Fincantieri Launches Nuclear-Propulsion Study With Newcleo
Fincantieri and RINA have signed an agreement on nuclear propulsion research with Newcleo, a British/Italian startup focused on small lead-cooled fast reactors.
The agreement covers a feasibility study on the integration of Newcleo's technology in a merchant ship application. The company's modular, closed reactors would provide 30 MW of output with reactor replacement every 10-15 years, with low maintenance between replacements and limited maintenance.
According to the consortium, nuclear power could provide a viable option for resolving the thorny question of decarbonization. IMO's net-zero by midcentury target will be difficult and costly to meet with current technologies and fuel supply chains, but nuclear power might be able to help.
"Nuclear power holds enormous potential and, as such, it needs the best expertise to be expressed, and we are proud to join with partners like Newcleo and Rina to help get this done," said Pierroberto Folgiero, CEO and General Manager of Fincantieri.
Newcleo has raised more than $440 million so far to support its R&D, and it launched a $1.1 billion fundraising round in March. It is led by some of the most prominent nuclear physicists in the field, including Chief Scientific Officer Luciano Cinotti. Cinotti served as chairman of the Lead Fast Reactor Steering Committee of the Generation-IV International Forum on next-gen reactor technology, and he is the author of most of the world’s lead fast reactor-related patents. The company was founded by a nuclear physicist and entrepreneur, CERN veteran and Elysia Capital founder Stefano Buono.
"I am delighted that we are launching a project for civil nuclear naval propulsion with this important feasibility study. Fincantieri and RINA are two global leaders in the shipping sector, and combining their expertise with our technology innovation can bring a real solution to the issue of carbon emissions in maritime transport," said Buono in a statement.
Like all nuclear power systems, lead-cooled fast reactor technology's promise is accompanied by certain technical, supply chain and public-perception challenges. Newcleo's application uses mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, which is made from plutonium recovered from waste nuclear powerplant fuel or from nuclear weapon stockpiles. MOX can be viewed as an environmental advantage, since it consumes a waste product, and for this reason it is considered a sustainable power source in the EU. MOX is in common use in shoreside nuclear plants in Europe and has a consistent safety record - but aside from its technical merits and qualifications, its plutonium content draws public scrutiny. A federal plan to manufacture MOX fuel in the United States was ultimately scuttled: the Trump administration canceled a contract for a $5 billion MOX plant in South Carolina in 2018, despite Republican opposition. At present MOX is only manufactured in Europe, though Newcleo has plans to expand its production.
Fuel choice aside, lead-cooled fast reactors also have a unique technical feature: they require either operation or external heating to prevent the lead coolant from solidifying into a single mass. This is an inherent passive safety feature, as Newcleo highlights. With Newcleo’s design, the liquid lead would cool and solidify if it ever came in contact with cold water, enclosing the reactor core in a solid casing and containing all radioactive components inside. However, a cool-down can also render the expensive reactor module unrecoverable. In part for this reason, maritime experimentation with lead/bismuth-cooled reactor propulsion has so far been limited to a single class of Russian submarines; the first hull was scrapped after a leak caused its reactor to solidify, and the last was decommissioned in 1996. According to the Generation-IV Forum, a modern pool-type reactor design (like Newcleo's) can provide an "effective and definitive solution" to this issue.