China is trying to make maritime history by announcing its plans to develop the “world’s first” nuclear-powered container ship. And it’s not trivial; if successfully built, this thing would be huge and could represent a new era of nuclear-powered vessels.
The KUN-24AP was unveiled at the Marintec China 2023 exhibition in Shanghai by Jiangnan Shipyard, though at the time of writing, details about this futuristic vessel remain obscure. For one thing, there is only one image of it in circulation, a digital model demonstrating the ship’s size and scale (it will apparently have a load capacity of 24,000 standard containers). However, the unveiling also offered some insights into what could make KUN-24AP special, other than its enormity.
Revolutionary propulsion for sustainable shipping?
According to its developers, KUN-24AP will have a cutting-edge propulsion system, with a molten salt reactor that uses thorium as fuel. Thorium is a radioactive metal that is much more naturally abundant than uranium and is cheaper to use. As such, its use in the new shipping vessel would mark a dramatic departure from conventional nuclear-powered ships, as thorium can operate at elevated temperatures and low pressure, thus requiring less water for cooling and posing a lower risk of meltdowns.
At present, the vessel is intended for commercial use, but, as with all nuclear technologies, it raises obvious concerns about its dual-use potential. That is – is China planning to use the same technology for military purposes?
Although this remains a possibility, there are good reasons to think any applications would be limited. Importantly, thorium-based molten salt reactors require more frequent maintenance intervals. which would be impractical for many military purposes. Instead, Jiangnan Shipyard describes the nuclear-powered vessel as an attempt to address the growing concerns surrounding climate change and energy conservation in the shipping industry. As Maritime China explained: “The proposed design of super-large nuclear container ships will truly achieve 'zero emissions' during the operation cycle of this type of ship."
China has been working on thorium-based reactors for some time, even after other countries had given up. Thorium-based molten salt reactors have had a contentious history, but China has already developed one in the Gobi desert that was licensed earlier this year.
The KUN-24AP reactor is meant to offer a range of benefits, including lower circuit pressures, enhanced safety features, and the ability to quickly cease operations if there is an accident.
But despite the claims that this new vessel will usher in a new era of nuclear-powered commercial shipping, there are still issues to resolve. Firstly, there are questions about the efficiency of a reactor that uses fluorinated salt as a medium and whether the reactor poses any potential environmental impacts. Only time will tell if these concerns hold water.
Nevertheless, the announcement may well put China at the forefront of maritime technology and could signal a massive tide change for future commercial shipping.