Is nuclear the key to zero-emission cruising?

Gianpaolo Dalla Vedova of Lloyd’s Register discusses how nuclear powered ships could help the cruise industry to decarbonise

Is nuclear the key to zero-emission cruising?

US Government, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

NS Savannah was launched as the world’s first nuclear-powered passenger ship in 1959

By Gianpaolo Dalla Vedova |

More than six decades have passed since the world’s first nuclear-powered passenger ship, NS Savannah, was launched in 1959. Whilst the prospect of the widespread use of nuclear-powered passenger vessels has long been met with apprehension, nuclear could take centre stage as part of the maritime energy transition in the coming years.  

The energy density nuclear propulsion offers could be a potential ‘silver bullet’ for the cruise sector as it grapples with increasing greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. The energy density of nuclear could mean that vessels only need refuelling once every decade, allowing cruise ships to travel to previously difficult locations without needing to take on bunkers.   

Lloyd’s Register is receiving extensive interest from shipowners asking for information on nuclear. We are at an early stage, but a cruise ship using nuclear propulsion could be on the water in 15 years’ time. 

Shoreside simplification 

Over the past few years, the cruise sector has seen an increase in cold ironing, where ships using traditional marine fuels turn off their engines in port and connect to shoreside power. Whilst this has reduced emissions, only a limited number of berths worldwide have the adequate shoreside power to facilitate this. However, if they had a nuclear reactor onboard, ships would have limited need to plug in to shore power, which should be treated as a short-term measure to curb emissions.  

Infrastructure would need to be specialised to accommodate the infrequent refuelling requirements of the cruise ships. On the one hand, refuelling less means long-term planning will be crucial between cruise lines and suitable facilities, which will need to be developed alongside comprehensive regulatory frameworks. On the other, the opportunity provided by the increased range will enable ships to explore more remote or less accessible destinations, transforming the offering of the growing expedition cruise sector.  

MSC Seascape

Rostock Port/nordlicht

An increasing number of cruise ships are connecting to shore power wherever it is available to reduce emissions in ports

Safety first 

Conversations about safety have often dominated the nuclear discussion, but the numbers speak for themselves. Nuclear power has the best safety track record of any energy source with an average of 0.03 deaths per terawatt hour of electricity produced. This compares to 24.62 and 18.43 deaths per terawatt hour for coal and oil respectively, according to figures collated by scientific publication, Our World in Data. 

While NS Savannah was ahead of its time when it launched in 1959, its safety record was exemplary. More modern maritime applications of nuclear power, such as on Russian icebreaker Yakutiya, which accommodates passengers on arctic voyages, and naval vessels operated by the UK, USA and France, all adhere to strict safety standards.  

Zero operational emissions  

The big draw for nuclear propulsion is its zero-emissions credentials. Our sector has long been criticised for its impact on the environment, and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of cruise ships is therefore paramount if we are to improve the industry’s environmental footprint and image. 

Operational emissions from nuclear are negligible, however the management of decommissioned nuclear material is a key element to widespread adoption. If we can ensure the spent fuel from decommissioned reactors can be stored, disposed of, and recycled in land-based applications, the nuclear question becomes one of economic viability rather than safety.  

Cost barriers and regulatory hurdles 

Initial capital expenditure will be a significant outlay for owners; however, this will be offset in the long run by relatively low operational costs. Plus, a propulsion system does not rely on fuel availability or production like many of the other traditional and alternative fuel sources. 

With the sizeable investment required to get a nuclear-powered cruise ship in the water there is little incentive for first movers without a welcoming regulatory landscape. Current regulations are catered towards nuclear vessels operated by navies, and it remains to be seen whether they could be amended to apply to cruise ships operating with nuclear reactors.  

Whilst the regulations will need to catch up with technology and investment, the cruise sector and the maritime industry as a whole has a heritage of innovation that we must draw upon, in order to take advantage of the significant opportunities nuclear propulsion presents. The movement on this has already started at the International Atomic Energy Agency, and we could see more advances in the coming years.  

Gianpaolo Dalla Vedova is strategic business partner and country lead for Italy at Lloyd’s Register 

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of  Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe  for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.  

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