Investment in Nuclear Technology for shipping…

There’s been excellent news for Derby and Rolls-Royce today, with major investment announced by the government in the Raynesway site which produces the propulsion units for nuclear submarines.  

Lucy Care being interviewed by the BBC - which, at first, didn't get the point that this is timely investment to safeguard UK options for powering large ships in the future.

This can be a difficult subject.  People tend to equate ‘nuclear submarine’ with ‘nuclear weapons’.  The two are not the same.  Rolls-Royce produces the units which power the submarines.  Not all submarines carry weapons, and these may or may not have nuclear warheads.  Submarines can be also used for non-aggressive purposes such mobile listening stations, or escorts for freight ships to ward off pirates.

However for me this investment is exciting not because I like submarines nor because I am a fan of nuclear power, but because this is an investment to safeguard UK science and engineering skills for our later potential use of this technology.  It should provide us with more options for the future.  Let me explain.

Oil – usually the heaviest, dirtiest oil, called ‘bunker fuel’ – is the main source of energy for global shipping.  Although tonne for tonne, shipping by sea is far more fuel efficient than flying freight around the globe – or land travel – fuel is still a major cost. 

BP, in their World Energy Review 2012, has recently suggested that there are just over 50 years supply of oil left in the world.  This is not the same as saying we can continue using oil at the current rate for 50 years, as the amount we can extract every year won’t continue steady and suddenly stop.  As wells become empty, the amount we can extract reduces – our North Sea extractions fell by around a sixth last year, despite 2011 being reported as the first year with average crude prices over $100 a barrel (up at $111).

It can also be misleading to read that reserves are continuing to grow, as oil is not still being created.  Countries may extract thousands of barrels of oil, but report no change, or even announce increases, in their reserves.  In some cases, like shale oil,  sources that a few decades ago we would have ignored as being too challenging or expensive to include, are now being reported. 

Carbon emissions are also a concern.  While international shipping (and aviation) are not yet included in targets for emissions reduction, this is under discussion both at EU level and the UN. 

With both supply and carbon emission pressures growing, what alternatives are available?

Unlike land transport, shipping needs an energy source it can carry with it.  And it needs to be dense.  Fossil fuels, particularly oil, have therefore been very convenient.  The only alternative – apart from a return to wind – that I can see is nuclear power.

So this is why I welcome the Government’s foresight in investing now to ensure that the UK has the technical expertise to produce nuclear propulsion units for marine uses.  There is already nuclear-powered surface shipping, particularly icebreakers and drilling rigs, but also some large naval ships like aircraft carriers.  The lead in time to continue development in this technology – probably 10 years – seems to me to be about right. 

Over the next decade there is thus time for:

  • shipping to be included in carbon emission limits
  • the cost/supplies of oil to have become a growing challenge, threatening global trade, and
  • negotiations to have started to allow nuclear powered shipping into freight ports

For once, the government seems to me to be making a timely investment to safeguard the UK’s ability to compete technically with the best in the world.  And I have no problem with this funding coming from the MOD: Just as aeroengines can power fighter jets or holiday flights, so can nuclear propulsion be used for submarines or commercial freighters.  The knowledge is fully transferable.

There’s more on this, by me, on Lib Dem Voice.

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