Last of the nuclear merchantmen

We've had requiems for the Queen Mary and the Ile de France. But who will mourn retirement of the last atomic- powered merchant ship -- West Germany's Otto Hahn?

As it heads for the scrapyard, it ends an "era" that never got beyond the experimental phase. All that remains of the once grand dream of atomic-powered shipping are three Soviet icebreakers, a fourth icebreaker being built for Canada, and the warships of the nuclear navies -- none of which have to be commercially viable.

The vision of nuclear merchantmen running of "cheap" atomic power, with little time out for infrequent refuelings, was a delusion. Nuclear merchantmen are neither cheap to run nor particularly welcome in port. Only about 30 ports around the world would admit the Otto Hahn. It has sailed mostly between Germany, South America, and West Africa. Costs of operating the ore carrier have been running to five times its annual earnings in shipping grain, iron ore, and phosphate, according to a report in New Scientist.

The West German government has subsidized the Otto Hahn as a prototype "demonstration" vessel. However, neither the Ministry for Research and Technology nor German industry wants to pay the $28 million to refuel the ship's reactor. So she is to be scrapped.

In a decade of service, the Otto Hahn has satisfactorily carried out her research mission and proved the reliability of the nuclear propulsion system, according to Volker Hauff, West German Science Minister. You can say as much for the defunct N.S. Savannah, the US prototype nuclear freighter. However, Japan's Mutsu, the only other nuclear merchant vessel, never sailed in earnest. She was the object of intense public opposition. When she did elude blockading fishermen briefly in 1974, her reactor exhibited such serious radiation leaks it had to be shut down.

Nevertheless, as oil prices rose in the 1970s, it looked for a while as though the age of nuclear shipping had come. In 1974 the US Maritime Administration was offering construction subsidies for nuclear ships. Studies in Europe and America suggested that, as fuels costs rose above $6 or $7 per barrel, ship owners would find it cheaper to split atoms. And in 1977 Globtik Tankers U.S.A. signed "a letter of intent" with the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company to build three 600,000-ton nuclear tankers.

Little has come to this. On the contrary, West Germany appears to have abandoned plans for a nuclear-powered container ship. GKSS, the company that develop the Otto Hahn propulsion system, said last October that present oil prices would have to triple for nuclear freighters to be profitable.

With oil prices still rising, a nuclear ship enthusiast might continue to say the era of such ships is dawning. But with that dawn so slow in brightening and public suspicion of nuclear reactors at an all time high, it looks more as though the concept of nuclear shipping has had its day.

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