Sea Transportation: Nuclear Powered Cargo Ships Fade Away


July 21, 2023: Using nuclear power for commercial shipping seemed like a good idea back in the 1950s as the first nuclear powered submarine entered service, followed by over 500 more. Most of the nuclear-powered vessels were submarines and nearly all the nuclear-powered surface ships were also military. The only exceptions were some icebreakers and a few cargo ships. The first nuclear-powered cargo ship was the American NS (Nuclear Ship) Savannah, which entered service in 1962 and was not a success. It required a crew of 124 to operate and had to dump over a hundred thousand gallons of low-level radioactive waste water in the ocean each year it was in service. The ship failed as a cargo carrier because it did not have enough cargo cranes and its cargo hatches were poorly positioned, which fatally increased the time it took to load or unload cargo. Designed to carry up to 60 passengers and 14,000 tons of cargo, Savannah was far more expensive to operate than planned. After eight years of service, Savannah was retired. The passenger service never caught on and was abandoned after three years. Hauling cargo was not profitable either. Retired in 1974, its nuclear fuel was removed by 1976 and it will eventually become a Museum Ship. The German NS Otto Hahn entered service in 1968 but underwent a conversion in 1979 to replace the nuclear power plant with a conventional one. Otto Hahn was still not profitable and was scrapped in 2009. Japan also built a nuclear-powered cargo ship, the Mutsu, which was also an economic failure. It was converted to a conventionally powered ship in 1995 and served as a research vessel. Finally, there was the Russian NS Sevmorput, which was supposed to be one of four similar ships that were designed to carry cargo to icy arctic waters. Sevmorput entered service in 1988 and was active in that role until 2007. At that point the ship was to undergo maintenance and upgrades. This was unaffordable at the time and delayed until 2014 when it began a two-year refit and returned to service in 2016. NS Sevmorput carried cargo through the ice-filled sea route off the north-Russian coast. There are some military bases up there as well as some commercial operations that require the regular services of a cargo ship and that keeps NS Sevmorput busy.

The world’s only nuclear-powered non-military ships are operated by Russia. These include five nuclear powered icebreakers and the NS Sevmorput. While Russia is building five new nuclear icebreakers, the first one completed has run into problems. To make matters worse, the oldest Russian nuclear-powered ship, the Sevmorput, was stranded off the west coast of Africa as emergency repairs were undertaken so it can continue its trip to Antarctica where it will deliver 5,000 tons of supplies and construction materials for a new Russian research base in Antarctica. The mission was canceled and on December 2nd the Sevmorput turned around and began the long voyage, at half speed, to repairs at St Petersburg. The temporary fix involved disabling one of the four propellers so that two were out of action but at least the ship could steer, which was not the case when one of the four propellers was out of action and there was no way to easily turn off any of the others. The Sevmorput has been troublesome almost from the beginning.

Russia pioneered the construction and use of nuclear-powered icebreakers, but its most recent effort is running into a lot of problems. Currently Russia has five nuclear icebreakers. Four of them entered service between 1989 and 2007. In September 2020 the first of a new Artika class nuclear icebreaker conducted sea trials, in preparation for commissioning in October. That has been delayed because there have been problems with the electric motors. This was not unexpected because Artika, which was designed in 2009 and began construction in 2013, was originally supposed to have turbo generators and other major electrical systems from factories in Ukraine. Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 to seize Crimea (successful) and the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine (stalled). That invasion triggered economic sanctions from the West and a halt to components from Ukrainian manufacturers. The only alternative source was the United States, but economic sanctions blocked that.

Finding a Russian manufacturer that could replace the other unobtainable non-Russian parts delayed construction of Artika by three years. The Russian built replacements were not as reliable or effective as the original Ukrainian gear. When the Soviet Union existed, Russia found it convenient to concentrate most of the aircraft and maritime power plant design and manufacturing firms in Ukraine. The Ukrainians had a talent and enthusiasm for this sort of thing but once the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 all those Soviet era firms now belonged to Ukraine, which proceeded to run them profitably, selling to a growing number of export customers, including Russia and China. Russia has been building replacement plants to replace what Ukraine used to supply but this proved to be a slow process that resulted in second-rate products compared to what the veteran Ukrainian firms turned out.

Many Russian warship construction or refurbishment projects were delayed or canceled as a result. Russia got the new Artika into service by 2020, but later in 2020 several more unexpected problems surfaced and had to be fixed. Artika was encountering problems, mainly with the electrical and mechanical components. The old Soviet Union did not have a significant number of problems with the nuclear power plants in its icebreakers and one cargo ship, but Russia does now. The problems are with the management of current Russian shipyards and the shortage of qualified workers. Since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the new Russia is no longer a communist dictatorship and people are free to seek work wherever they want, including outside Russia. This has meant Russian warship construction has been plagued with quality problems and some embarrassing accidents. For example, in late 2018 Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Kuznetsov (built in 1990), was undergoing one last refurbishment in floating drydock PD-50. But a shipyard worker accidentally caused the drydock to sink with the Kuznetsov in it. The carrier got out with some damage but the Swedish built (in 1980) drydock was too expensive to replace or even recover. A replacement is under construction in a shipyard near Murmansk, on the northwest Russian coast where naval bases for the Northern Fleet, the largest of the four fleets are. The new drydock will not be afloat but built by combining two smaller but adjacent drydocks. Work on this began in late 2019 and is still underway with no announced completion date. This is relevant to the nuclear cargo ship Sevmorput because PD-50 was the only drydock Russia had capable of handling the 260 meter (854 feet) long Sevmorput, which displaces 61,000 tons and is similar in size to the carrier Kuznetsov. Making repairs to the propellers and associated mechanical components can be done while the ship is in the water, but it is easier and quicker to put the ship in a drydock and currently Russia has none available.

It is important to get the Sevmorput operational because it is currently needed. That’s because of the Russian 5,600-kilometer northern coast, which extends from Murmansk, near Norway, to the Bering Strait, near Alaska. There is a need to supply the growing number of oil and natural gas fields operating or being developed off the northern coasts along with the need to chart the safest routes more accurately for ships to use along the coast. This includes finding and precisely locating rocks and reefs that ships could run aground on. With the north coast more frequently ice free in warm weather, Russia sees a need for surface ships patrolling the area. Nuclear subs continue to run underwater patrols during Winter, when the coastline is iced in. Sevmorput is not an icebreaker but it does have a reinforced hull for operating in waters full of floating ice. With the aid of an icebreaker, Sevmorput can reach the growing number of commercial and military operations on the north coast any time of the year.

Delivering cargo to remote locations is why Sevmorput was designed as a LASH (Lighters Aboard Ship). That means it is equipped to carry and use 74 smaller cargo boats (lighters) that can be put into the water and then loaded with 300 tons of cargo each that is then transported to shore or smaller docks that cannot accommodate large cargo ships like Sevmorput. This made it ideal for transporting 5,000 tons of material to Antarctica, where cargo containers are moved to shore and then towed to the construction site by snow tractors. When not carrying the lighters the Sevmorput can carry 1,374 standard cargo containers.

Sevmorput is unique in another way, it’s the last and most successful of the few nuclear powered cargo ships built. A decade ago nuclear power for cargo ships was popular again, mainly because of the rising cost of oil and natural gas, and decades of problem free operation for hundreds of nuclear power plants, at least those not designed in the defunct Soviet Union. A decade ago, there were serious proposals to install nuclear power plants in merchant ships. This was tried once before, in the 1950s. The NS (nuclear ship) Savannah cost nearly $400 million (adjusted for inflation), with 60 percent of the cost being the nuclear power plant. Oil cost a lot less back then, and nuclear power plants a lot more. The Savannah’s excessive construction costs were among the many reasons it only in service for ten years, being retired and turned into a museum ship in 1972. Germany and Japan also built one nuclear powered cargo ship each and found them too expensive to be practical.

Since then, oil has become a lot more expensive, and nuclear power plants a lot cheaper. By 2010 the price of oil was headed for $100 a barrel. There are a new generation of nuclear power plants that are smaller, cheaper, and more reliable than anything available in the 1960s. This had ship builders looking at nuclear power again. The math was straightforward. Nuclear fuel costs half a dollar per million BTU, while coal costs $3, and oil $12 (and rising). Deliver a simple and reliable nuclear power plant, and shipbuilders will install it.

Not only is nuclear cheaper, it’s a lot cleaner. Ships burn very dirty fuel, and the world's merchant fleet puts out as much pollution each year as 150 billion automobiles. That causes 60,000 early deaths a year from lung cancer and heart disease. A new generation of small, "appliance (as in ease of use) grade" nuclear power plants will get a hostile reception from a lot of people, and that might keep the steam ships going off oil for some time to come. Meanwhile, many countries, or port cities, have laws banning nuclear powered ships completely. While nuclear powered merchant ships are a growing possibility, they are not a sure thing either.

Sevmorput had experience with this hostility because it entered service in 1988, two years after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. Sevmorput travelled to the Russian Pacific coast, where it was to be based, but officials at four Russian ports reported that they had major demonstrations and riots protesting rumors that the Sevmorput would be visiting them. Local port workers refused to handle any cargo from the Sevmorput. The popular anger died down but foreign ports the Sevmorput hoped to carry cargo refused to allow this new nuclear cargo ship to visit. Three years later the Soviet Union collapsed and the Sevmorput was forced to confine its operations to Russian ports or the few foreign ports that would allow it in.

A decade after entering service Sevmorput was back in a shipyard to have its nuclear fuel replenished. That process was delayed because Russia was having severe economic problems and refueling was not completed until 2001. Sevmorput was put back to work along the northern coast but that was not enough to justify the cost of operating the ship. In 2007 it was tied up near Murmansk and in 2012 Sevmorput was about to be sold for scrap. That decision was canceled in 2013 and Sevmorput underwent two years of refurbishment so that it could supply the growing number of military bases and commercial operations being built along the northern coast. This turned out to be a break-even, at best, proposition and now there are mechanical problems the refurbishment did not address, or caused, that may finally send Sevmorput to the scrapyard. That is supposed to happen in 2024.




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