In its waning days, the USS Enterprise may hold opportunities for the shipyard that built it
By Robert McCabe
You can make out their distinctive profiles – massive, gray, flat-topped hulls, each with an “island” bearing big-block numbers – from miles away, such familiar sights as to be nearly taken for granted.
Yet they’re the Navy’s crown jewels, five of them based in Hampton Roads.
Since the 1920s, more than 60 U.S. aircraft carriers have been built, 30 of them at Newport News Shipbuilding. Among the more famous – maybe the most famous – was the USS Enterprise, “The Big E,” the world’s first nuclear-powered carrier, launched in September 1960.
Today, it’s back where it was built, in the home stretch of defueling its reactors – the first phase in the process that will lead to its eventual dismantlement.
Even in the face of its own impending demise, as it were, the ship may be breathing life back in the direction of its creator, positioning the shipyard for a business opportunity as big as the Enterprise itself: helping to break down and dispose of carriers and their reactors – not just building, defueling and refueling them.
The shipyard won a $745 million Navy contract for the inactivation of the Enterprise three years ago and is expected to complete the defueling work around next spring. Because it’s the first nuclear-powered carrier to be “inactivated” – prepared for its pending disposal – it presents a new set of challenges to its builder and the Navy.
“We’re learning a lot,” said Chris Miner, vice president of in-service carrier programs at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding.
The yard has its eye, down the road, on the inactivation of the carrier Nimitz. The lead ship in the class of 10 nuclear-powered carriers is scheduled to start that process in about 2025.
Because none of the conventionally powered carriers that moved into retirement before the Enterprise posed radiological issues, they wound up all over the place. Many were simply scrapped; some were sunk deliberately as targets or for other purposes, like creating a reef. Some are now museums or in play to become one.
The Enterprise has to be disposed of very differently because of the eight nuclear reactors in its midsection, which even after defueling, still bear some radioactivity.
The first step requires removing the fuel, a process with which the Newport News yard is very familiar.
It has refueled the Enterprise three times during its career, as well as refueling four of the 10 Nimitz-class carriers launched since 1972. The fifth in the class, the Abraham Lincoln, is nearing the end of that process now; the sixth, the George Washington, is next.
Newport News also has significant experience refueling nuclear submarines and has been involved in some of their inactivations as well.
“There’s a lot of similarities in some of the work, but it is different because instead of refueling the ship, you’re actually positioning it for disposal,” Miner said.
Four years ago, the Navy planned to tow the defueled Enterprise around South America, to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Wash., the proverbial graveyard for Navy nuclear-powered ships.
After the Enterprise’s arrival in Bremerton, its reactors would be removed and moved via barge to a Department of Energy site in Hanford, Wash., to be deposited in a special trench.
The rest of the vessel would be recycled in Bremerton.
Two years ago, however, the plan began to shift.
In May 2014, the Navy issued a request for information, an invitation to industry to brainstorm about how best to dismantle everything on the Enterprise except its nuclear reactors and related propulsion spaces.
In recent emails to The Pilot, the Navy said the 2012 plan, as first laid out, had been rethought.
The Enterprise dwarfs the defueled submarines commonly recycled at the Puget facility: At sea, the carrier displaced more than 95,000 tons of water, compared with the 7,800 tons of a Los Angeles-class submarine.
When the Navy began to do the math, it became clear that doing the complete recycling of the Enterprise at Puget wasn’t going to work, affecting the yard’s ability to do the highest-priority fleet maintenance work it’s charged with executing.
Once that picture came into view, the Navy shifted its focus to commercially recycling the non-nuclear sections of the Enterprise and isolating its eight reactor plants and related spaces, sealing them into a unit it calls a “propulsion space section.”