Marine industry, like other fuel dependent enterprises, faces a danger of fuel shortage. At present fossil fuels feature at top on list of fuels used in this industry. Of these, diesel is the one used most often under various names such as gas oil, marine gas oil (DMX, DMB), intermediate fuel oil (IFO), residual fuel oil (RMA, RML) etc. But they are under immediate danger of exhaustion. In this scenario, marine nuclear propulsion steps in as the savior. However, how much can the shipping industry rely on this new technology?
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What is nuclear marine propulsion?
For those who don’t know much about it, nuclear marine propulsion refers to use of nuclear energy for purpose of propulsion of ships. It makes use of a nuclear reactor where a nuclear reaction can be carried out under controlled conditions. Such reaction produces immense energy which can be tapped and used to power anything from small vessels to a cruise ship.
The nuclear reaction carried out is a fission reaction wherein a heavier molecule splits into smaller ones producing energy along with the products. This energy produced is mainly used to heat water that can be further used to produce steam for the purpose of nuclear ship propulsion.
Status of nuclear marine propulsion
Use of nuclear ships is increasing gradually though this idea has been present for long. Nuclear reactions have been used to produce energy for other commercial purposes mainly electricity production for some time now. But idea of marine propulsion using this energy was proposed somewhere in 1940s when the first design for a nuclear marine propulsion engine was made. Since then, nuclear ships have become designed and used. Right now, the marine propulsion dependent on nuclear energy is found mainly in armed forces and navy but soon commercial and domestic nuclear ships will also become just as common.
Mostly merchant cargo ships like American NS Savannah (1962-1972) and German NA Otto Hahn (1968- 1972) or nuclear powered ice breakers have been in use for brief periods. At present, only few ships based on nuclear marine propulsion are in use on experimental basis.
Why is nuclear marine propulsion a good idea?
Amongst all the speculations and standing doubts about use of marine propulsion system based on nuclear energy, there are some key factors that make this a good idea, whatever way you look at it.
In the current scenario of extreme fuel shortage, nuclear ships are the answer that everyone has been looking for. Energy produced from nuclear reactions is immense which can be used easily.
Since amount of energy produced in every reaction is quite large, a single time energy production can be used for a propulsion ship for a long time. Nuclear ships offer a refilling solution of as less as once a month. This could make shipping a speedy and hassle free process.
A nuclear reactor is designed to produce energy under controlled conditions. It is compact and can be moved around easily. So apprehensions about practicality of a nuclear reactor on ships, boats and vessels can be put to a rest.
Nuclear military ships like submarines can survive for months underwater without feeling the need to resurface for refueling. This can make combative forces much more efficient.
Fuel efficiency of nuclear propulsion engines is more than most of the fuels currently in use. This means that amount of energy derived from nuclear reactions per unit weight is more than any other fuel.
The better power to weight ratio means that nuclear ships can have better weight carrying capacity than other ships, offering quicker traveling over longer distances with greater load.
Nuclear ships tackle problem of air pollution too as there is no production of undesirable smoke or particular pollutants that have become a menace all over the world.
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Why can’t we trust this technology much right now?
The picture of a nuclear energy powered propulsion ship seems very rosy. However, there is a downside with this whole scenario. Some of the points not so good with this technology are:
Nuclear reactions produce immense energy, which if not controlled can lead to disastrous results. As such, even a minor fault can lead to accidents with massive implications all over the world.
Most apprehensions lie with use of something as dynamic as nuclear energy on ships which can be occupied by thousands of people at sometimes.
In case of accidents of nuclear ships, there is a huge chance of contamination of water bodies with nuclear fuels that can damage marine life and human population both. During the brief usage of such ships, the number of accidents due to minor technical faults has been proportionately large.
Due to the need for ships to travel across the world, there is a need for nuclear reactors to be able to bear that sort of wear and tear. The nuclear reactor should be secured to prevent its undesirable movement on the ship.
The major problem faced by every nuclear ship would be of disposal of nuclear waste. With increasing use of nuclear fuel all over the world, there is an increasing stack of nuclear waste that humans are still struggling to dispose of. In absence of a practical solution to dispose of excessive amount of nuclear wastes that will be produced due to such ships, there could be more problems in long run.
At last, one major apprehension with this energy is its political and moral implications. There will always be fear of this energy being misused which remains one of the major political reasons to be cautious about this energy.
There is a future in nuclear energy for marine propulsion but still there is a long way to go before we can see a fully-fledged ship running on nuclear marine propulsion system.