Flat White

Nuclear: a powerful future

14 May 2022

12:00 PM

14 May 2022

12:00 PM

As a Merchant Navy navigator, I knew the range and durability of my ship were intrinsically limited to the fuel capacity.

In the late1960s, and as the new junior third officer of the elderly cargo-passenger ship the Francis Drake, we berthed in Yokohama opposite to the world’s first nuclear cargo-passenger ship Savannah – a superb yacht-style vessel. It was the Marilyn Monroe of the shipping industry! 

At 1600 hrs, when Savannah’s passengers started returning from their shore excursions, I made the move. Dressed in full uniform and carrying a large envelope marked ‘ORDERS’ (containing a handwritten Chinese takeaway list), I started my brisk march across the pier.

Despite the official crowd, including security staff, at the bottom of the Savannah’s gangway, I marched purposefully through them and straight up the gangway. Bluff used to work then. Nowadays you need a badge, a gun, a peaked cap, and an Alsatian dog.

The bright orange Art Deco style of the upholstery and space-age styling of the lounge and reception areas made our old 1948 built ship look like a floating relic out of a bleak Charles Dickens novel.

It was only a few minutes later that they realised I was an impostor, apprehended me, and then politely escorted me off the vessel despite my protests that I had mistaken their ship as mine.

The Savannah was a showcase of American President Dwight Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ initiative. Considering that during the post second world war period the very mention of the word ‘atom’ made people instinctively hold their heads and duck, this particular initiative was a good one.

Around the same time, the Germans built the Otto Hahn and the Japanese built Mutsu, both were nuclear powered. The 164 metre Otto Hahn managed to clock up 250,000 sea miles (11 trips around the world) on a very impressive 22 kilograms of uranium – with no greenhouse gas emissions!

No other power system comes close to nuclear.

Success stories are generally short-lived. The bean-counters within the US Administration decided that losing $2 million a year was not worth it and the Savannah was mothballed.


This was in 1973 when oil was $20 a tonne. The US Administration had no idea that just one year later, the Arab oil embargo would quadruple fuel oil to over $80 a tonne. Although this is small change indeed by today’s standards.

Savannah was capable of circling the earth 14 times at 20 knots without refuelling. Nowadays, a similar 14,000kW of installed power would cost around US$49 million in fuel alone.

America, Japan, and Germany have decommissioned their nuclear vessels. Even the Otto Hahn was re-engineered and operated successfully as a cargo vessel. The Russian nuclear cargo vessel Sevmorput was built 20 years after Savannah and is reported to be operational within Russia. America and Russia still have a number of nuclear-powered warships and submarines that have proven unmatched operational range and safety.

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard tried to open the debate on nuclear energy as Australia was ideally situated to develop a nuclear industry. He failed.

It was not a smart move to close down the nuclear engineering faculty at the University of NSW, but with government bans put in place compliments of the ever-unhappy Greens and Labor, what else could they do?

In 2019, the NSW government bi-partisan committee endorsed a repeal of the 1986 ban on uranium mining and nuclear power. Technology, particularly its safety aspects, had improved significantly. Those interested should join the ANA (Australian Nuclear Association), which is a source of sensible discussion on nuclear power. 

Small Modular Reactors (SMR’s), adapted from military vessel installations, are the latest development in nuclear technology. They have a lower cost and far lower risk of pollution. These are being put on barges and plugged into remote cities in Russia. As most of the Australian population can be found in towns around the coastline, why not copy this success in Australia? This country has abundant sources of uranium and thorium, while being politically and geologically stable.

For Australia as a nation, nuclear power makes sense. This is doubly true now that we have committed to nuclear submarines and must restart our nuclear engineering faculties at universities and train up local workers.

Australia has a unique opportunity here, but is the leadership prepared to grasp the nettle and move from rhetoric to action?

There are many nuclear ships around the world. The very construction of these ships, even if there is an accident or incident, makes them a much safer bet than older shore installations such as Chernobyl. Despite press panic, at Fukushima there was only one confirmed death caused by the nuclear facility, seven years after the Tōhoku earthquake. In contrast, there are 19,747 recorded deaths, 2,556 people missing (assumed deceased), and 6,242 serious injuries from the tsunami.

We don’t need the ABC giving oxygen to the malcontents with their ritual belching of misinformation.

We do need many more people with vision to stand up for what is good for our country.

As a nation approaching an election at the same time when we are watching Europe and the UK go through a world of pain with a lack of affordable power, should we be committing to renewables or nuclear?

Boris Johnson has finally increased the nuclear power plant building ten-fold as announced last year.

As a ship designer, I can confirm that nuclear is the blatantly obvious answer, but there is an absence of dialogue on ‘vision policies’ by our potential leaders. 

Be careful who you vote for!

‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’ – Proverbs

 

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