Past, present and future

Nuclear reactors at sea

29 November 2000

Decommissioning nuclear powered submarines and ships should not be regarded as a legacy. It will become more widespread and must be done routinely as part of our way of life. By Gulian Crommelin, retired captain of the Royal Netherlands Navy

Having read the article "Cleaning up the Cold War legacy" on page 23 of the February 2002 issue of Nuclear Engineering International, some thoughts spring to mind. I have not had any nuclear training so these thoughts are of a general kind.
The article is a report of a seminar held in Severodvinsk last year, and gives an account of some Russian submarine decommissioning projects. "Cleaning up the Cold War legacy" is not an accurate title for the article. The use of nuclear power at sea will continue and increase in the near future.
As far as the Russian decommissioning projects mentioned are concerned they are indeed part of the Cold War legacy. However, nuclear power still plays a very important role in keeping the peace. Sometimes it seems that only the military are aware of the logistical arguments in favour of nuclear.
The possibilities of a nuclear powered ship in comparison with a fossil fuel powered ship are almost unlimited. Any maritime engineer would be happy to do away with the daily fuel status report, pumping the bilges, the worries about the quality of the fuel and the price and the periodical refuelling in harbours.
These advantages do not apply exclusively to military vessels. In response to a question at a conference, the panel — made up of five shipping company engineering directors —commented: "We agree with the technical and non-technical arguments for nuclear power on board ships. For the near future we foresee problems with nuclear ships entering certain harbours or passengers taking a cruise on board a nuclear powered ship. However shipping is not going back to sailing or even rowing. There is no alternative, we have to take nuclear on board".
The first military man who realised the potential of nuclear was the father of all nuclear power plants at sea and ashore, United States Navy Admiral Hyman G Rickover. And the parties in the Cold War were quick to follow. Submarines run deep and silent and must be able to stay on station for a long time without any chance of discovery. Nuclear power does just that!
The achievements made possible by nuclear power must be protected. The most important role of all in this is fulfilled by aircraft carriers as the centrepieces in battle groups. These vessels are nuclear powered. Ships of the size of an aircraft carrier need enormous amounts of fossil fuel for conventional propulsion plants, especially when at high speed (speed versus fuel consumption is a third degree curve). A very large number of tankers would be needed if they would be driven by conventional boilers and steam turbines. Only nuclear power can bring these ships with all their equipment, aircrafts and marines, fast and ready, to wherever trouble is or likely to be.

Tackling decommissioning
It is worth remembering that decommissioning has nothing to do with power output of the reactor, and there are more nuclear reactors at sea than ashore. Moreover, decommissioning of a submarine is much more complicated than that of a nuclear power plant due to the compactness of the reactor and the construction of the boat.
One solution is to make a museum of the boat. The picture shows the French nuclear submarine Le Redoutable, a ballistic-missile submarine (laid down November 1964, in service December 1971, decommissioned 1991, one nuclear reactor), which is part of a maritime museum in Cherbourg, France. Such a vessel promotes not only nuclear power, submarine construction and other advanced technologies, but also embodies the expression:
The best warships we have ever built are not those we used in war, but those which served their time in peace.
So, any new construction or design should take on board (literally) the lessons learned from decommissioning projects that have been, or are currently being, carried out. We already talk about design to costs, design to maintain, design to lifetime support, design to repair and overhaul, and so on. Design to decommission should be added to the list.

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