View Full Version : Ditching the aging nuclear fleet creates a budget drain

07-05-07, 09:25 AM
<TABLE cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=0 width=500 align=center border=0><TBODY><TR><TD>http://media.hamptonroads.com/media/content/pilotonline/2007/07/rick500x325.jpg
</TD></TR><TR><TD class=arial align=middle>The submarine Hyman G. Rickover returns to Norfolk Naval Base from its last deployment before its decommissioning in December. STEPHEN M. KATZ/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT

</TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>http://media.hamptonroads.com/images/space.gif By JACK DORSEY, The Virginian-Pilot
© July 4, 2007

For more than two decades, the Hyman G. Rickover plied the North Atlantic and other oceans, stealthily traveling the equivalent of 26 times around the world. The nuclear-powered sub and its crew of 160 sailors packed torpedoes and missiles to help keep Cold War foes in check and support ground troops in the war on terror.

The Rickover will soon face its demise when it is shredded into millions of pounds of recyclable steel and lead, plus lesser bundles of aluminum, brass, bronze, copper and zinc. Only its radioactive “heart” will be spared the cutting torch, instead being shipped west to be buried for at least the next 600 years beside 115 other nuclear core reactors.

The Rickover cost $900 million to build; it will cost another $30 million to discard. It is among a number of seasoned nuclear vessels the Navy has decided, mainly for cost reasons, to replace, and the sea service will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to do so.

The Navy has designated 18 nuclear-powered ships it wants to scrap over the next 10 years at a cost of about $30 million each. The most expensive will be dismantling the carrier Enterprise, scheduled for 2012. It could cost more than $1 billion. It is the first nuclear-powered carrier, commissioned in 1961.

Ditching the aging nuclear fleet creates a budget drain on the Navy, which has an ambitious – and expensive – plan to modernize the fleet with high-tech war ships. Congress gave it $15 billion to spend on the program next year.

Deactivated in a ceremony in Norfolk on Dec. 14, the 362-foot Rickover sailed to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine to begin a long demise.
For traditionally powered ships – those with oil-fired steam plants or diesel engines – it’s relatively easy to cut them up, sink them or sell them to another nation’s navy.

Not so with a nuclear-powered ship or submarine.
The Navy has been authorized 224 nuclear-powered vessels through March 2006. For the crew of the Rickover, dismantling their home – removing still useful equipment – is a hard and humbling task.

“There is some amount of sadness, as I certainly have poured my blood, sweat and tears into forming the crew,” said Cmdr. Robert E. Cosgriff of Chesapeake, the Rickover’s commanding officer prior to his recent relief.
Speaking by phone from the Maine shipyard where about 85 crew members remain with their ship, Cosgriff said the crew remains proud of the Rickover even as it gets torn apart.

“We are off loading 23 years worth of things that have gone onto the ship, including tremendous amounts of supplies and logistics,” he said. Refrigerants, oils, pots, pans, mattresses and everything reusable will be recycled to other submarines or returned to the supply system.

Removal of valuable gear, including nuclear fuel, is scheduled to be finished in November or December. The Rickover will be towed in early spring 2008 through the Panama Canal to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash., Deb White, a shipyard spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

There, the Rickover will be moored at the Inactive Nuclear Ship Storage Facility until the disposal process begins. Fifteen other defueled nuclear-powered ships are in floating storage at Puget Sound, White said.

Once the ship is dry-docked, workers will cut the 33-foot diameter submarine shell into three sections . The reactor compartment – the middle section – is a hulk measuring 42 feet long and weighing 1,680 tons.

Tracks with rollers are installed beneath the submarine to allow the sealed reactor package – containing cobalt-60, lead and PCBs – to be slid away from the ship once it is cut free.

The two ends not containing the reactor will be cut up and sold for scrap.
Standard cutting equipment – torches, hand-held saws, pipe-cutters and grinders – is used to sever the several feet of steel in front of the shielded reactor compartment. Three-quarter-inch -thick steel end bulkheads will be welded in place to protect the radioactive core.

Once the safety measures have been completed, the entire assembly, containing low-level radioactive waste, is placed on a reinforced barge and towed by an ocean tug 310 miles through Puget Sound, then down the Washington coast to the Columbia River and to the Port of Benton at Richland, Wash.

The trip takes about three days.

That worries Jim Puckett, a spokesman for the Basel Action Network, which works to prevent chemical crises.

“We are not happy to see this type of shipment over water,” he said. “If we had our preferences, it would be to very carefully manage them over land.”
The Navy said a barge wreck is unlikely because of the strong barge and other safety factors, such as the use of two tugs, one as a backup; experienced crews; and a Coast Guard escort.

Also, welds attaching the reactor compartment to the barge are designed to withstand maximum wind forces, and the strong exterior of the package can withstand severe accidents, according to the Navy.

If a barge did sink, a buoy would float to the surface along with an emergency locating beacon. Then the sunken reactor compartment could be retrieved, the Navy said.

There are no reports of a barge sinking with a reactor aboard, according to the Navy.

When a reactor has reached its destination, it is transported over land about 26 miles to a trench at a Hanford Nuclear Reservation site burial lot. The lot is on a plateau about seven miles from the Columbia River.

Hanford is 586 square miles of flat desert. Eight burial sites are located on 518 acres. It received its first reactor core in 1986.

The burial trench is 30 feet deep. The reactor package, when buried, must be designed to resist corrosion for at least 300 years, according to regulatory requirements the Navy says are demanded by a number of agencies, including the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency.

The Navy says its reactor packages are designed to last at least twice that long.

“After burial, direct radiation at the land surface will be insignificant (i.e. below detectable levels) due to the low contact radiation fields on the package and the shielding effect of the soil cover,” the Navy said in a 1999 document titled “U.S. Naval Nuclear Powered Ship Inactivation, Disposal and Recycling.”

The overall plan for disposing of radioactive material at Hanford is under frequent review by officials in Washington state and Oregon.

Issues associated with Hanford include leaking, non military underground storage tanks and the site’s active nuclear power plant, said Diana Enright, a spokeswoman for Oregon’s Department of Energy.

“We have to have safety drills because if there was ever an accident there, it potentially would affect two of our counties in the northeast part of the state,” Enright said.

For more than 40 years, the government produced plutonium for nuclear weapons at the Hanford site, generating enormous amounts of radioactive and chemically hazardous wastes, according to a report by the Oregon Energy Department that was updated in July 2006.

Hanford’s 177 waste storage tanks now hold more than 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste. Sixty-seven of these tanks have leaked an estimated 1 million gallons into the soil, with some reaching the groundwater . The waste eventually will reach the river, which flows through the Hanford site, the report said.

The Navy realized in the late 1970s that it would need a deactivation program for its nuclear-powered ships, according to the 1999 report by the Navy Sea Systems Command.

It evaluated two basic options: one using its current method and the other sinking the entire defueled submarine in the ocean.
While the Navy has lost two nuclear submarines – the Scorpion and Thresher – in accidents, it says it never intentionally disposed of them on the ocean’s floor.

The former Soviet Union secretly disposed of about 16 submarines by sinking them in the northern oceans, said White, the Navy’s spokeswoman in Maine.
“After the end of the Cold War, Russia simply parked many older submarines in floating storage without any effort to remove nuclear fuel or radioactive material,” White said. Several other published reports tend to agree with the Navy’s statements.

The United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, Japan, Germany, Australia and the United States are helping to pay for Russian nuclear submarine dismantlement.

Russia now has a plan that follows the U.S. policy of cutting out the reactor core and placing it in a storage facility ashore. However, fuel may be “mothballed” afloat too, according to a Feb. 28 report in the Russian Defense and Security that said reactor compartments are not cut out but are filled with air.

In France, the reactor compartment from the first French nuclear-powered submarine has been removed and placed in a storage building next to the dry dock at the Cherbourg shipyard, White said.

The French plan is to let the radioactivity decay for 20 years, then further dismantle the reactor compartment and ship the pieces to a French radioactive waste site, she said.

In the U.K., the government has not been able to reach national agreement on what to do with the nation’s decommissioned nuclear-powered submarines, White said. The nuclear fuel has been removed and the ships inactivated, similar to the work on the Rickover, she said.
Still, critics are wary.

“You’ve got a nuke Navy so you will have difficult disposal issues,” Puckett, of BAN, said, “and they are all coming home to roost.”

Researcher Ann Kinken Johnson contributed to this report.