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Nuclear merchant ships could open up Arctic routes for real

British shipping biz poised to make a killing?

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

This could bring some work back to countries with nuclear navies and nuclear yards

According to an MCGA spokesman:

A preliminary meeting was held at the request of a Class Society to discuss the general concept as a result of increased interest in the shipping industry and trade press in alternative propulsion including nuclear propulsion.

Classification societies are private businesses which survey and inspect ships, oil rigs etc and rate them on seaworthiness, safety and so forth for insurance purposes (eg "A1 at Lloyds", formerly meaning a sound and high-quality ship that an underwriter could happily insure at a low premium). With the advent of flags of convenience, the class societies now compete for shipowners' business much more than they once did, and their top ratings no longer carry the credibility they used to. The UK Class Society is Lloyds' Register.

Apart from fast container ships hauling manufactures from China to the West there is now the study on nuclear-powered LNG carriers from Babcock, which one might see as another indicator that civil nuclear shipping might be coming back - this time to stay. Babcock have also confirmed to the Reg that Arctic routes would be especially suitable for nuclear ships in their view, but they think that the vessels might not be restricted solely to chilly northern (or Antarctic) voyages. A statement emailed to us says:

Transit in ice is a requirement for certain routes, which would require a greater power installation [than a conventional ship]. As the polar regions are environmentally sensitive nuclear powered vessels are well suited to trade on these routes. The more recent nuclear powered vessels have been exclusively in ice breaking duties. However there were a number of vessels built in the 1960s which were utilised in worldwide trade.

Certainly a reappearance of nuclear merchant ships could be excellent news for the UK shipping business - in particular for Babcock Marine, the sole British operator of dockyards with nuclear expertise, one of only a few such companies in the world. Nations like China and Korea, with their far lower labour costs, have stolen away most of Blighty's business in regular shipbuilding and maintenance: but, mostly lacking nuclear navies, they lack nuclear yards and expertise. China has a handful of nuclear subs, but they are considered primitive by Russian or Western standards and aren't thought to be very reliable or seaworthy.

In a world of nuclear-powered commercial shipping, French, British and US dockyards accustomed to working on nuclear warships to high safety standards would have a major advantage. Lloyds and its US and French counterparts might find the associated knowhow a useful lever for winning business from cheaper (and perhaps even more unscrupulous) class societies elsewhere. In particular, a lot of flag-of-convenience states effectively delegate the running of their shipping safety bureaucracy to class societies, and international law requires a nuclear merchant ship's flag state to do a lot of paperwork. Extra nuclear training for crews would tend to offer more opportunities for Western sailors, too, even if the ships still tended to fly flags of convenience. Rolls-Royce, the UK's builder of nuclear reactors for ships, would also be one of very few competitors for lucrative new business.

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