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newcleo, a London-based nuclear technology company developing Generation IV reactors using nuclear waste as fuel, has signed a cooperation agreement with Italian shipbuilding major Fincantieri and RINA classification society.

The trio has agreed to carry out a feasibility study for nuclear applications to the shipping industry, including newcleo’s lead-cooled small modular reactors (SMRs) technology.

The deployment of newcleo’s Lead-cooled Fast Reactor (LFR) for naval propulsion would involve placing a closed mini reactor on vessels as a small nuclear battery producing a 30MW electric output. This would require infrequent refuelling (only once every 10-15 years), very limited maintenance and easy replacement at the end of life.

Using clean nuclear energy to power marine vessels has the potential to rapidly decarbonise a sector grappling with huge fossil fuel consumption and its consequent carbon emissions.

The shipping industry, via the International Maritime Organization (IMO), has approved new targets for GHG emission reduction, to reach net-zero GHG emissions by or around (i.e. close to) 2050.

While the shipping industry still carries 90% of the world’s goods, and the fourth IMO GHG Study 2020 confirms that its carbon dioxide emissions are less than 3% of the total global man-made CO2 emissions, the actions of the big players of this industry have the potential to drive trends and markets.

Nuclear power reactors have been in use in the naval industry for decades, and they have had a sound safety record. Switching to nuclear-powered ships would remove business uncertainty caused by fuel cost volatility, as they wouldn’t need to be refueled.

Fuel is at the center of the sector’s decarbonization puzzle as carbon-free fuels such as hydrogen, ammonia, and methanol are not available at scale and the maturity of propulsion technology is yet to be proven in practice, especially for ammonia.

The key obstacle to the wider implementation of the technology in commercial shipping has been public acceptance. Safety has been one of the major concerns of the wider public when it comes to integrating nuclear power into commercial shipping. Potential radiation leaks or explosions caused by collisions have rendered the technology in commercial shipping unacceptable in the public eye.

However, the trio claim that using nuclear power on ships would safeguard the marine ecosystem in the event of an accident. Namely, newcleo’s design features a liquid lead inside the reactor that would solidify as it cools down in contact with the cold water, enclosing the reactor core in a solid casing, and containing all radiation thanks to the shielding properties of lead.

Finally, at the end of its life, the whole LFR unit would be simply removed and replaced with a new one in the ship, and the spent unit taken away for decommissioning and reprocessing. 

“I am delighted that we are launching a project for civil nuclear naval propulsion with this important feasibility study. Fincantieri and RINA are two global leaders in the shipping sector, and combining their expertise with our technology innovation can bring a real solution to the issue of carbon emissions in maritime transport,” Stefano Buono, newcleo Chairman and CEO, said.
“From our conception, newcleo’s ambition is to contribute to accelerating decarbonisation and providing clean, sustainable and affordable energy to meet the needs of communities and businesses. I look forward to the results of the feasibility study and the next steps of the project.”