Nuclear-powered Shipping - The Future?

According to the International Energy Agency, international shipping accounted for roughly 2% of all global emissions in 2022 and is expected to rise dramatically by 2050 - as high as 17% by 2050.

Given such a dramatic increase in potential emissions from a single sector, a United Nations agency, International Maritime Organization (IMO) said, “the regulatory agency for the global maritime sector… set a goal of halving annual greenhouse gas emissions from maritime shipping by 2050 from 2008 levels.”

However, the shipping sector poses a unique challenge that other industries don’t. Namely, due to the size of the crafts used to freight goods across our ocean and the distance of the journeys themselves, many low emission or green energy alternatives won’t work.

At Anthropocene Institute, we would like to throw the nuclear hat into the ring on the issue, as we believe that nuclear, a fossil-free energy source, can and should be the future power source for our maritime shipping.

The inherent limitations of green energy sources for shipping

The average modern freight ship can consume as much as “63,000 gallons of marine fuel per day” at top speeds. To put that into perspective, the average American vehicle consumes “656 gallons” in an entire year. That means that per annum, a single freighter's carbon footprint equates to roughly 35,000 road vehicles alone.
To make matters worse, there are currently few green or less carbon-intensive fuel options available on the market for freight liners, due to a combination of both cost and viability.
“To create a zero-emissions shipping fleet, “new fuels will need to be developed along with novel propulsion systems, upgraded vessels and an entirely new global refueling network,” the International Chamber of Shipping said in a recent report.
There have been attempts to trial new fuel sources, “including batteries, sustainable biofuels, and green or blue hydrogen and their derivatives such as ammonia and methanol,” however various manufacturers have found that these fuel sources equal roughly 2-3x the cost of current fossil fuels used specifically for marine transportation.
In fact, a study conducted by Boris Stolz and Maximilian Held at ETH Zürich, found that even if you allowed for a 3 percent cargo reduction and assumed ships could carry the amount of fuel they needed for each journey, modern day “lithium-ion batteries could only cover a small number of voyages,” while chemical fuels like ammonia, methane, methanol would “be around two to six times greater” in cost.

The growing pressure to make shipping “green”

Despite these challenges, there is mounting pressure from international organizations and national lobby groups to make shipping more environmentally friendly. Notably, the United States and Saudi Arabia have committed to working towards the IMO's greenhouse gas reduction goals, while the European Union contemplates the inclusion of the shipping industry in its emissions trading scheme.
However, these measures fail to address the fundamental challenge of finding viable non-fossil fuel energy sources for shipping.
The European Trading System alone (ETS), aims to mandate that “shipping companies have to purchase and surrender (use) EU ETS emission allowances for each tonne of reported CO2 (or CO2 equivalent) emissions in the scope of the EU ETS system.”
While this has been set up in a staggered fashion to allow for a gradual transition, with shipping companies only having to surrender allowances for 40% of their emissions reported in 2024, and then 70% of their emissions reported in 2025, these measures do not address the fundamental challenge of the sector - the viability of non-fossil fuel energy sources.
However, there is a silver bullet that has not been given nearly enough attention, even though it’s a fuel source that already powers some maritime vessels today.

Nuclear energy - the unconsidered maritime fuel source

USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) was the world's first nuclear aircraft carrier. Decommissioned in 2013, it served for 51 years, longer than any other aircraft carrier. (Courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command).
USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) was the world's first nuclear aircraft carrier. Decommissioned in 2013, it served for 51 years, longer than any other aircraft carrier. (Courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command).

Nuclear energy - the unconsidered maritime fuel source

Since the 1940s, nuclear-based propulsion systems have been used to fuel vessels which were required to both be at sea for extended periods of time and not be reliant upon combustion-engine predicated fuel sources. These were none other than nuclear submarines.
And today, nuclear fuel has been transposed onto other above-water vessels, including ice breakers and even aircraft carriers used by the military in a variety of different countries.
The United Kingdom alone has “12 submarines, all nuclear powered” while the U.S. “had built 219 nuclear-powered vessels by mid-2010.”
UK nuclear submarine layout (Source: World Nuclear Association)
UK nuclear submarine layout (Source: World Nuclear Association)

It is worth noting, as well, that the US Navy alone “has accumulated over 6200 reactor-years of accident-free experience involving 526 nuclear reactor cores over the course of 240 million kilometers, without a single radiological incident” in a fifty-year span.
Comparing this to fossil-based transportation, “an average of 1.8 large oil spills from tanker incidents every year in the decade from 2010 to 2019.” As such, the advantages of nuclear-powered maritime vessels are readily apparent:
  • Lower emissions: While most ships use HFO or marine diesel to operate, SMRs use nuclear fission to generate electricity. This results in zero carbon emissions and could make SMRs a particularly attractive option for shipping companies looking to reduce their carbon footprint.
  • Energy efficiency: Compared to traditional fossil fuel-based power systems, SMRs can generate the same amount of power with less fuel, reducing the overall cost of running a ship. Additionally, SMRs can operate for longer periods of time without the need for refueling, which can reduce a ship’s stay in port.
  • Improved safety: SMRs are built to withstand extreme weather conditions and other challenges that ships may encounter when at open sea. Additionally, as SMRs are self-contained units, they do not require the transportation or storage of large amounts of fuel, which can reduce the risk of accidents and spills. This could make them a particularly attractive option for shipping companies operating in sensitive or remote areas.
Read the source here!
Given these obvious benefits, many businesses and even nations have started to give nuclear the look-in it deserves.
“Korean industry majors, led by shipping heavyweights HMM and Sinokor, have joined forces on the development of nuclear-powered ships” with the goal of simultaneously exploring the potential of nuclear power for nuclear ships, while also investing in raising the standards for safety and security of these vessels.
Even in Europe, there are entrepreneurial innovations ramping up in the mercantile shipping industry, as Core Power, a high profile developer of nuclear propulsion for merchant ships is working on developing a commercially viable SMR reactor that can be used to power freighters rather than using a combustion engine.


Nuclear power has often been stigmatized and sensationalized as a fuel source similar to fossil fuels.
However, whether used in conjunction with other alternative fuel sources or as part of a comprehensive industry transition, SMR nuclear reactors could be the fossil-free fuel source of the future, a pivotal step towards achieving net-zero emissions before 2050.
For more information on this topic, please visit our website.
  • Tabitha Kimani

    31 w

    The shipping sector is a serious polluter. Nuclear power should be advanced to decarbonize this industry.

    • Paul Klinkman

      34 w

      Every nuclear-powered ship is an unhinged terrorist's wet dream. Just set the ship to go as supercritical as possible while docked in an enemy port city and the city will stay evacuated for centuries, just like the city of Chernobyl has stayed. Who writes these articles?

      • Jehannes Ros

        19 w

        @paul_klinkman that is nonsense, you have no clue how nuclear reactors work. With what knowledge do you come up with that fantasy.

      • Gary Blair

        34 w

        Great concept and agree as excelent fuel source, but it will end up causing many absolute disatrous situations in the hands of greedy private enterprise companies.

        • Jehannes Ros

          19 w

          @gary_blair do not agree, it will be highly regulated and continues monitoring. Or not sail.

        • mercy nduta

          35 w

          Shipping needs nuclear power to solve Its emissions problems.

          • George Kariuki

            35 w

            Nuclear-powered shipping has the potential to play a major role in the transition to a net-zero emissions future.


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