Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP


  • On 9 August 2021 the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency published a Consultation on proposed merchant shipping regulations for nuclear ships. The proposed regulations cover commercial ships with nuclear propulsion systems.
  • The proposed regulations make amendments to ensure they continue to be flexible with changing SOLAS regulations and take into account future changes in nuclear technology.

On 9 August 2021 the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (Agency) published a Consultation (Consultation) on the draft merchant shipping (nuclear ships) regulations 2021 (Regulations). The Consultation seeks views from interested parties (Consultees) on the proposed Regulations which will transpose the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974 (SOLAS Convention) into UK law. The proposed Regulations only cover commercial ships with nuclear propulsion systems and do not cover barge-mounted reactors for power generation or floating nuclear plants. Responses to the Consultation will be accepted until the 5th of October 2021.

The SOLAS Convention was adopted in 1914 after the Titanic disaster, and it has been revised a number of times over the years. Currently 167 countries representing almost 99 percent of the world’s shipping by tonnage are signatories to the SOLAS Convention. All signatories to the SOLAS Convention, including the UK, are required to keep domestic law in line with the updates to the Convention. That requirement is the primary reason why the proposed draft regulations have been promulgated for comment. Additionally, climate change has placed more urgency on the subject. As the Consultation explains:

The UK is committed to enabling the adoption of new technologies that manufacturers and ship owners may choose to meet legal requirements relating to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore will establish a regulatory framework that will support nuclear-powered ships as an alternative fuel option.

The proposed Regulations set out the basic requirements for nuclear-powered merchant ships, with a particular focus on radiation hazards. The Regulations also reference a Code of Safety for Nuclear Merchant Ships that was adopted by the International Maritime Organization Assembly in 1981 in Resolution A.491(12) (the Nuclear Code). The Nuclear Code governs the approval of the installation of nuclear reactors, their suitability for use on board ships, the safety assessment of the nuclear plant and ship to prevent unreasonable levels of radiation, operating manuals and their adequacy to ensure safety levels, survey requirements and limitations due to the presence of radiation, the issuing of certificates for nuclear passenger ships and nuclear cargo ships, special controls prior to entering a port, and what to do when casualties occur.

The Nuclear Code, however, was written assuming that the propulsion unit would be a pressurised water reactor design, and is not at this time well-suited to advanced reactor designs, such as molten salt reactors. To address this going forward, the proposed Regulations include an “ambulatory reference provision” to ensure that any future amendments to provisions in Chapter VIII of SOLAS that are referred to in the Regulations are automatically implemented into UK law. They will also include provisions to allow amendments to the Nuclear Code to be included in UK law by publishing the changes in a Merchant Shipping Notice instead of enacting new legislation. These features should introduce flexibility and should streamline the process for updating the Regulations to accommodate advanced reactor designs.

Anyone may respond to the Consultation, but the Agency is particularly interested to hear from owners/operators of cargo and passenger ships, ports, terminals, shipbuilders, ship designers, UK’s Recognised Organisations, UK Government Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary and the Office for Nuclear Regulation. While Consultees are free to opine on any aspect of the proposed Regulations, the Agency has also provided a list of eight specific questions relating to, among other things, the likelihood of there being interest in new nuclear powered vessels, what design standards should be applied, and whether the proposed Regulations are fit for purpose.

The full Consultation package is available online at this link.

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