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BHP considers nuclear-powered cargo ships

23 February 2024

Dutch nuclear energy development and consultancy company ULC-Energy BV has completed a study – commissioned by global mining company BHP – to investigate the potential use of civil nuclear technologies to power commercial maritime vessels.

A concept for a nuclear-powered cargo ship (Image: Core Power)

The study compared key characteristics of various civil reactor designs against the requirements for the potential use in commercial maritime shipping and evaluated a range of regulatory, operational and commercial challenges, such as port access, licensing and vessel classification, capital costs, and crew training and certification.

The shipping industry consumes some 350 million tonnes of fossil fuel annually and accounts for about 3% of total worldwide carbon emissions. In July last year, the shipping industry, via the International Maritime Organization, approved new targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions, aiming to reach net-zero emissions by, or around, 2050.

“Decarbonising the shipping industry is a formidable challenge in the pursuit of more sustainable transportation,” according to ULC-Energy. “Some of the methods employed to date have focused on energy efficiency by using larger ships, improved hull designs, and streamlined operations. In addition, parts of the maritime industry have explored the adoption of alternative fuels such as LNG, methanol, and ammonia.”

It noted that nuclear energy emerges as a promising alternative to be considered in the mix, offering the potential for longer range, faster transits, and the reduction of refueling requirements, all while maintaining near-zero greenhouse gas emissions for the voyage.

“At the same time, such a civil nuclear vision would require material changes, including overcoming technical challenges, updating regulatory frameworks to ensure compliance with international regulations, and restructuring operations,” ULC-Energy added.

“Cost effective and reliable international shipping services are a crucial component of global economic activity,” said ULC-Energy CEO Dirk Rabelink. “Civil nuclear solutions have the potential to be a reliable and cost-effective alternative to other marine fuel options. However, it’s not straightforward nor easy – and it will require a range of stakeholders to cooperate to make civil nuclear marine solutions possible.”

BHP is a leading global resources company with approximately 80,000 employees and contractors, primarily in Australia and the Americas. The company’s products are sold worldwide, and it is among the world’s top producers of major commodities, including iron ore, copper, nickel, and metallurgical coal. As such, it is a major shipping charterer.

“BHP values the importance of partnerships in identifying a range of pathways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the maritime sector,” said Rashpal Bhatti, Vice President of Maritime and Supply Chain Excellence at BHP. “We welcomed the opportunity to support this study by ULC-Energy to explore yet another potential alternative.”

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