Thursday, December 3, 2009

COSCO CEO Proposes Nuclear Powered Container Ships

Could Civilian Atomic-Powered Freighters be the Future?
Shipping News Feature

CHINA – In a speech to delegates at a conference in Shanghai the head of Chinese shipping giant COSCO has put forward a proposal to deal with the shipping industry’s emission problem’s which is both technologically conservative and alarmingly radical – the use of nuclear propulsion for the lines future freight vessels.

In a Q & A session Capt. Wei Jiafu of COSCO said of nuclear powered vessels that: ‘…they are already onboard submarines, why not cargo ships?’ He further added that consultations had taken place between COSCO and the Chinese nuclear authority to consider this idea.

Captain Wei’s proposal does raise an interesting dilemma for those in the industry who are exploring ways to remove the problem of polluting emissions from vessels, which is thought to make up 4% of the worlds CO2 output.

On paper, the idea makes some sense. Naval nuclear propulsion is a well established technology which is ‘clean’ in many ways over existing power plants, hence its resurgence in favour for land-based electricity generation. Indeed, the naval plants in production currently, used aboard several nations aircraft carriers and submarines, are of more than ample power capacity to comfortably drive even the largest bulk carrier, container ship or tanker.

In addition to this, uranium is actually at a low price point and, though expected to rise over the next few years, is a remarkably cost effective fuel with supplies readily available for those with permission to access them.

However, nuclear energy has been trumpeted as a cure-all panacea before and been caught out. Increased use of atomic plants in future freight vessels might well eliminate the shipping industries emission problem, but replace it with the potentially worse one of nuclear waste disposal and the spectre of serious accidents that potentially make today’s oil spills look like a joke.

Though these issues are the subject of development work with the theoretical fourth-generation reactors currently under study, these are still some way in the future and would not remove the issue of nuclear material being far more readily available to the civilian market. If the thought of Somali pirates seizing VLCC’s and container carriers is bad enough now, imagine if such vessels had a nuclear plant onboard as well!

Cosco have so far not answered Handy Shipping Guide’s enquiries on this matter but no doubt any future developments in these ideas will receive increased attention and scrutiny.