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Nuclear merchant ships could open up Arctic routes for real

British shipping biz poised to make a killing?

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But who's going to pay for icebreaker capability when you can probably hire an old Russian one for pennies?

Like the land-based civil nuclear power industry, nuclear shipping would tend to mean more money spent on jobs for well-paid skilled Brits and less spent on generally low-paid folk overseas. And it would also mean less carbon and other pollutants emitted by the ships themselves - though one might remember that we're speaking here of moving more LNG, quicker and at a lower cost, to people who are ultimately going to burn it and release it as atmospheric carbon. In a low or zero-carbon future, demand for gas would need to be so low that there wouldn't actually be a lot of need for big LNG carriers.

Regardless of environmental matters, nuclear shipping sounds like an attractive prospect for ordinary Brits and the national economy. But it will only happen if it can actually deliver lower costs than burning fuel oil. Can it?

Evidently no-one knows. The MCGA told the Reg retro-futuristic shipping desk:

Currently there have been no approaches from industry to the MCA to build and operate nuclear ships ... such vessels would present challenges not ordinarily encountered in the merchant sector. In particular, identifying a safe and secure disposal route for depleted fuel and eventual disposal of the reactor system would likely present challenges ...

Babcock thinks that carbon costs and high fuel prices might make nuclear ships competitive nonetheless - but they also seem to be admitting that the extra bonus of icebreaker capability might be necessary to get money men to sign cheques, at least to begin with. But there would probably be unfair competition here: the Russian government has been compelled to take the nuclear icebreaker fleet and its support base back from the private sector, and there can't be much doubt that the Kremlin would happily rent their ships out to break passage for normal vessels at prices such as to pretty much nullify the commercial advantage of a nuclear LNG carrier.

All in all, you can see why people at Lloyds and Babcock would love to see a return by nuclear commercial shipping, and there are good reasons for a lot of the rest of us to want it too. But there really doesn't seem enough reason for international capital to invest in it, or at any rate not yet. ®

Bootnotes

*There are many exceptions to this - planing, hydrofoils, competition kayaks etc etc. But for a normal displacement hull, it is true that more power beyond a certain point delivers very little more speed.

**As opposed to Steam Ship, Motor Vessel, Her Majesty's Ship etc.

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