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Israeli-Owned Shipping Firm Sponsors Nuclear Propulsion R&D

Container ship with Safety First label on the bow
File image courtesy Zodiac Maritimer

Published Dec 20, 2023 2:29 PM by The Maritime Executive

Israeli-linked shipping firm Zodiac Maritime is working with Korean and British partners to investigate how nuclear-powered propulsion systems could be installed aboard merchant vessels.

UK-headquartered, British-staffed, Israeli-owned Zodiac Maritime has a fleet of 130 ships and 20 more on order. It is looking to reduce its environmental footprint, and most of its future deliveries will be dual-fuel LNG powered. But its newbuilding division is also working with LR, KSOE and KEPCO to look at the potential opportunity for decarbonizing operations with an onboard nuclear powerplant. 

“The shipping industry is on an exciting but challenging journey as we transition towards a zero-carbon future. There is clearly great potential for nuclear technology to play a key part in achieving this mission, but the industry is only in the early stages of putting nuclear power to the test," said newbuilding director Stavros Hatzigrigoris in a statement. "We are therefore thrilled to partner with HD KSOE, KEPCO and LR on this JDP and help facilitate the research and development needed to accelerate nuclear power technology in shipping.”

Under the joint project, KSOE and KEPCO will formulate design options for nuclear-powered vessels and reactor powerplants. LR will evaluate the requirements for safe operation and regulatory compliance. The target is to design a nuclear ship that has a total lifecycle cost less than half that of other carbon-neutral vessel types. The design package and regulatory analysis will allow Zodiac to evaluate specifications and voyage-specific planning needs for nuclear technology. 

The project is one of many new-generation nuclear propulsion projects under way, but there is one additional consideration: maritime security. Zodiac's ships have been targeted multiple times by possible Iranian or Iranian-linked actors; Iran often attacks and harasses merchant ships linked to its geopolitical opponents, using the results for messaging or leverage. 

Last month, the Zodiac-managed tanker Central Park was boarded and seized by unknown assailants in the Gulf of Aden, a regional hotbed of Iran-linked Houthi interference and Somali piracy. (No group took responsibility, and the U.S. government said that Somali nationals were involved.) Two days earlier, the Zodiac-operated boxship CMA CGM Symi was hit by a Iranian-built Shahed 136 suicide drone in the Indian Ocean, an American official told AP. 

In 2021, two people were killed aboard the Zodiac-managed tanker Mercer Street when it was hit by a drone strike off Oman. UK, US and Israeli officials suggested that there was a high likelihood of Iranian involvement, though Tehran denied responsibility. 

Previous risk analyses have identified piracy and terrorism threats (real or perceived) as potential hazards of nuclear-powered shipping. "The [nuclear] vessel could possibly . . . be used as a target by a missile, the objective being to create panic from many sources. Alternatively, blocking a sea lane with a nuclear-propelled ship might be seen as a propaganda coup, with the target being impact on trade, finance and stock markets, as well as panic to the local population," cautioned researchers John Carlton, Vince Jenkins and Bob Smart at an LR symposium in 2010.