Nuclear submarines

Dear readers: it’s not that I am unconcerned with the COVID-19 virus and its impacts, the plural really does matter, on our lives, it’s just that I have nothing useful to add to the discussion. I ask you all to follow the recommendations given to us by medical professionals. 

So, to go on about something which I do understand, just a bit, I saw an item on Army.ca, regarding air-independent propulsion (AIP) systems for submarines which, in turn, sent me to an article in the Canadian Naval Review which proposed using the Canadian Safe LOW POwer (K) Critical Experiment, or ‘Slowpoke-2’ nuclear reactor to retrofit Canada’s Victoria class submarines and give them a better under-ice capability.

But my attention was, mainly, on the comments provided to the article by JMCanada. who said, “Fortunately, the Canadian nuclear sector continues and microreactor studies for remote locations are being developed …[and] … There are two PWRs [pressure water reactors] rated 6.4 MWe and 9.0 MWe respectively. These are the type of reactors typically used in submarines. It is interesting also to note that pseudo ‘solid state,’ pump-free, heat pipe reactor technology is capable of delivering power from 0.2 to 5 MWe at low temperatures (600ºC).

That led me to this short, very informative and easy to understand video about Small Modular Reactors produced by Ontario Power Generation and then to Global First Power‘s explanation of how its (Canadian) Micro Modular Reactor works. I recommend you take a look at both.

Victoria_3Our Victoria class submarines were built in the late 1980s and very early 1990s. They are, now 30 years old. It seems to me that upgrading them with an AIP system is a bit late. We also have only four of them and it also seems to me that Canada, with a three ocean navy, needs eight to 12 submarines.

I believe that the Government of Canada needs to commit to rebuilding the Canadian Forces, especially the Royal Canadian Navy, and that an important part of that rebuild should include a fleet of about eight to 12 nuclear-powered submarines, probably built in a foreign yard but using Canadian made modular reactors that do not need refuelling but may need replacing after 20 years, during each submarine’s (normal) half-life refit.

Nuclear power is still a scary topic for many Canadians. Even though nuclear-powered submarines have been operated, mostly safely (Russia being the exception), for 65 years by several navies, including Britain, France and India, and even though nuclear-powered surface ships have been operating almost as long, many people remain confused and frightened by the prospect.

There is one serious problem with nuclear reactors: the safe, very long term storage of spent nuclear fuel. Currently, the fuel is carefully removed from nuclear submarines and surface ships and shipped to special storage facilities. This is similar to the techniques used, today, in Canada to store the spent fuel from power reactors. The business of keeping spent fuel safe, for decades, generations and centuries is still being studied. The really long term, millennias-long, solution appears to be  “disposal in a deep geologic repository.” The locations for such deep geologic repositories need to be in earthquake free zones (i.e. not near a tectonic fault line) and as near as possible to large reactors to reduce the risks of transportation.

In so far as nuclear submarines go,  but this also applies to nuclear power in general, in Canada, I see two problems, one relatively simple and one very, very difficult:

  • The first, easy problem is the whole business of the safe operation of nuclear egypt-cairo-pyramids-of-giza-and camels-2reactors, for a variety of purposes, and the safe disposal of spent fuel. It’s an engineering problem. We, humans, have been solving difficult engineering problems for thousands and thousands of years. There is no reason to believe that we will not solve the remaining few related to the safe operation of nuclear reactors in the very near future;
  • The second is much more difficult because it is political and it involves telling Canadians the truth about nuclear energy and about our national defence, too. Canadians have an unreasonable fear of nuclear energy, fed, in some large measures, by green propagandists aided by a media that is, too often, technically illiterate.

Canada needs nuclear energy to play an increasingly large role in our own efforts to combat global climate change.

Canada needs to export nuclear technology and nuclear fuel to e.g. India and others who need to do a lot more to get away from burning coal.

Canada needs to rebuild its military power and that means rebuilding our three ocean Navy and it needs a larger fleet of eight to 12 modern, under-ice-capable submarines and nuclear submarines are the best for that task.

 

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