The Navy is trying to figure out how to dispose of the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier

Military Tech
Preserving the Legend of USS Enterprise

The Navy plans to decide by late 2022 how to dispose of the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and likely will turn to the private sector for help, documents show.

The former USS Enterprise, now rusted and gutted, sits pier-side at Huntington Ingalls Newport News shipyard, where it was built and launched amid great fanfare more than 50 years ago.

It remains to be seen whether HII will be involved in disposal of the Big E. The Navy has scheduled a public meeting June 18 in Newport News to hear comments on different options as it develops an environmental impact statement.


The ship's fate has been an open question for a few years.

Since the early 1990s, the end of the line for aging nuclear warships has been Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Wash. But that yard has handled older cruisers and submarines.

Disposing of Enterprise is a first-of-its-kind job, and the Navy has re-examined its traditional Pacific Northwest strategy with eye toward cutting costs and saving time.

The alternatives currently on the table:

  • Dismantle Enterprise at a commercial ship-breaker except for the naval reactor compartments. Those would go to Puget Sound for processing and disposal. The compartments would be divided into eight packages — one for each nuclear reactor — and shipped to the Department of Energy's (DOE) Hanford site in eastern Washington, the longstanding facility for disposal of naval reactor compartments.
  • The same process as the first, except the naval reactor compartments would be divided into four heavier packages, not eight smaller ones
  • Dismantle Enterprise at a commercial ship-breaker, then cut apart the eight reactor plants into segments and package them into several hundred small containers for storage at an established DOE site or a licensed commercial waste facility.
  • Keep the Enterprise intact and mothball it. That would require "periodic maintenance to ensure storage continues in a safe and environmentally responsible manner," according to a Navy document.

The third option is of particular interest to Hampton Roads.

The USS Enterprise under way in 2004 (U.S. Navy/Photographer's Mate Airman Rob Gaston)

The Navy did not go into detail, but documents list the commercial sites for that alternative as Newport News and Brownsville, Texas, which is a hub of ship recycling.

Towing the Enterprise to Brownsville would be less expensive than transporting it around the tip of South America to Washington state, a necessary route because the ship is too large for the Panama Canal.

The third alternative also identifies three disposal locations, including DOE's Savannah River Site, a nuclear reservation in Aiken, S.C. The site is operated and managed by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions LLC, which includes Newport News Nuclear, a HII subsidiary.

Newport News Shipbuilding did not offer specifics on its involvement, other to say that it "remains committed to support the Navy" as plans proceed.

A draft environmental impact statement would be available in early 2021, according to a Navy timeline. A final statement is scheduled to be released in summer 2022, and the Navy expects to select an alternative that fall.

A storied history

The Enterprise, also known as CVN-65, served the country from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its final combat deployment came in 2012. Its configuration of eight reactors made it unique, the only ship of its class. Even today, CVN-65 commands a loyal following.

In 2018, the Government Accountability Office said using commercial industry to dismantle the ship could benefit the Navy.

If the Navy went the traditional route at Puget Sound, GAO pegged the cost at between $1 billion and $1.55 billion, with work starting in 2034.

A full commercial option would be $750 million to $1.4 billion and the work could start 10 years earlier.

At present, Puget Sound is recycling three submarines and 14 are awaiting recycling, said spokesman Matt Bailey.

"The pace of recycling has been fairly consistent in recent years," Bailey said in an email. The facility "averages about two reactor compartment disposals shipped annually."

It takes about a year to inactivate a sub and another 18 months dispose of the reactor compartment and recycle the vessel, he said.

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©2019 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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