Nuclear power could be the future of expedition cruises

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(CNN) — A new ship design concept from Norwegian shipbuilder Ulstein could be the first step towards an emissions-free future for expedition cruises and a range of other maritime operations.

The proposed 500ft-long ship is called Thor – a reference to both the Norse god of thunder and the element thorium, which would power its onboard nuclear reactor.

Such a ship would never need to refuel and could create its own power supply, which in turn would be used to power a companion ship, Sif, named after a golden-haired Norse goddess who was also Thor’s wife. This expedition cruise ship, with a capacity of 60 passengers, would be able to explore environmentally sensitive areas with minimal impact.

“Sif is emission-free, so she can cruise in full electric mode, and Thor would be her charging station,” says Øyvind Gjerde Kamsvåg, chief designer of Ulstein. “These are concepts right now and they may not be built that way, but they do start important discussions. We’ve been thinking about thorium as an energy source since 2008, but there’s a stigma associated with it. nuclear energy.”

Molten salt reactor

The ship would use a molten salt reactor, a type of nuclear reactor that was first tested in the 1960s, so called because it used a mixture of liquid salts in its core.

It is touted as a potentially safer alternative to traditional nuclear reactors, as it operates at a much lower pressure and meltdown is impossible: if the core overheats, the salt mixture automatically falls into a containment chamber, where it solidifies. safe. In the core, radioactive thorium heats molten salt, which turns water into steam and drives a turbine to generate electricity.

These reactors have attracted interest in recent years and modern versions are being developed in several countries, including the United States, China, Canada and Denmark. However, it will be many years before they can be marketed or installed on ships.

A rendering of the cruise ship Sif, which would run on batteries charged with the electricity generated on Thor.

Ulstein Design & Solutions AS

The Reactor isn’t the only future technology Thor and Sif need, as the latter is meant to be equipped with solid-state batteries. This new type of battery is solid inside, rather than liquid like the lithium batteries we use today, providing greater capacity and better fire resistance.

These batteries are expected to power the next generation of electric cars, but they are also still in the development stage and widespread adoption could be a decade away.

Harnessing the possibilities offered by these technologies, Thor and Sif could revolutionize expedition cruises, a more adventurous type of cruise that targets remote or scenic locations such as Antarctica, the Arctic Circle, Greenland or the Galapagos Islands.

“If you’re restless lying on a deckchair, this is the cruise for you,” says Ulstein naval architect Torill Muren. “You get lots of great food and drink, but there aren’t flashy lounges like on a typical cruise because you don’t really need them. Instead, you get lectures to in learn more about the wildlife and the environment which you then get out and explore on your own.

Time limit

The Ulstein Thor is a proposed 500ft vessel that would be powered by a molten salt reactor.

The Ulstein Thor is a proposed 500ft vessel that would be powered by a molten salt reactor.

Ulstein Design & Solutions AS

By 2026, the West Norwegian Fjords – two long coastal inlets in southwestern Norway that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site – will be closed to cruise ships and ferries, allowing the access only to zero-emission vessels.

Similar regulations could come into force elsewhere in the world, accelerating the need to switch to cleaner shipping vessels: “Now is the time to introduce something for the future and start the discussion on technology, safety and regulations around [molten-salt reactors]because for some of the different ships around the world, at least those that travel very long distances, that may be the only way to reduce CO2 emissions,” says Muren.

Both Thor and Sif sport an unusual, swept-back bow that Ulstein calls the X-Bow, which has already been used in about 100 ships around the world.

Ulstein says that unlike a conventional bow, which rides up on the waves and then sometimes drops violently, this design makes the vessel more stable, with less splashing and slapping. The result is a smoother ride, reduced fuel consumption and less mechanical wear.

“Everything is smoother and the feeling of safety is much improved,” says Gjerde Kamsvåg. “We also find that ships equipped with X-Bow can maintain higher speed and use less power in the harshest weather conditions and provide a much improved experience, especially on cruise ships.”

Thor’s ability to generate its own electricity would also make it an ideal replacement for current power barges, a type of ship that functions as a floating power station to bring electricity to developing countries or disaster areas.

The ship is also equipped with drones and helipads, which would be useful in search and rescue operations. However, there is still a long way to go before the concept becomes a reality: “We could launch a fully operational ship in maybe 10 to 15 years,” says Gjerde Kamsvåg.


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