It will take nuclear energy for global shipping to hit net zero

Source: The post is based on the article “It will take nuclear energy for global shipping to hit net zero” published in Live Mint on 6th July 2023.

Syllabus: GS 3 – Infrastructure, Environment

Relevance: measures needed to achieve net zero in the maritime sector.

News: Shipping industry, which consumes about 5% of the world’s oil and emits about 3% of its greenhouse gases, is moving towards a net-zero target.

How is the shipping industry moving towards a net-zero target?

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations body responsible for regulating the maritime industry, is meeting in London to strengthen measures to reduce maritime carbon footprint.

A draft is being prepared that would commit the maritime sector to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. 

Rich countries along with Marshall Islands (operating one of the largest ship registries globally) are also supporting a carbon tax on shipping.

Whereas, China, a major global exporter, is working to rally developing nations to resist stricter measures on carbon emissions in the shipping industry.

What are the issues involved with the shipping industry in achieving a net zero?

The size and duration of ships’ journeys make it difficult to adopt the same technologies used in green power plants and cars. Only smaller ferries with short routes have the potential to operate on batteries or solar power.

Wind power is also unpredictable and scarce to meet the needs of the shipping industry. Even wind-assisted ships currently under construction are unlikely to have a significant impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

This means that there is a need for some sort of fuel for the shipping industry. Out of the various options being explored, nuclear power has the capability to make the shipping industry achieve a net zero.

How is nuclear power a suitable form of energy for the shipping industry?

Nuclear energy is already being used in powering numerous military submarines and aircraft carriers. This offers an established zero-carbon solution for the maritime sector.

Further, nuclear power would not be needed for all the merchant ships. Only about 17,000 large ships are responsible for around 80% of the sector’s greenhouse emissions.

According to a study, atomic ships were found to cost more by only 19% compared to the conventional vessels.

This makes them more competitive than other low-carbon fuel options and potentially cheaper than the current diesel-heavy fuel mix used in conventional vessels. However, there are also challenges present with nuclear energy.

What are the challenges present with adopting nuclear energy in the shipping industry?

Nuclear energy faces a significant challenge from the people, especially when it is related to oceans. For example, a protest emerged in Japan during the planned release of wastewater from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi atomic plant into the ocean.

Further, many countries restrict nuclear power on their territory. For instance, Italy and Denmark have strong anti-nuclear regulation.

Moreover, piracy risks for uranium reactors are also present because merchant ships don’t carry the arsenal that military vessels use to deter piracy. There are also issues with the leakage of the reactors, if any accidents happen.

What can be the way ahead?

There has been adoption of nuclear-powered ships which operate only on main routes between major ports. However, if achieving net-zero emissions in the shipping industry is a priority, nuclear energy needs to be adopted at large scale.

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