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Navy Prefers Using Commercial Yard to Dismantle Nuclear Carrier Enterprise

Enterprise nuclear carrier
Enterprise underway in 2004 (USN photo)

Published Jul 12, 2023 1:32 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy completed its environmental impact study designating the preferred alternative, which would spend up to an estimated $700 million and require five years with a commercial yard, to dismantle the decommissioned USS Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Last year, the U.S. Navy released its preliminary analysis on how to handle the decommissioned carrier refining the analysis by reviewing comments including from the public before selecting the preferred alternative for the disposal. 

The Navy contends that it needs to execute the proposed action to reduce its inactive ship inventory, eliminate costs associated with maintaining Enterprise in a safe stowage condition, and dispose of legacy radiological and hazardous wastes in an environmentally responsible manner while meeting its operational needs. Officially decommissioned six years ago, Enterprise represents the Navy’s first effort at disposing of a large nuclear ship and this project could set a precedent on how the U.S. Navy intends to handle the pending retirement of much of its first generation of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. 

In April 2022, the preplanning process began for the retirement of the USS Nimitz, expected to happen by 2026, and likely to be followed by her sistership the nuclear carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower in 2027. Further, the third ship of the subclass, the Carl Vinson, is also expected to follow shortly thereafter as she is only five years younger than the Ike. The carriers were designed for a 50-year career with a mid-life refueling.

Enterprise was the first U.S. Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and has been the pride of the Navy for 50 years from her commissioning in 1961 until she was decommissioned in 2017. The vessel for decades was the embodiment of the U.S. military might not only because of its size, which earned her the nickname “Big E,” but also due to her pioneering status as the centerpiece of the modern navy. The warship participated in critical missions including the blockade of Cuba during the 1962 Missile Crisis, a circumnavigation of the globe without refueling, participation in the early space program tracking John Glenn’s orbit in the Friendship 7 capsule, deployment during the Vietnam War and continuing to more recent roles in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

In the first phase of her decommissioning, the Navy addressed her eight reactors housed in four reinforced compartments. As part of the process, the nuclear fuel was removed from the reactors, but since then the ship has remained at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia. At its current location, workers are tasked with maintaining and inspecting the carrier undertaking tasks from protecting the vessel from water intrusion to addressing flaking paint, leaks, and other threats.

The Navy has been exploring for more than a decade how to handle the decommissioning of the nuclear fleet. On June 30, they published the 976-page report entitled, The Final Environmental Impact Statement /Overseas Environmental Impact Statement for the Disposal of Decommissioned, Defueled Ex-Enterprise (CVN 65) and its Associated Naval Reactor Plants. The report details the consideration of several alternatives ranging from continuing to hold the vessel, to using commercial yards to dismantle up to two-thirds of the vessel leaving the propulsion spaces with the reactors intact and sending them to the Navy’s public shipyards, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNS) and Intermediate Maintenance Facility (IMF), for final disposal. 

The report designates another alternative, having a commercial yard fully dismantle the vessel and pack the reactor plants and associated parts for shipment and disposal at a licensed facility. They estimate the disassembled eight defueled reactor plans and parts will require several hundred small containers for shipment. They point to other projects disposing of radioactive materials, such as retired power plants, the dismantlement of a U.S. Army barge Sturis containing a defueled nuclear reactor, and the dismantling of conventional carriers.

They designated the full commercial option as the preferred alternative based on five critical factors. Top on the list is the fact that contracting a private commercial shipyard is ideal owing to the strenuous workload at the Navy’s public shipyards. They concluded that the public yards are under pressure due to a growing workload due to a higher fleet operational tempo and capacity shortages, and have a primary mission to focus on the operational fleet.

“Leveraging options to perform Ex-Enterprise disposal at commercial facilities is advantageous to the Navy and allows PSNS & IMF to prioritize the limited public shipyard infrastructure and workforce for active fleet maintenance,” states the report. They conclude that the commercial dismantlement of Enterprise would allow the Navy to keep the specially trained and qualified workforce at the public shipyards focused on high-priority fleet maintenance work and submarine inactivations that are already part of its workload.

The other reasons are centered on costs, the time required to break down the ship, and the environmental consequences. In terms of costs, the Navy expects to save significantly considering it would cost $10 million annually to maintain the ship in a safe and environmentally acceptable manner if no action is taken. Partial dismantling at a commercial facility with the Navy responsible for the propulsion plant would cost between $1.1 billion and $1.3 billion and would take 15 years to complete. The Navy projects a cost of between $554 million and $696 million to contract a private commercial facility to break down the vessel and expects the work will require five years.

“Commercial dismantlement is estimated to be completed sooner and at a lower cost,” concludes the report.

If the Navy goes ahead with implementing the proposed action, Enterprise will be towed from the Newport News Shipbuilding to an authorized commercial dismantlement facility in Virginia, Texas, or Alabama. The U.S. Navy would manage all phases of the dismantling process.

Following the release of the final environmental impact statement, the Navy is required to give a minimum of 30 days for further public review and comment. After that, they will issue a Record of Decision, which will finalize the decision and the path forward for the task of dismantling the historic carrier.