China Unveils World’s Largest Nuclear-Powered Container Ship

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China has unveiled plans for the “world’s first” nuclear-powered container ship, signaling a significant leap in maritime technology. The KUN-24AP, presented by Jiangnan Shipyard at the Marintec China 2023 exhibition in Shanghai, is poised to be the largest container ship ever built, boasting a load capacity of 24,000 standard containers, reports Intelligent Engineering.

Innovative power source: Molten salt reactor

The key feature of this monumental vessel lies in its propulsion system – a cutting-edge fourth-generation molten salt reactor utilizing thorium, a radioactive metal abundant and cost-effective in China. This marks a departure from traditional uranium reactors, offering enhanced safety and efficiency. Unlike uranium reactors that require copious amounts of water for cooling, the thorium-based reactor operates at elevated temperatures and low pressure, reducing the risk of meltdowns.

Military applications and secrecy surrounding the project

While the potential military applications of the technology remain undisclosed, unveiling China’s first thorium-powered reactor earlier this year sparked speculation. The reactor in the Gobi Desert is part of China’s ambitious efforts to develop advanced nuclear technologies, with scientists claiming its adaptability for various applications, including maritime use.

The design has already received international certification from the DNV Classification Society, instilling confidence in potential global buyers. Jiangnan Shipyard’s initiative aligns with growing concerns about climate change and energy conservation in the shipping industry, as highlighted by Maritime China: “The proposed design of super-large nuclear container ships will truly achieve ‘zero emissions’ during the operation cycle of this type of ship.”

While China is not the first to explore nuclear-powered container ships, its design dwarfs previous attempts by shipbuilders in Japan, the United States, South Korea, and Europe; China’s rapidly advancing shipbuilding industry is responsible for over 60 percent of global new ship orders this year, positions the nation as a leader in maritime technology, including advanced naval capabilities.

Thorium-based molten salt reactor: A technical breakthrough

The KUN-24AP’s thorium-based molten salt reactor, developed independently by China, claims to introduce innovation that surpasses previous nuclear-powered cargo ships like the United States’ NS Savannah. The reactor’s design offers advantages such as lower circuit pressures, enhanced safety features, and the ability to be swiftly stopped in case of an accident, minimizing potential risks.

One notable design aspect is the nuclear ‘battery,’ a replaceable component that addresses concerns related to fuel costs and refueling challenges. However, challenges, including the use of fluorinated salt as a medium and potential environmental impacts, must be addressed for successful implementation.

A test ship for nuclear aircraft carriers?

The unveiling of the KUN-24AP has sparked discussions among military enthusiasts, with some speculating on its potential role as a precursor to nuclear-powered military vessels. However, the maintenance interval of the thorium-based molten salt reactor presents challenges for military applications, raising questions about the feasibility of adapting the design for combat ships.

China’s unveiling of the KUN-24AP marks a pioneering step toward sustainable shipping, aligning with global efforts to reduce emissions in the maritime industry. While challenges and speculations surround its military applications, the innovative design positions China at the forefront of maritime technology, paving the way for a new, clean, and efficient transportation era.

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Source: Intelligent Engineering

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