babcock Marine Sales Department, how may I help?

    OBL: This Mr Laden here, OB Laden, I'd like to order one of your new nuclear LPG carriers please.


    BCM: I'm not sure that we can do that.

    OBL: Ok, no worries.


    OBL:<aside>Anyone got the dialling code for Somalia handy?

  10. Neil Paterson

    For Orlowski's sake...

    Read up on your "eco-churnalism":

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Great idea.

    You can avoid the east coast of Africa for a start - cuts down piracy. Can't imagine many Somali "fisherman" braving the North Sea.

    Sadly, you would have to put up with the green lobby trying to board your ship at every opportunity. Doesn't happen so often with warships, since - well, they have guns...

    If they could make the reactors self-contained little pods(tm) which can be swapped out and replaced at the end of their life, or recharged, then they might be onto a winner.

    1. Roger Varley

      Great Idea

      That might prove tricky. Most LPG carriers will be heading in and out of the Gulf of Oman, and anything moving through the Suez canal kinda goes right passed it.

    2. bugalugs
      Jobs Horns

      @AC1413...self-contained little pods(tm)...

      I claim " a-pods " and grant public licence(!)

      steve, just becurse...

  12. easytoby

    What could possibly go wrong

    Small, portable nuclear reactor - ready in a transporter box (ship) surrounded by huge amounts of explosive fuel (methane)..

    What could possibly go wrong !??!!!

  13. Anonymous Coward

    Displacement hull speed

    Roughly the square root of the waterline length in feet multiplied by 1.4 would give you displacement hull speed in knots. So a ship 300 feet in length along the waterline would have to use shedloads more power to get beyond 24.5 knots. Maybe the formula for larger hulls in different, but for smaller hulls, I think that's the formula that holds good. I used to sail a 37' boat, which had heavy overhangs bow and stern, hence a waterline length of just 25', although the overhands made her wonderfully seakindly and dry. As a result, she sailed rather slowly, and we were frequently passed by little 27 footers with plumb bows. dealing ego-destruction all round :-(

    Or maybe I'm getting confused with maximum ethernet lengths.

  14. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

    Liabillity insurance needed

    Bearing in mind how much noise is made by environmentalists about oil contamination if a ship founders, one wonders how much liability insurance would need to be carried by a company operating nuclear merchant ships.

    If a nuclear warship is damaged/founders, you expect (and this has been the case so far) that the nation operating the ship will carry the burden of recovery and clean-up of the wreck. There would need to be some guarantee that sufficient resource would be available to prevent nuclear contamination from a merchantman.

    If there were arguments and delays after such an accident involving a merchant ship, leading to nuclear contamination, then the outrage that would follow would make the Deepwater Horizon a mere storm in a tea-cup.

    I'd also expect that these nucular wessels (sorry, couldn't resist) would also have to be operated far from Somali pirates!

    BTW. The description for the warning exclamation icon reads "All hands man the pumps, run for the hills, batten down the hatches and so forth", so I thought it was appropriate.

  15. Anomalous Cowherd Silver badge

    Other routes? I hope not.

    I'd suggest running nuclear material on an unarmed merchant ship through the Suez might not be such a hot idea right now.

  16. moonface

    Get ready for a Cold War in the Arctic

    Articles like this make me wonder, by outlaying the benefits of nuclear powered vessels. Whether it is all a bit of a PR exercise to prepare the public, to get ready, to accept and support floating nuclear power stations.

    Especially with the Akademik Lomonosov (Russia's first floating nuclear power station) nearing completion and it spearheading Russia's renewed claims to Arctic territory. This looks like the West is preparing itself for catch up.

  17. Anonymous Coward

    Somalia ?

    Better not sail past Somalia, wow the fun those folks could have with a full working nuclear reactor.

    Can we have a radiation icon ?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Do not board under penalty of BOOM

      Easy one: put up the Radiation logo on a flag, and threaten to blow up the reactor if the pirates come near. I doubt the pirates would be fearsome enough to risk getting nuked!

      We need an "atomic mushroom" icon...

      1. Anonymous Coward

        I always thought

        That Reg readers were at least vaguely technical. Judging by some of the Nuclear misconceptions that are shown here and elsewhere in this thread I was wrong. A Nuclear reactor cannot "go boom" in the way a nuclear bomb can. It is against the laws of physics for a start. You can have accidents that release radiation, even highly dangerous radioactive heavy metals, but they can't go boom any worse than any other ship. Nothing in a nuclear reactor is explosive. The worst case results of a runaway reaction are meltdown. And the worst explosion you can get is probably a high pressure steam rupture in the reactor.

        1. Anonymous Coward

          No Boom, Just Bust !!!

          Tell That to the folks around Chernobyl.

          You Idiot!!!

          It Does Not Have To "GO BOOM"...

          ...TO Wipe Out Mankind!

        2. asdf Silver badge

          true but

          True enough obviously you would not get an a chain reaction fission explosion ala a nuclear weapon but you can get massive amounts of heat generated in a meltdown which can release radiation as in the case of Chernobyl act like a big dirty bomb (radiation released all over Northern Europe). Another problem with conventional nuclear ships is this would provide more material to get in the hands of the bad guys who couldn't go nuclear but they could go dirty with conventional explosions.

  18. Majid

    If you are patient...

    We can also burn up some more carbon based fuels, raise the temperature and have the changed climate melt the ice ?

    But seriously: Accidents will happen, so beter make sure that if a nuclear powered ship sinks, or explodes (which will happen). Theres no disasterous effects, before we try this on a large scale.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      "Accidents will happen, so beter make sure that if a nuclear powered ship sinks, or explodes (which will happen). Theres no disasterous effects, before we try this on a large scale."

      Nuclear vessels *have* sunk.

      Look up USS Thresher.

      It sank. Hull failed. Reactor containment vessel did not.

  19. Rogerborg

    Must use a lot of energy to displace all that water

    Why not invent some kind of boat that travels in a less dense medium - air, for example - then work on reducing friction further by placing it up on narrow wheels on steel land-sea-lanes?

    In the far flung future, I can imagine networks of these land-sea-lanes crossing distances of upwards of ten leagues, carrying goods and even brave souls at speeds approaching that of a barouche.

    1. Steven Jones

      Rail vs Shipping; fuel efficiency

      Of course it is not possible for a ship to travel as fast as a train, but the fuel efficiency of the former per tonne-km (over long distances) is considerably better than that of moving freight by train. Look up the statistics and it is as much as twice as efficient for inter-continental type distances.

      There are several reasons for that. Virtually any railway route covering thousands of km is going to have to traverse a mountain range. Hauling freight uphill costs energy. In contrast, oceans have the useful feature of being flat (or effectively so, with big ships an moderate seas). Then there is the very speed of rail which itself generates more friction and drag (and at relatively modest speeds - start pushing towards high speed train territory, and the fuel consumption goes up disproportionately. Then on rail there tends to be at degree of stop/start, and accelerating a few thousand tonnes to operational speed takes considerable energy (OK - there are regenerative braking systems on some electrified lines, but there is still a considerable loss of energy).

      As a simple example, a horse can easily pull a 35 tonne narrow boat. Indeed a couple of men can do it, albeit at a modest speed. That would be utterly impossible on rail.

      Then there is the embedded energy in the infrastructure and its maintenance. That's a huge amount on a permanent way of several thousand miles. In contrast, with shipping, you only have the docks at each end of the journey to worry about. The oceans in the middle are there for free.

      If you want to move large amounts of bulk cargo, albeit relatively slowly, then ships are far an away the most energy efficient way of moving them.

  20. Jared Hunt

    Am I mistaken...

    ...or are there commenters on this thread under the impression that weapons grade uranium is used in nuclear power plants?

    1. Munchausen's proxy

      Not only that

      ...And that the amount of nuclear fuel on board will be in the same order of magnitude of the amount of oil now carried.

    2. Steven Jones

      Dirty Bombs

      You don't need weapons-grade uranium to make a "dirty bomb". Any reactor that has been running for a while will have a lot of highly radioactive isotopes that you really wouldn't want to have scattered around a city centre by a conventional bomb.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You are mistaken

      Nobody has mentioned Nuclear explosions, the concern is simply one of contamination, deliberate or accidental. Somali pirates would (I presume) only be interested in a ransom, rather than trying to build a weapon out of the reactor, though they might sell the thing to the highest bidder - who might know better what to do to weaponise it.

      No commercial reactors contain weapons grade Uranium. Some reactors contain "mixed oxide" fuel, which has easily (chemically) separable Plutonium in it. Plutonium, of the correct isotope, can be used to make bombs, a much simpler route than enriching Uranium. Furthermore, Uranium is about as toxic as maybe Arsenic - 100kgs will not make a wasteland. Plutonium is vastly more toxic - 50pg per kilo, LD50, 30 days. - i think that makes a mere 18 grams theoretically enough to kill half the world within the first 30 days.

      So, let's not use Plutonium in commercial reactors of any sort then. Uranium is plentiful and when its half gone, then we work out what to do next.

    4. Anton Ivanov

      No, but you do not need weapons grade uranium to make a big mess

      Chernobyl is a damn good example to this.

      1. Jared Hunt

        Chernobyl, ah yes, only a matter of time before someone mentioned that

        Chernobyl was an old, crap, badly designed and poorly maintained nuclear reactor and had most of the few safety features it actually posessed deactivated when the accident occured. You won't be seeing anything remotely like it on a seagoing vessel (or any new power plants for that matter).


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