Nuclear Cruise Ships Ahoy?

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Welcome aboard the cruise ship of the future: shuffle board, casino, ballroom, and….nuclear reactor?

Today Lloyd’s Register, the international standards organization for the classification and design of ships, announced that it has begun a two-year project with a consortium of companies to look into the feasibility of nuclear-powered commercial ships. The primary application will be for cargo ships, but all large vessels, including cruise ships, could use the technology if Lloyd’s Register endorses it.

Atomic propulsion is already widespread in the world’s oceans — in nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers and Russian ice-breakers. But the idea of bringing small reactors on to privately owned ships is a throw-back to the heady days of “atoms for peace,” the era shortly after the Manhattan Project in which nuclear enthusiasts imagined nuclear powered cars, fridges, ships and spacecraft. With climate change such an urgent concern, companies and governments are now dusting off some of those old dreams for carbon-free nuclear–and shipping, which accounts for roughly 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, seemed to Lloyd’s Register like a logical place to start.

(Click here for TIME’s list of the 50 best inventions of 2010)

The nuclear golden age never transpired, of course, in part because safety concerns. On nuclear-powered military vessels even to this day, for example, crew members wear dosimeters at all times to measure radiation exposure. Will Mr. and Mrs. Vandecamp be required to do the same as they play bingo?

Another barrier to nuclear-propulsion was that the minitiarization of nuclear technology (the reactor that propels a submarine for example is no bigger than a garbage can) required uranium fuel to be highly enriched. And highly enriched fuel is dangerous–it can be used to build atomic bombs.

But a new generation of small reactors avoids this concern. Hyperion Power Generation, a spin-off from Los Alamos National Laboratory in the U.S. and a member of the Lloyd’s Register consortium, has developed a “small modular reactor” that produces 25 MW of electricity (traditional power plant reactors produce up to 1,500 MW) using low enriched uranium. The company has big plans for its little reactors—which it calls “nuclear batteries.” They hope their little atom splitters can be used to power everything from American subdivisions to desalination plants in the developing world. Their design has Lloyd’s Register interested.

The other consortium members are ship designers BMT Nigel Gee and Greek shipping company Enterprises Shipping and Trading. Beyond the technical challenges, one of the primary obstacles will be how the ships can be used in countries that are currently unfriendly or have statutory prohibitions of nuclear power. BMT Nigel Gee will be looking at the feasibility of a physical separation of the ship, meaning that the portion of the ship with the nuclear propulsion would be used for deep-sea transit but then remain in international waters while a large module with the cargo (or passengers) enters port under battery power.

Small modular reactors such as Hyperion Power’s “nuclear battery” do not have universal support, however. Some environmentalists say their small size makes them vulnerable to terrorist sabotage or theft. And it’s unclear how investors will view a fleet of nuclear ships. Nuclear power requires political support, and a single accident (a maritime equivalent to Chernobyl or Three Mile Island) could at anytime swing sentiment against the technology. But Nick Brown, Maritime Communications Manager at Lloyd’s Register, says that, like nations themselves, the shipping industry has been forced by climate change to look at all alternatives to fossil fuels. “There is this perception that nuclear represents an increased risk but really it needs to be one of the options we consider in how to manage the much larger risk of global climate change.”

In other words, cruise ship enthusiasts should think about packing sun screen in the future. I can hear my Mrs. Vandecamp now: do you have the SPF 500, dear?

(Click here to read about the U.S. Navy’s plans for hybrid ships)