Six years after decommissioning USS Enterprise, the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the U.S. Navy is still figuring out how to safely dismantle the ship. The General Accounting Office estimates the cost of taking apart the vessel and sending the reactors to a nuclear waste storage facility at up to $1.5 billion, or about one-eighth the cost of a brand-new aircraft carrier.
The USS Enterprise was commissioned in 1961 to be the centerpiece of a nuclear-powered carrier task force, , that could sail around the world without refueling. The fleet was a symbol of the Navy’s global reach and its nuclear future. During its 51 years in operation, the Enterprise served in the Cuban Missile Crisis blockade, the Vietnam War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Navy decommissioned Enterprise in 2012 (don’t worry, the third carrier of the new Gerald R. Ford class will be named Enterprise, so the name will live on) and in 2013. The plan was to scrap the ship and remove the reactors, transporting them by barge from Puget Sound Naval Base down the Washington Coast and up the Columbia River, then trucking them to the Department of Energy’s Hanford Site for permanent storage.
However, after decommissioning the cost of disposing of the 93,000-ton ship soared from an estimated $500-$750 million to more than a billion dollars. This caused the Navy to put a pause on disposal while it sought out cheaper options. Today the stripped-down hull of the Enterprise awaiting its fate.
Now, according to (PDF), the Navy has two options. The first is to have the Navy manage the job but let the commercial industry do the non-nuclear work. The Navy would allow industry to scrap the non-nuclear parts of the ship but preserve a 27,000-ton propulsion space containing the reactors. The propulsion space would then be transported to Puget Sound Naval Base, where the reactors would be removed and sent to Hanford. This is the most expensive option, costing a minimum of $1.05 billion up to $1.55 billion and taking 10 years to complete, starting in 2034.
The second option: let commercial industry do everything, with a reactor storage location to be determined. This would cost $750 million to $1.4 billion and would take 5 years to complete, starting in 2024. In either event, most of the ship gets turned into razor blades and flatware. (By comparison, a squadron of 10 F-35C Joint Strike Fighters costs $1.22 billion, and a brand new Burke-class guided missile destroyer .)
The GAO report paints the commercial option as faster and cheaper, though there are a number of unknowns. Nobody knows where the hull will be dismantled under the commercial plan, nor where the reactors would be sent. Although the Navy believes disposing of the reactors will be fairly straightforward, no one has dismantled a nuclear-powered carrier before.
Compounding the issue is a “not my problem” intergovernmental dispute. The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, the arm of the Navy concerned with nuclear power, says the federal could oversee a commercial effort. But the NRC says Navy nuclear reactors are not its job. It’s not clear exactly why NNPP doesn’t want the job, although it currently has a backlog of 10 submarine reactors and two cruiser reactor to deal with (which is probably why a Navy effort won’t start until 2034). Ultimately, according to the GAO, it may take Congress to make a decision.
Whatever the Navy ends up doing, this will only be the first of many nuclear-powered carrier disposals. USS Nimitz is set to retire within the next ten years, and there are ten ships in the class. These will age out every four or five years for the next forty years, and each has two reactors. The Navy must get Enterprise’s teardown right, because the orders are going to start stacking up.