Nuclear Ships Could Make A Comeback

Nuclear Ships Could Make A Comeback
February 7th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Nuclear Ships Could Make A Comeback

Nuclear Ships Could Make A Comeback
San Diego Union-Tribune
February 7, 2008
Pg. 1
By Steve Liewer, Staff Writer
Back in his days as a Navy sailor, Dave LaFave loved working aboard nuclear-powered ships.
“There was no smell of gas fumes. It was a cleaner atmosphere,” said LaFave, 68, of Bainbridge Island, Wash. He served as an engineer's mate on the cruisers Bainbridge and Long Beach.
Those vessels spent time home-ported in San Diego as part of a Navy experiment with nuclear surface ships that started in 1961.
Because such cruisers and aircraft carriers never needed refueling, they could travel quickly to trouble spots and stay there as long as needed. The Navy prized these advantages, but the Pentagon came to see them as costly luxuries.
The experiment with nuclear cruisers ended a decade ago, killed by cheap oil, the crushing expense of atomic technology and the difficulty of recruiting, training and keeping specially trained crews in the slimmed-down, post-Cold War Navy.
Today, the Navy's nuclear fleet consists of only aircraft carriers and submarines.
But the equation could change soon. Prompted by higher fuel prices, the Pentagon may greenlight a comeback for nuclear cruisers and perhaps other surface ships. Defense analysts said some of those vessels would surely wind up in San Diego because the Navy is shifting much of its forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific, where it perceives the growth of terrorism and other threats.
“The cost ratios have changed dramatically since the 1970s and '80s,” said Scott Truver, a national-security expert for the defense contractor Gryphon Technologies in Greenbelt, Md.
Truver moderated a panel on shipbuilding yesterday at the annual West 2008 conference at the San Diego Convention Center. The event is one of the largest military trade shows on the West Coast.
In December, Congress approved a resolution calling for all future Navy ships to be outfitted with nuclear propulsion. The measure also requires the president to justify any decision to build conventionally powered vessels.
Senior Navy leaders are reviewing a recently completed study by the Center for Naval Analyses that looks at several options for building nuclear ships. Officials for the Navy and the center declined to discuss the report's findings, but plenty of well-connected ex-officers said the nuclear option is worth considering.
“Two years ago, I would have said 'no way,'” said retired Vice Adm. Timothy LaFleur, who once led the Naval Surface Forces command and now works for a defense consultant in San Diego. “I think the scales are beginning to tip.”
Despite bipartisan agreement in Congress, the construction of more nuclear surface ships faces an array of obstacles. Money is by far the biggest.
Adding a nuclear reactor to a conventionally powered ship would cost $600 million to $800 million, according to a 2006 study by the Naval Sea Systems command. That is a premium of 22 percent to 80 percent, depending on the type of ship.
In addition, defense experts said, it costs more to staff nuclear ships compared with diesel-electric ones because the Navy must find sailors who are able to master the highly technical requirements for a nuclear fleet.
“You're looking at a different quality of kid to be a petty officer on a nuclear ship,” LaFleur said.
When a nuclear ship reaches retirement age, the Navy must go through a dangerous and expensive disposal process because the vessel's reactor is contaminated with radiation.
“You have to pay a lot of money to get rid of them,” said Norman Polmar, an independent analyst who writes books about the Navy. “From birth to death, they're expensive.”
While the Navy would save plenty in fuel costs, an analysis last year by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service indicated nuclear ships in most classes probably would still cost more unless oil prices climb significantly. But given that prices have risen five-fold in the past decade, that prospect no longer seems unthinkable.
The only class of ships that looks cost-effective are cruisers – medium-sized escorts for aircraft carriers whose main role is anti-aircraft defense.
San Diego's fleet of 45 Navy ships includes seven Ticonderoga-class cruisers launched from 1987 to 1994. The Navy is on the verge of replacing its 22 Ticonderogas with a fleet of 19 cruisers called CG(X) by 2023.
The Defense Department's latest budget, released Monday, proposes building the first CG(X) in 2011 and the second in 2013. Pentagon officials have projected the cost of the first ship at $3.2 billion – without nuclear power.
Installing atomic reactors would not only raise the price but also delay the ships' delivery, said Rear Adm. Stanley Bozin, the Navy's budget director.
“Our concern is that we'd like to get new cruisers. We need to get them as soon as we can,” he said.
The question of going nuclear is coming at a time of unparalleled pressure on the Navy's shipbuilding budget. The service is struggling to boost its fleet from 279 ships to at least 313 in the next 20 years. Defense analysts have said the increase will require a substantial boost in annual construction funds above the current level of about $11 billion.
At the same time, the Pentagon is straining to fund two wars, replenish an Army and Marine Corps whose equipment has been worn down by combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, replace the Air Force's aging aircraft and pay for ballooning medical costs.
“If you really want more ships, going nuclear right now isn't the way to do it,” Bob Work said during yesterday's shipbuilding panel. He is a vice president for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan research group.
The Navy has experience with atomic power, having launched its first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, in 1954 and its first carrier, the Enterprise, in 1961.
Nuclear ships don't give off greenhouse gases, supporters boast, and modern reactors can offer 30 or more years of uninterrupted service.
Supporters of nuclear ships include Jerry Fulk of Bonita, who worked as chief engineer and then executive officer aboard the Bainbridge during the Vietnam War. Because the cruiser didn't need refueling, it could steam farther from port and closer to North Vietnam, carrying out its job of detecting enemy aircraft.
“There was no need for us to leave our (duty) station,” said Fulk, 73, who retired as a Navy captain in 1986.
LaFave, the former Bainbridge sailor, still regrets that the Navy retired its nuclear cruisers.
“It was mind-boggling to me,” said LaFave, who retired from the Navy in 1978 as a master chief petty officer and later worked at a shipyard helping to dismantle the ships he once served on. “I'd be a strong supporter of bringing them back.”
Copley News Service reporter Paul Krawzak and staff librarian Denise Davidson contributed to this report.

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