How Long Can Nuclear Ships Go Without Refueling?

Nuclear power has revolutionized the way ships operate, allowing them to stay at sea for extended periods of time without the need for refueling. Submarines were the first to benefit from this technology, with food supply becoming the only limitation for their time at sea. Since then, similar technologies have been developed to power aircraft carriers and other vessels. The power of the reactor ranges from 10 MWt (in a prototype) to 200 MWt in the largest submarines and 300 MWt in surface ships, such as Kirov class battlecruisers.

A figure of 550 MWt each is quoted for two A4W units on Nimitz class carriers, and these supply 104 MW of axle each (USS Enterprise had eight A2W units of 26 MW of axle and was refueled three times). Gerald Ford class aircraft carriers have more powerful and simple A1B jets that are reportedly at least 25% more powerful than the A4W, therefore around 700 MWt, but which drive a ship that, apart from steam turbine propulsion, is fully electric, including an aircraft launch system electromagnetic or a catapult. Consequently, the boat has approximately three times the electrical capacity of the Nimitz class. Ford class A1B reactors are designed for refueling over an average operating life of 50 years.

For use in shallow waters such as estuaries and rivers, two 18,260 deadweight Taymyr-class shallow draft icebreakers were built in Finland with a 171 MWt KLT-40M reactor supplying 35 MW of propulsion and then equipped with its nuclear steam supply system in Russia. The nuclear reactors that power some aircraft carriers typically consume their nuclear fuel at about half of their desired 50-year lifespan. Once a reactor core has become critical, meaning that it has been used during the operation of a reactor, highly radioactive nuclear fission products have formed in the core, and the core has become highly radioactive. The nuclear fleet, with six nuclear icebreakers and a nuclear cargo ship, has increased navigation in the Arctic from 2 to 10 months a year, and in the Western Arctic, to the whole year.

CGN then signed an agreement with the National Marine Petroleum Corporation of China (CNOOC) apparently to provide energy for offshore oil and gas exploration and production, and to “boost the organic integration of the offshore oil industry and the nuclear power industry” according to CNOOC. Refueling the USS George Washington is a very costly task because the aircraft carrier is powered by two A4W nuclear reactors. Time periods between RoHS on a ship have historically varied from approximately 5 to 20 years (for submarines) to 25 years (for Nimitz class aircraft carriers). Argentina's Bariloche Atomic Center is considering similar plans for a nuclear-powered TR-1700 submarine. They, Taymyr and Vaygach, were built to meet international safety standards for nuclear craft and were launched in 1989 and 1990, respectively.

The United States Navy has accumulated more than 6,200 years of accident-free reactor experience, with 526 nuclear reactor cores over the course of 240 million kilometers without a single radiological incident over a period of more than 50 years. The smallest nuclear submarines are the six French Rubis class attack submarines (2600 dwt) in service since 1983, and they use a CAS48 reactor, a 48 MW integral PWR reactor from Technicatome (now Areva TA) with 7% enriched fuel that requires refueling every 7-10 years. This marked the transition of submarines from slow underwater vessels to warships capable of withstanding between 20 and 25 knots submerged for weeks. These two reactors, according to The Encyclopedia of Ships, drive four propellers that produce a maximum speed of 30 knots. The widest 33 m beam at the waterline will coincide with the 70,000 ton ships for which they are designed to clear the way, although some ships with reinforced hulls already use the North Sea Route.

Nuclear propulsion has proven to be technically and economically essential in the Russian Arctic, where operating conditions are beyond the capacity of conventional icebreakers. The KLT-40S is a four-loop version of the icebreaker reactor for floating nuclear power plants that runs on low-enriched uranium (.

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