UK Government eyes nuclear powered merchant vessels with late consideration of IMO codes

The UK government has issued a consultation paper asking for comments on proposed legislation for nuclear powered merchant vessels. It is one of the first proposals to give a nod towards what many see as a controversial fuel choice for shipping. The proposed legislation is part of the UK coming up to speed with adopting SOLAS Chapter VIII and the nuclear code of the IMO which was agreed in 1981.


The consultation paper from the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency points to potential for discussions at the International Maritime Organization and the possibility for the UK to object to any IMO amendment of SOLAS (the safety of life at sea convention), notably chapter VIII. 


While the consultation is open, the text makes it clear that while the UK government wants to allow nuclear as an avenue to decarbonise shipping, it is highly sceptical of nuclear powered ships either on the UK flag or in its waters in the near term, but says this is a provisional first step to allow them.


“At present , the UK does not have any nuclear ships on its flag and has not ever had any on the flag. There is a potentially lengthy time associated with the design and build of a nuclear reactor and a bespoke vessel to accommodate this. The MCA is unaware of any existing or upcoming plans for a nuclear ship to be built in the UK and the likelihood of such a ship being constructed here is quite low given that the UK has never had a nuclear ship on its flag. It is therefore assumed that there will be no nuclear vessels registering in the UK over the appraisal period, resulting in no additional costs to industry.”


The IMO’s nuclear code, and therefore the proposed legislation the UK is developing, focuses on nuclear reactors as a power source for merchant ships and does not cover naval vessels, nor does it cover barge mounted nuclear reactors.


A key element of the regulation however is that when the IMO code was written the prevailing nuclear technology was pressured water reactors, and it was asumed this was the technology that could be adpated to become a power source for ship propulsion. However in recent years a new technology – molten salt reactors – has emerged. 


The UK and IMo texts o however allow for amendments int he future as new technologies emerge.

The UK Consultation period ends October 5th 2021



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