Retirement has not stopped Bill Gates from chairing TerraPower, a nuclear technology company. TerraPower will soon develop its own nuclear technology for nautical applications in support of the marine industry’s transition from conventional energy to clean power.
The company announced its international partnership with Core Power, Orano, and Southern Company to pioneer the development of a nuclear battery. This coalition is in the process of an application to the U.S. Department of Energy for “cost-share risk reduction awards under the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program to build a prototype MSR”, according to Nick Blenkey of MarineLog. The companies believes that m-MSR (marine molten salt reactor) technology will revolutionize the freight transport industry.
In essence, MSR is a type of Gen IV nuclear reactor and does not make use of solid fuel rods, in turn both simplifying and miniaturizing the reactor structure. Furthermore, MSR takes thorium instead of uranium as fuel, making it able to remain at atmospheric pressure while under high temperature. Also, as MSR contains no moving parts, it is relatively safer to operate compared to conventional reactors. Blenkey indicates that the companies are currently developing “a fluid fuel in the form of very hot fluoride or chloride salt infused with a “hot” fissile material”.
▲Height comparison between the nuclear battery in question and an adult human male (Source: Core Power).
At any rate, nuclear-powered vessels are nothing new. Major countries investigated the technology’s viability as early as the cold war, but technological and economic roadblocks prevented the development from coming to fruition. As companies are able to make breakthroughs in marine nuclear power today, the technology has once again entered the headlines but remained expensive. During its commercial infancy, marine nuclear power may be offered as a leasing solution, as its prohibitive cost makes it difficult to attract adopters. Regardless, the successful development of this technology will prove to have a noticeable effect, since nuclear power allows for zero-emission vessels, raises ship speed by up to 50%, and removes the need for carrying bulky fuel tanks. For these reasons, marine nuclear power has garnered much attention from freight companies.
However, as previously mentioned, the technology’s prohibitive cost and the public’s safety concerns mean marine nuclear power still has a ways to go before commercialization in any meaningful manner. Case in point, the only civilian-use nuclear powered commercial vessel is Sevmorput, a Russian icebreaker. Sevmorput is currently under lease to the Russian military for transporting military goods in the North Pole. On a broader scale, only in the extreme conditions under which the Russian icebreak operates can marine nuclear power further demonstrate its advantage over conventional energy.
Of course, the technologies under development right now is vastly more advanced and more versatile across various applications. Equipping a ship with nuclear batteries can provide it with close to 30 years of mileage – well within a ship’s lifetime, during which there will be no need to refuel. This makes marine nuclear batteries particularly valuable, especially for ships that typically travel long voyages. It should be pointed out that China is also interested in this technology.