Research & Development

Maritime / China Unveils Plans For ‘Largest Ever’ Container Ship, Powered By Thorium Reactor

By David Dalton
5 January 2024

Ultra-large nuclear vessel designed to achieve zero emissions, says Beijing

China Unveils Plans For ‘Largest Ever’ Container Ship, Powered By Thorium Reactor
The KUN-24AP, would be powerd by a thorium-based Generation IV molten salt reactor. Courtesy Jiangnan Shipyard.

China has unveiled plans for a nuclear-powered container ship expected to be the largest ever built, powered by a thorium reactor and boasting a load capacity of 24,000 standard containers.

Jiangnan Shipyard, a division of state-owned China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), said the KUN-24AP, featuring a thorium-based Generation IV molten salt reactor, would prove safer and more efficient than the uranium reactors currently used to power warships.

China has an abundant supply of thorium meaning that it could be a cost-effective low-carbon alternative for shipping and other industries.

CSSC said in a social media post: “This type of ship has high safety because the reactor operates at high temperatures and low pressure, meaning it can avoid in principle core melting.

“The ultra-large nuclear container ship is designed to truly achieve ‘zero emissions’ during the ship’s operating cycle,” CSSC said.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post said China got its first experimental thorium-based molten salt reactor running earlier this year. The newspaper said most countries have abandoned efforts to develop thorium reactors because of the complexity of the technology.

China has released little information about the reactor possibly because of its military applications, the Post said.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, China announced the completion of the reactor in August 2021.

Built in the middle of the Gobi Desert in the country’s north, the reactor had been undergoing testing.

If the experiment proves successful, Beijing plans to construct another reactor potentially capable of generating electricity for more than 100,000 homes, the IAEA said.

‘Thorium More Abundant, Efficient’

China is not alone in its intentions to reap thorium’s unique properties. In the past, India, Japan, the UK, the US and other countries have demonstrated enthusiasm for research into the possible application of thorium in nuclear power. The appeal of this metal is its potential to be a more abundant and efficient substitute for uranium, the dominant nuclear fuel.

Christopher Wiernicki, chairman and chief executive of classification society the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), said in a magazine article last year that nuclear energy has the potential to be “a disruptor” for the marine industry, transforming not only vessel operations but entire supply chains and the entire “ship-to-port interface” by providing electricity to land-based or port-related marine services, an industry leader said.

He said third and fourth generations nuclear reactors hold much promise for shipping and the advantages stretch beyond zero-carbon operations.

An ABS study showed that the adoption of advanced nuclear reactors onboard a large containership would eliminate the need for refuelling of the vessel during its entire 25-year lifespan.

Wiernicki said the study showed why the industry cannot afford to ignore the vast potential offered by nuclear propulsion both in terms of emissions reduction and operational efficiency.

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