Atomic Age Redux: Bring Back the Nuclear Cargo Ship

Nuclear Ship Savannah

Nuclear Ship Savannah

This is the first time that I’m talking about this subject sober. Generally it comes up when I get into an impassioned explanation after a few glasses of wine, a nice dinner, in well, ahem “permissive” company. You see, despite my cover as a staid businesswoman, I have a secret passion. And that passion is for nuclear-powered cargo ships.

I have not only tortured my friends, relatives, and long-suffering husband, but I’ve written many letters to my elected representatives. I’ve so far received numerous courteous responses on the importance of energy reform, and in one notable case, thanking me for my interest in animal testing  (thanks George Allen!)

Before I go further, let me take a step back and explain. I was researching the architecture of cargo ships (let’s not get into why) and I discovered NS Savannah, one of four nuclear-powered cargo ships ever built (only one, Russian-built, is still in operation). It turns out that they were incredibly time and energy-efficient and safe, but far too costly for widespread production. Cargo ships in general are enormously expensive, and many fleets use old ships and perform minimal maintenance instead of purchasing newer vessels (as any West Wing fan well knows).

Until very recently, nuclear power, in addition to being wildly unpopular in the United States, was just unfeasible economically. However, since the project was abandoned by our government, the world has changed, and there are three key reasons to adopt them (among other, less significant ones):

1)      Homeland Security

2)      Environmental Impact

3)      Economic Potential

1) Homeland Security

America owns very little of its civilian shipping. This means that goods shipped to American soil, used by Americans are transported there, by and large, on vessels owned by foreign nations with crews made up of non-Americans.

These tons upon tons of freight are transported through customs, into American ports and toward American consumers with only the smallest percentage adequately inspected for potential risk. Explosives, biological agents, and other threats are difficult to defend against with our limited level of scrutiny, due not to the inefficiency of inspectors, but the sheer volume of containers.

The largest container ships can hold 15,200 containers. Any attempt at an effective search of these is complicated not just by the number, but also the logistics of the tightly packed cargo. Verifying the entire contents against the manifest is a sheer impossibility—and now multiply that by thousands of ships each day. Given the small amount of explosive or biological agent necessary to cause wholesale destruction, it is a situation worse than searching for a needle in a haystack, it would be like seeking a specific microbe on that needle.

I’m not suggesting that American ships and crews would completely solve this issue, but the lax international guidelines on crew hiring, and maintenance for ships creates a significant security hole for terrorists to slip through. How much damage could be done if a single container processed through New York’s harbor was carrying a biological agent? What would be the economic repercussions if the contents of a ship were to disable the port in Portland or Boston?

2) Environmental Impact

I think that it’s clear to most that our dependency on fossil fuels, and specifically on oil, is unsustainable. We are stuck between two hard choices, one is to risk the significant adverse effects involved in deep-sea or Alaskan drilling, and the other is to pay enormous sums of money to Arab nations, putting us at their economic and industrial mercy.

Nuclear power is remarkably clean, it is also efficient, and fast.  Nuclear-powered ships cross the ocean in half or even a third of the time of conventional vessels, do not require the vast amount of oil (or transport of oil) of traditional ships, and in the event of crash, the environmental impact, instead of oil spills, is limited to used nuclear cores, around which sufficient safety measures have already been constructed for extant nuclear-powered ships.

3) Economic Potential

And now what makes this plan palatable in the current climate. Shipyards in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia have been grinding to a halt for the last 20 years, and the same scene is repeated all over the country. Industrial jobs in ship-building, as well as other types of industrial manufacture s are disappearing as consumers require fewer products, and buy cheaper ones from abroad.

Here America has a clear advantage, nuclear-powered civilian ships have only been produced by four nations: Russia (one cargo ship, and some icebreakers), Japan (one ship, never used to carry cargo), Germany (one, later refitted for diesel) and the U.S. (our friend the Savannah).

We build nuclear-powered ships for the navy—aircraft carriers and submarines spring to mind—so the technology is currently in use, and available. What would be necessary is a re-fit of factories, currently lying fallow, and design firms,  creating jobs for Americans in not just manufacturing, but research and development, two more sustainable fields.

I could go on, and on (and I have), but it seems clear that nuclear-powered cargo ships are worth exploring. Certainly worth some of the TARP money, which is currently propping up enfeebled banks.  They could create new industry, reduce our environmental impact, and help safeguard our shores.


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2 thoughts on “Atomic Age Redux: Bring Back the Nuclear Cargo Ship

  1. Habbakuk says:

    The almost universal reaction I've gotten when forwarding this to friend is, “What if there's a crash? Isn't there a big danger of nuclear explosion that could have severe environmental impact? Etc.” As we write, literally tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil are gushing unabated into the Gulf of Mexico on a daily basis. The fact that nuclear fuel is still seen widely as the “unsafe” or “risky” alternative to fossil fuels simply boggles my mind.

  2. Becky says:

    I didn't want to delve into that in detail, but there are safety measures which can prevent a nuclear-powered ship from “going nuclear” in the event of a crash, or a bomb. Additionally, the nuclear material needed to power a ship is not a huge amount, so the threat of radiation (to sailors and sealife) is limited.

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