Viewpoint: Modernising the regulatory ecosystem for nuclear-powered ships

14 May 2024

The maritime industry stands on the brink of a new era, writes Mikal Bøe. With the rise of new nuclear technologies, the sector can finally address the dual challenge of meeting global climate goals and improving energy efficiency.

Mikal Bøe (Image: Core Power)

More than 80% of all goods traded worldwide are transported at sea. Shipping is the backbone of global trade. Globalisation of trade, prosperity of nations and economic progress is highly dependent on an efficient and safe maritime sector. Now, the industry must dramatically reduce and eventually eliminate its emissions, and only nuclear power can achieve those goals.

We know nuclear at sea works well. Over 700 reactors have operated at sea, enduring the harsh environments of the world's choppy oceans. But there are no nuclear-powered commercial ships in service today because the reactor technologies available are unsuited for civilian maritime transportation.

We must therefore build new technologies and we must modernise the regulatory ecosystem to allow those new technologies to do their important work.

The ecosystem of rules which apply to nuclear-powered ships require solutions to three main challenges:

  1. The International Maritime Organization's (IMO) Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) Chapter VIII contains the Code of Safety for Nuclear Merchant Ships, which was adopted by the IMO Assembly through Resolution A.491.XII in 1981. The Code is based solely on pressurised water reactors (PWRs), or naval reactors. Because emergency planning around a mobile high-pressure reactor cannot be achieved in nearshore environments, these cannot be commercially insured which prevents ships from calling in ports. Without port calls, ships are redundant. Hence, the IMO standards need revision to allow for new nuclear technologies which can.
  2. Strict export control restrictions for naval nuclear propulsion in countries with nuclear navies (UK, USA, Russia, China, etc), referencing the same naval reactor technology as set out in A.491.XII, are assumed to apply to all maritime nuclear propulsion solutions, until a clear distinction can be shown between military and civil applications. National export control rules must therefore be modernised to allow for maritime civil nuclear propulsion, whilst still providing adequate security and safeguards provisions. Modernised rules will spur changes in ship building and vessel ownership.
  3. Nuclear liability conventions (Vienna and Paris Conventions) both exclude nuclear propelled ships, again based on the same foundations as set out above. We therefore need a modern liability convention that allows commercial insurability of nuclear-powered ships. This was attempted with the Brussels Convention of 1962, but it was never ratified, again for the same reasons. With new nuclear technologies that are commercially insurable, and a clear separation in export control rules between naval and civil nuclear propulsion, a revised and modern liability convention will be adopted.

For all this to be possible, these new nuclear technologies must satisfy three main criteria to be fit-for-purpose in nuclear-powered ships.

  • The Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ) around the reactor must be minimal, preferably contained entirely within the confines of the ship's hull. This will facilitate the development of commercial insurance and open the door for port calls.
  • There must be no need for refuelling of reactors in commercial ports. Handling the front and back ends of the nuclear fuel cycle in busy ports is a showstopper, at least for now.
  • The nuclear power system must be passively safe under all conditions and meet or exceed the highest standards set for security and safeguards by design.

New nuclear technologies which meet these criteria open the possibility of nuclear propulsion for large, ocean-going ships. The Fourth IMO GHG Study (2020) identifies over 12,500 ships (container, tanker, bulk carrier, cruise, reefer) where the case could be made for using nuclear propulsion.

Shipowners, shipyards, trading houses and banks which control almost 5000 ships have to date made financial investments in companies building these new nuclear technologies and the industry now has nuclear-powered ships on the radar for commercial launch in the 2030s.

Modular construction in shipyard production is a key strategy for scaling nuclear deployment. Both nuclear-powered ships and floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs) can be centrally manufactured using common parts and components. This allows complete predictability of both cost and delivery times, an unusual feature in the nuclear industry.

The newly formed Nuclear Energy Maritime Organization (NEMO), of which Core Power is a founding member, is spearheading the essential work to assist governments and international organisations with the modernisation of the entire regulatory ecosystem for nuclear-powered ships and FNPPs.

Modernising A.491.Xii is now on the agenda at the IMO. Members of US Congress are pressing for export control rules to be modernised, and both insurers and re-insurers are engaging to establish commercial insurability of nuclear-powered ships. Our aim is to have a fit-for-purpose ecosystem of rules and regulations established by 2030.

Mikal Bøe is CEO of Core Power and Vice Chairman of NEMO.