The US Navy begins the slow and delicate process of scrapping the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Nimitz.

For the US Navy, the tiny atom has been a great friend. Nuclear power allows Navy aircraft carriers and submarines to stay at sea for long periods, limited only by the stamina of their crews.

But nuclear-powered ships have a downside: how do you get rid of them when they’re no longer needed? Although most ships end up for scrap, dismantling a radioactive plant is another matter entirely, especially if it is on a giant aircraft carrier.

At the beginning of April, the Navy published a pre-call notice announcing that Huntington Ingalls’ Newport News Shipbuilding division would determine what was needed to decommission the USS Nimitz. When it originally entered service in 1975, the Nimitz was the first of 10 Nimitz-class ships that would eventually make up the bulk of the United States’ active aircraft carrier fleet.

If the United States decides to demolish the Nimitz, it will be the country’s second nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The USS Enterprise was the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier when it entered service in 1961. The Navy has only begun the multi-year process to safely dispose of Enterprise, despite decommissioning it in 2017.

The USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf in June 2003.

A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier like CVN 65 [USS Enterprise] is a multi-year project with a cost potentially in excess of $1 billion, while most of the Navy’s decommissioning and disposal work in the past has been comprised of relatively low-cost projects, particularly submarines, with limited resource demands. The GAO calculated that scraping a nuclear submarine would cost around $26 million.

The issue is not that Navy personnel lack experience with nuclear-powered ship decommissioning. In 1954, the United States Navy debuted the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. (The Soviet icebreaker Lenin debuted in 1957 was the world’s first nuclear-powered surface ship.)

The GAO reports that since 1990, the Navy has inactivated more than 130 nuclear-powered ships, which entails removing nuclear fuel and the reactor compartment. The Navy constructed nine nuclear cruisers and aircraft carriers and submarines in the 1960s and 1970s. The USS Arkansas was the last of these to be decommissioned in 1998.

However, a much more ambitious project would be to demolish a hundred-thousand-ton aircraft carrier. It would be an understatement to say that the procedure is not technically and administratively challenging.

A disposal site with cruise reactors and Los Angeles-class submarines in Hanford, Washington in November 2009

The EPA has a dedicated page on its website explaining the procedure in detail.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “maintenance and monitoring of the radioactive parts” are performed by the Department of Defense. In accordance with Department of Transportation rules, the barge carried components to a disposal site under the watchful eye of the Navy or Coast Guard. The Department of Energy’s Hanford, Washington, facility will house some of the reactor’s components in secure vaults.

“There is no reason for the civilian population to be exposed to any risk from nuclear submarines or from landfills where dismantled reactor compartments are stored,” the EPA reassures.

The Enterprise and the Nimitz are two quite distinct ships, despite being constructed within a few years of each other. A Navy spokesman clarified that their disposal needs may vary. The United States’ approach to their extinction, however, will serve as a template for the elimination of other nuclear-powered vessels.

 The Navy has nine other Nimitz-class carriers and a newer Ford-class carrier in service, and at some point, they will have to be scrapped.

However, the Navy still hasn’t decided who will scrap the Enterprise six years after decommissioning. Overworked to the point where they can’t even trash old battleships, navy yards are struggling to keep up with routine maintenance on current vessels.

The Navy stated in 2022 that Enterprise would be decommissioned and dismantled outside of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. According to a draft environmental impact statement released on a dedicated Navy webpage on aircraft carrier dismantling, the private shipyard will most likely be in Alabama, Texas, or Virginia.

As onerous or complicated as it may be, the Navy will have to come up with a workable process for scrapping the giant nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The Navy now operates 11 aircraft carriers, six of which, including Nimitz, have been in service for more than 30 years. Plans call for constructing at least four additional Ford-class ships, including another Enterprise.

Whatever the outcome of the Enterprise and Nimitz scrapping process, it will be the farewell to two of the most famous warships in American history.

During the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, the Enterprise symbolized American technological superiority. The USS Nimitz pioneered a new generation of aircraft carriers that saw post-Cold War service worldwide, making it an instant cultural icon in the 1980s. If she were to vanish tomorrow, it would be the end of an era.

Michael Peck