Is the Future of Cruising . . . Nuclear?

At the annual Seatrade Cruise Global conference, industry leaders explored the pros and cons of nuclear-powered cruise ships as cruise lines aim for carbon neutrality by 2050.

A black-and-white ice breaker ship sailing in royal-blue waters

Nuclear power has already been used on ships such as ice breakers that operate in polar regions.


Could your next cruise be on a nuclear-powered ship? Perhaps, if you’re willing to wait a decade or more. Though the fuel tech may seem somewhat far-fetched, it shouldn’t be discounted just yet, according to several industry leaders who spoke during a panel discussion at the Seatrade Cruise Global conference in Miami earlier this month.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations agency that regulates global shipping, has set a target for the cruise sector to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Consequently, ship manufacturers are assessing their options for zero-emission fuels, and nuclear power is one of them.

It’s worth noting that nuclear-powered shipping has been around for decades, but its use has been limited primarily to naval vessels due to the cost and the public perception that nuclear propulsion isn’t foolproof. In the late 1950s, however, the U.S. government funded the construction of the NS Savannah, a nuclear-powered combination cargo-passenger ship.

Named for the first steam-powered ship to successfully cross the Atlantic, in 1819, the ship’s early history was marred by labor disputes and unfavorable press about minor shutdowns of the reactor due to routine operational upkeep. Early operators also found it difficult to run the ship for both passengers and cargo, and the passenger accommodations were shut down after only a few years to reduce labor costs. Additionally, the ship was more expensive to operate—for a variety of factors, many design-related rather than nuclear-related—than conventionally fueled ships. For economic reasons, the Savannah was deactivated in 1971 and has been moored as a museum ship in Baltimore, Maryland, since 2008.

Among the several important takeaways about nuclear-powered ships learned from the operation of the Savannah, the largest was safety concerns. The Savannah often required special permits to dock in foreign ports, and certification processes were lengthy. Even today, some countries, like New Zealand, have total bans on nuclear-powered ships in their territorial waters.

So, if it’s so difficult, why consider it? The emissions reductions are attractive, for one. Nuclear power produces no greenhouse gas emissions, so replacing a fossil fuel–burning ship with a nuclear-powered one effectively cancels that ship’s carbon output.

Nuclear power is relatively straightforward. A small amount of enriched uranium emits heat, which is used to drive a steam engine that can power a ship’s propulsion and onboard electricity. That small amount of uranium can power the ship for decades before it’s spent, freeing up space on the ship that would normally be used to carry conventional fuel.

Andrew McKeran, chief commercial officer at Lloyd’s Register, a U.K.-based maritime consulting firm, noted during the Seatrade panel that the industry’s perspectives on carbon emissions have been quick to evolve. “Fifteen years ago, we said we’d never see LNG [liquefied natural gas], and now we have it.” LNG is arguably a cleaner-burning alternative to the crude-oil–based fuels powering many current-generation cruise and cargo ships, although the verdict is still out as to whether LNG is ultimately cleaner and greener than traditional maritime fuel due to the energy-intensive production method for LNG.

The industry is also working on other cleaner technologies, like hydrogen-powered fuel cells (which essentially create cleaner energy using chemical reactions, but the technology is still in its infancy and hasn’t been scaled to produce large amounts of power), so any nuclear ambitions by shipbuilders or engine makers are merely in the paper stage at this point.

Tobi Menzies, director of business development at Core Power, a maritime energy company developing new nuclear technologies for use at sea, said the industry may not have to wait to build brand-new fully nuclear-powered ships.

“Where I see nuclear potentially fitting in [to the cruise industry] is a potential future retrofit. Cruise ships have relatively long lives, and they already undergo periodic refits to update passenger amenities. It could be possible to envision rebuilding the power source to be nuclear [during a regular refit],” Menzies said during the panel.

Rebuilds, he said, wouldn’t be as costly or take as long as converting the ships entirely to nuclear power. “Think of the vessel as having two parts—propulsion, and the rest of the ship. It would be possible to refit the ships with nuclear just to power [a ship’s] onboard electricity needs,” noted Menzies. This solution would significantly reduce carbon emissions without requiring the much more intensive work of completely changing the fuel system that drives the ship’s propulsion.

William Burke, chief maritime officer at Carnival Corporation—which in addition to Carnival operates several of the industry’s largest cruise brands, including Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Cunard Line, and Seabourn—cautioned during the discussion that the cruise industry may not be the space for nuclear providers to innovate.

“I would say it’s not a reasonable power source for the cruise industry in the near- to mid-term—it’s reasonable for other shipping much sooner than cruise,” said Burke.

One reason cruise lines are hesitant to embrace nuclear power is that getting passengers to board a ship with a nuclear reactor on it will likely be a hard sell, following well-publicized nuclear accidents. The accidents have been rare, and nuclear power has been a safe source of electric power in many countries for decades, but fear of an accident, like a radiation leak or meltdown, persists. Menzies admitted that passenger perception is a major hurdle.

“We understand that public perceptions of nuclear fear are mixed,” he said, adding that there are “misplaced fears around legacy nuclear.” But, he said, a newer generation of guests might be less encumbered with prejudice about nuclear.

That’s in part because travelers are becoming more environmentally conscious, with sustainability efforts and green initiatives increasingly driving their booking decisions.’s Sustainable Travel Report found that over three-quarters of survey respondents wanted to travel more sustainably. Menzies noted that European cruisers and younger cruise passengers in particular are concerned about their carbon footprints when they travel.

“The eco-conscious element of cruise is only going to grow,” Menzies said. Which could mean that the willingness of travelers to embrace more outside-the-box fuel technology such as nuclear will continue to grow as well.

Scott developed a passion for travel during frequent childhood trips between homes in Anchorage, Alaska, and Kaua’i. A former travel agent and airline industry veteran, he has been writing about travel for the past eight years, and is a frequent contributor to TravelPulse, TravelAge West, TripSavvy, and Conde Nast Traveler.
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