INTERVIEW: Core Power Sees Marine Nuclear Power at $500/mt in Fuel Oil Terms

by Jack Jordan, Managing Editor, Ship & Bunker
Wednesday April 12, 2023

UK-based nuclear energy company Core Power sees the potential for its technology to provide considerable cost savings for shipping versus other zero-carbon energy sources.

The firm is seeing growing interest in nuclear-powered shipping, Mikal Bøe, CEO of Core Power, said in a recent interview with Ship & Bunker. Nuclear energy has the potential to provide zero-carbon propulsion for the shipping industry, but will need to overcome a daunting array of technological and regulatory challenges first.

"What we're starting to see now, at the beginning of 2023, is the very large momentum that's building among leaders in chartering, cargo owners, shippers, receivers, ship owners and operators," Bøe said.

"There's a sort of realisation that actually nuclear is pretty good, if you do it right; it's got the maximum safety record and leaves very little waste and that kind of thing."

Demonstration Reactor

Core Power is part of a consortium with TerraPower and Southern Co seeking to build a proof-of-concept molten salt reactor in the US. The consortium plans for the reactor to come online around the end of 2025 or early 2026.

"We've selected this particular technology because it is the one that has a chance of making it in the shipping industry," Bøe said.

"We actually need to build one and prove it. 

"That's a half-billion-dollar programme; the barriers to entry are high in this market."

Maritime Deployment

Beyond that initial stage, the company will need to modify the technology for use in marine propulsion.

"The next stage from that is to use that data and the agreement from the authorities to build the first actual full-size machine that can be used on a ship," Bøe said.

"Whether we use that on a floating barge, or a floating platform as a sort of demonstration plant to produce synthetic fuels, or whether we use it for propulsion, that still has to be determined.

"The estimate of the US government programme that we're in is that we'll have a demonstration of this by the end of this decade or the beginning of the next decade.

"We think we can do it faster, but we're going to stick with their numbers because it's conservative and credible.

"Then the commercialisation starts to ramp up with production of these types of machines starting from about 2035.

"So it's going to be another decade before that step, but frankly, I don't think the energy transition is going to be over by 2030."


One of the advantages of this reactor design is its potential to be operated at low pressure, Bøe said.

"We need to be able to run reactors that are at ambient pressure that cannot physically disperse radioactive material in the environment around," he said.

"Ambient-pressure reactors would require a very small emergency planning zone.

"We think we can get it confined to the boundary of the ship.

"That means that in any evacuation, if something happens with the reactor or something, the crew would evacuate fore and aft, but if you're standing on the dockside next to the ship, you're outside the zone, so there's no public liability issue around it."

Another advantage of the reactor design Core Power envisages for the marine market is the ability to avoid the need for refuelling.

"It's difficult [to refuel a reactor], and you'd need to do that every couple of years on nuclear ships running this technology," Bøe said.

"We'd have to do it in ports, and I just can't conceive of the world allowing large amounts of nuclear waste and fuel to be handled in ports.

"So what we need is a long fuel cycle, something that will last for hopefully the lifetime of the ship, maybe 25 or 30 years without refuelling."

Nuclear-powered ships could also supply some of their excess power to local land-based grids while they are at port.

"If you're an electric vessel calling at a port, with a power station on board, instead of cold ironing and turning the engines off so as not to pollute the environment and connecting to shore power, which puts a strain on the grid, with a little infrastructure built in the ports, you could be transferring that electric energy to the port," Bøe said.


When asked about how the technology would hold up when competing with zero-carbon synthetic fuels generated from renewable power, Bøe was bullish about its chances.

"What you're describing is probably the most inefficient, most expensive way to run a ship since the trireme," he said.

"If you're going to run a large container ship on ammonia, there's a couple of things you have to be concerned about.

"The first is the low energy content of ammonia, which is less than half of what you have in [380 CST fuel oil].

"You need to use more than twice as much fuel; and the specific gravity density of ammonia is about 0.62, so you have much more storage space required for it as well -- you can probably quadruple the amount of tanks that you need on board.

"And if you're going to make that from intermittent wind power, making hydrogen that then converts through a Haber-Bosch process to ammonia, cooling that down to -33 degrees to transport it and keep it on a ship, it's going to cost between eight and ten times what bunkers costs today."

Nuclear Costs

The costs for a nuclear reactor on a ship should be significantly lower, Bøe argued.

"The best estimate for nuclear is just south of $500 [per tonne of fuel oil equivalent over the lifetime of a ship]," he said.

"But it's got not carbon taxes and stuff, so it's very competitive.

"That's the aim; obviously it'll start more expensive than that and come down."

The model for these costings is a novel one involving the shipping company not owning the reactor on its vessel.

"We don't expect Japan's ship operators to become licensed nuclear operators, not in the first few decades anyway," Bøe said.

"What we expect to happen here is that you have an agreement between the manufacturer, who owns the fuel and maybe the reactor, and the operator, leasing the energy to them.

"So instead of having a big container line as a licensed nuclear operator, with all the various things that come with it -- and that's not a trivial thing at all -- they can now be the users of the energy on board.

"That means that the reactor crew on board the vessel actually represents the owners of the reactor and the fuel, rather than the shipping company.

"It's a slightly different business model, but I think it could work really well; your capex is the down payment on your lease effectively, and then there would just be a flat monthly cost that you would pay for your energy."

At the manufacturer's end, the cost might be around $200 million for the reactor and $300 million for enough fuel for 25-30 years of operation, with some maintenance costs on top of that. For comparison, a 20,000 TEU boxship consuming 250 mt of fuel per day and sailing for 300 days per year would get through about $1.2 billion's worth of fuel oil in a 25-year commercial lifetime, using today's VLSFO prices.

The technology could also bring space savings, bringing more profitability with increased cargo capacity. Bøe estimates a Capesize bulker could save about 4.5% in space with a nuclear reactor versus conventional fuel storage tanks and pipes.

Future Prospects

For any of this to come to fruition, nuclear energy needs to find allies among the world's politicians, with many countries opposing the technology. But Bøe is starting to see a warmer reception in some parts of the world.

"Most of the opposition to nuclear comes from a lack of knowledge about it," he said.

"We're starting to see a very strong shift in opinion amongst young people.

"And politicians are starting to see this, in the United States in particular and in the United Kingdom now.

"There are some stragglers, but it just takes time."

And when it comes to the share of the maritime market in which nuclear reactors could be viable, Core Power sees a significant audience.

"There's 98,142 ships over 100 gross tonnes; of those, 7,300 roughly consume 50% of all marine fuel," Bøe said.

"That's 50% of all the emissions, all the pollution from shipping. That's an addressable market.

"What proportion of that market can be addressed for this particular technology in the first 10, 20 years? I don't know.

"Give me anything between two, three and 30%."