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How do you push a small airfield through the water at more than thirty miles per hour using approximately 3 pounds of fuel per day?
With an atomic engine. Proof that this incredible feat is possible occurs on a daily basis on board USS Nimitz, USS Theodore Roosevelt and other nuclear powered aircraft carriers.
That's fine for the deep pockets Navy. Why would a commercial ship want an atomic engine?
Several reasons, including:
- Lower cost fuel. At current prices, reactor fuel costs 85 percent less than bunker fuel.
- Zero emissions. In crowded port cities, air pollution laws are becoming more stringent and costly.
- Concentrated fuel. Nuclear reactors can be built with fuel supplies lasting for many years.
- High power to weight ratio. Merchant ship owners are increasingly interested in rapid transits over long distances.
What about the Savannah? Didn't that experience prove that nuclear power was not economical for a commercial ship?
Note: For those that are not familiar with nuclear ship history, the N. S. Savannah was the world's first nuclear powered commercial ship. She operated for less than ten years before being laid up.
N. S. Savannah was one of the prettiest cargo ships ever built.
Here are some facts about the ship:
- The Savannah was designed as a showboat. Her purpose was to demonstrate American technology as part of the "Atoms for Peace" program. Pretty lines and luxurious staterooms were more important than cargo capacity or loading ease.
- She made politically motivated port calls, not economically motivated ones.
- She was a one of a kind ship, required to support a specialized infrastructure by herself.
- There were some difficulties with union negotiations. She spent almost a year tied to the pier because of the deck officers did not want the engineers to make more money than they did.
What is the bottom line? Why was she laid up as "not economical"?
Savannah's average subsidy was approximately $2 million more than other ships her size. The Comptroller of the US calculated that $1.9 million of that could be attributed to Savannah's status as a one of a kind ship. She was laid up in 1971. In 1973, the increase in the cost of oil raised the fuel cost for a Savannah sized steamship by $1.8 million per year. In 1979, the cost of operating a Savannah sized oil burner increased by another $2.0 million.
What are the political ramifications of nuclear powered shipping?
This will be a problem that needs to be addressed. Right now, there are few treaties that address the issue. There is a bilateral agreement between the US and Great Britain that can be used as a model. There are, however, many important ports in the world that have readily accepted nuclear powered naval ships from five different nations.
American shipbuilding has been struggling. Will atomic engines help?
Yes. There is no other nation in the world that has our experience in building nuclear propulsion plants. There is no other nation that has the store of trained operators that can help train other operators. By putting our expertise to work, we can build ships with such a technological advantage that they will be able to overcome some of our cost disadvantages.
Nuclear ships will be much faster, more responsive, have greater cargo capacity per ton displacement, and greater reliability. However, we must work in new ways; if we try to build nuclear powered commercial ships like we do extremely expensive carriers and submarines we will not succeed.
What happens if an atomic powered ship is in a collision or sinks?
Any collision or grounding is bad, but we can use the accidental experiments of the nuclear navies to show that they are no worse for nuclear powered ships. The cores of an atomic engine are carefully designed and constructed to prevent the release of radioactive material under all conditions and there are at least three barriers between the material and the environment. So far, there have been no measured radioactive material releases from the cores that are currently on the bottom of the ocean.
Can cruise ships be powered with atomic engines?
Absolutely. Smooth running turbines and lack of stack gases make them ideal for passenger ships. No longer will passengers on deck have to worry about cinders on their clothes. There will be a big reduction in engine noise and vibration. The deck and interior space freed up by eliminating the stacks can be put to good use for casinos, dance floors and observation towers.
What other ships can particularly benefit from atomic power?
Large, fast container ships, tankers, liquified natural gas carriers, long range ore ships and liners can all gain from current technology engines. Fast ferries may be particularly interested in powerful engines that burn a tiny mass of fuel each trip. The fuel savings that can be realized make it economical to consider replacing the power plants in existing ships. As technology is advanced to reduce the minimum engine size, any ship that spends most of its time in operation is a potential candidate. Pleasure boats that are infrequently used will probably never realize much benefit from the large capital investment that would be required to modify them with an atomic engine.
For people who need to have the best, fastest, and most capable of everything, an atomic engine might be a pretty neat status symbol. It would make it possible to cross the ocean at full speed without stopping, even in a relatively modest sized yacht.
- World Nuclear Association Information Paper - Nuclear -Powered Ships
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Last updated September 19, 2009