by Will Davis
At the end of last month there was some press about the emissions from cargo ships as a threat to the environment, and in due course nuclear propulsion was brought up as a way to get around it.  It seems that every once in a while nuclear propulsion for cargo and/or passenger ships is revived, only to be forgotten again after a few superficial studies.  The plain fact seems to be that the economics of nuclear ships will not allow their wide spread until something external re-racks the whole economic model of shipping to allow this option to be considered.  That “something” is very likely to be penalty for emissions near shore, or for burning fossil fuel in ships in the first place – in other words, some form or another of carbon taxing applied specifically to open-ocean shipping.
Seeing that there’s some momentum behind this principle generally for power generation and transportation, it could be we’re due for another revival of nuclear commercial ships – at least, on paper, anyway.  I’d like to go over a couple of the “lessons learned” from the time when it was actually done.
Design to fit or fit to design?
This American Turbine Corporation concept for a gas cooled nuclear shipboard plant from the late 1950’s was one of a range that was intended to be inserted into existing designs or existing ships. That only happened once, and the reactor was water cooled. The US Navy decided never to operate gas cooled reactors on subs because Admiral Rickover worried about the gas potentially leaking into the sub, asphyxiating the crew – a problem not nearly so menacing with conventional ships on the surface.
The whole nuclear field in the 1950’s was pretty much convinced that what was needed was a smorgasbord of nuclear plant designs

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