The History of Nuclear Power in Maritime

The introduction of nuclear power into maritime vessels was a major step. Although most of the industry’s focus is on submarines, nuclear reactors have benefitted ships too.

Nuclear power’s history in the maritime sector isn’t a particularly long one, but the changes it’s brought about in this short period have been massive.

The Beginning of Nuclear Maritime

The idea of nuclear propulsion was first proposed in 1939 in the US, which led to the development of a nuclear propulsion plant. By 1951, the US Congress authorised its first nuclear-powered submarine. The USS Nautilus was commissioned in 1954 and ran until 1980, after which it became a National Historic Landmark.

Not a considerable amount has changed in the fundamental design of the nuclear-powered submarine. Energy from nuclear fission powers a steam turbine generator, where water cycles between liquid and gas states to drive a turbine, which propels the submarine.

The major difference between the Nautilus and modern submarines is the sheer power they provide. For example, the Nautlius’s reactor (the S2W) could produce 10MW of power, whereas the US Navy’s current submarine class, the Virginia, features the S9G reactor. It’s capable of producing 210MW of power.

Other Uses for Nuclear Power in Maritime

Submarines have arguably been the biggest beneficiaries of nuclear power in maritime. Nuclear reactors don’t require air, whereas traditional diesel engines do. Not only does this mean less space taken up in the submarine, but it also means they don’t need to worry about refuelling or dealing with exhausts and intakes.

The change meant submarines went from slow, constantly surfacing boats to ones capable of staying underwater for weeks at a time. In fact, the main limiting factor to the time they can spend underwater now is how much food they can carry for their crew.

But there are numerous other uses of nuclear power in maritime. The US and French navies have nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and the Russian and US navies have built destroyers, cruisers and communication ships powered by nuclear reactors. As with submarines, nuclear is the most viable fuel source for ships that need to stay at sea for extended periods.

Another big sector for nuclear power is icebreakers. The logic is the same: refuelling is inconvenient, and nuclear power expands the range and operating time of the ships. Russia has used nuclear-powered icebreakers since 1959, and the fuel has allowed it to expand its Arctic navigation from 2 months of the year to 10, or even 12 in the western Arctic.

However, the merchant sector hasn’t been as successful with nuclear power. There haven’t been many attempts to break into merchant sailing; the US, Japan and Germany all built nuclear merchant vessels but decommissioned them within 20 years.

What is the Future of Nuclear Power in Maritime?

Due to our current focus on alternative energy sources, there’s every chance that nuclear will see renewed interest in the merchant sector in the coming years. If powering ships with nuclear isn’t a popular option, it’s a viable way of creating hydrogen through electrolysis. Whatever the future holds for the maritime industry, it’s fair to assume that nuclear power will play an increasing role in some form or another.

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