All-Nuke, All the Time

AW1 Tim sends in an alert regarding the Bath Iron Works that our peerless leader drove by the other day. It seems that the House spending plan for 2008 says that the Navy must consider nuclear propulsion for future surface ships.

Right now, only Grumman’s yards in Norfolk, Va are qualified to construct the atomic surface vessels. General Dynamics yards — which includes BIW in Maine and Ingalls in Mississippi are not; though the Electric Boat yards in Groton Connecticut are in charge of building nuclear subs, and are also part of General Dynamics.

If the Navy did go with more nukes for the surface fleet — by no means certain — then there are three options — for bath to build the ships and have Electric Boat in Groton put in the glowing green stuff, have the work go to Grumman in Norfolk, or else certify Bath for putting in the reactors themselves. All of these have drawbacks, it seems. Grumman is already busy with the carriers and whatnot, and certifying non-nuclear capable shipyards would likely be a hassle, and expensive to boot.

But is this really an issue? According to the article, Navy Secretary Winter says that they are looking at a nuclear power option for the next-generation cruiser. But it might be too expensive. A 2006 study estimated that a nuclear warship would cost in the ballpark of 600-800 million more than an equivalent conventional ship. That’s not quite chump change even for our profligate armed forces procurement entities. Apparently, the Navy wouldn’t break even on fuel costs unless oil went up to (and stayed up to) $225/barrel.

The article goes on with more arguments from political types, but what is the value of nuclear powered surface combatants, really? For subs, I think most would agree that the nuclear option just makes sense. But do we need more nuclear wessels? We’ve got our atomic carriers, and we did have nukey cruisers, but retired the last of those back in the nineties, according to FAS.

The reason that the CGN’s got axed was apparently the cost of watering those nuclear plants. So, is this proposal to look at new –N” surface vessels just Congressional feather bedding? The easy guess is yes. But I thunk a few thoughts and it occurred to me that at least partial independence from oil could be a benefit in a world where a good chunk of the oil is in a place where lots of people hate us. And of course, a nuclear warship can at least in theory stay on station longer since it only has to rearm and revictual — not refuel. That would reduce at least somewhat the logistical burden in maintaining our forces in harm’s way. That, I think would be more important than the cost of oil, and worth at least some extra money.

But how much more is it going to cost, and is the benefit worth the cost? If we go with the traditional pressurized water reactors of the type that have been, and still are used, then maybe not. These require lots of maintenance. But if we switched to pebble bed reactors, that might be different (read this for some of the advantages — lower maintenance, and it could directly drive an electrical plant for power. Refueling would be easier, and safety likely improved. With a standard design of the atomic pebble, there could be a standardized supply of fuel for any ship with the pebble bed reactors, and designs could be standardized over a relatively broad range of ships — just make bigger pebble beds for bigger ships — but the constituent parts would all be the same.

If the prices could be reasonable, switching over could have a lot of benefits. No need for oil. Easier logistics, longer endurance. The charisma that comes from an all-nuclear navy. Another important factor to consider is that eventually, new weapons will likely require lots of electricity. And these reactors could be designed to be expanded. Then, we’ll have all the power we need for all the lasers and railguns we’re inventing.

Sounds cool to me — and mass production always brings costs down, right? I mean, it worked for the F-22, it should work here.


  1. I just don’t see it happening. Congress even passed a law in the 1970s that all carrier escorts be nuclear powered, but it didn’t happen. Unless of course the navy thinks it can get by without about 3 total ships in the future fleet. Seems to be headed that way.

  2. Shipmates, One thing to look at here is the source of those claims of extreme expense. The article doesn’t quote where those dollar figures come from, and it seems to be wildly inflated. There are also numerous groups with axes to grind. Many anti-American, anti-military groups have sided with the anti-nuke groups on this issue as a way of furthering their own agendas. It makes sense for them to show a large coalition of opposition to such a move. However, it’s also very hypocritical to argue on one hand for energy independence, especially from foreign oil, but then to argue against the very power source that could make that a reality. As the esteemed Mr. Buckethead points out, the key here is commonality of components. If a standard reactor could be developed, then the overall costs go down on a per-unit basis. It especially would be useful if it’s a one-time fueling system. In other words, when the reactor runs out of fuel, we scrap the ship. Pull off such components as we can recycle, and put them onto a new construction. It would also help to go to an electric drive for the ships. Having that would also reduce complexitity of the power train, especially in an energy-devouring platform similar to what’s being proposed (rail guns, cryo propulsion, etc). In fact, a single, one-size fits all nuke plant might be a good idea. If you have a larger vessel, just add another reactor. Tailor the number of reactors to the size and power needs of th vessel. There is no reason BIW cannot be certified to install nuclear propulsion plants. It’s an excellent idea, since, as the country moves towards a larger proportion of our energy cxoming from nuclear power, the training for operators has to start somewhere. Start the process in the shipbuilding industry, and it can expand throughout the nation. Respects,

  3. Hey, don’t nuke power plants need less crew than the conventional systems to run? Reengine a BB or a CB with a nuke plant so they can keep up with nuke carriers…just as a proof of concept…

  4. I was part of the crew of the USS Virginia (CGN-38) from 1980 to 1985, a NUCLEAR-powered Cruiser, scrapped in the 1990’s. I lived on that ship for almost 5 years, so I can tell you a little about this kind of ship from personal experience. The Virginia-class nuclear ships were not well-made overall and had a number of bad deficiencies: 1) they had almost non-existent armor (the superstructure being made of aluminum FOAM a few inches think-a rifle bullet could easily poke through it). This vulnerability was deliberately designed into the ship, because they were figuring on nuclear war with the Soviets (more armor wouldn’t protect anyone from a nuclear blast anyway). However, if you try to use it close to shore for shore bombardment, you might get killed by a pistol shot or the entire ship might get disabled by a rifle shot into the ship’s computers in the superstructure. Bad deal. 2) The power train would start to vibrate excessively at about 33 knots, because it wasn’t originally designed for the Virginia-class ships, so that was the upper speed limit. It was a compromise system adapted from another ship (I forget which one). If they had designed one that took full advantage of the two nuclear power plants onboard, it could have gone quite a bit faster, I was told, and probably wouldn’t have been so noisy. The better driveshaft would have been more expensive, though… 3) It was top-heavy, because of too much equipment in the superstructure (probably wasn’t designed at the start to hold all the stuff they added later). In heavy seas, the ship would lean over to the right for about ten seconds, and then slam over to the left, creating unguided missiles out of men and machines. It wasn’t just ordinary sea-chop. 4) The puny 5-inch popguns were only able to fire a few dozen rounds before breaking down, not to mention that they were laughably short-ranged, and didn’t have much bang anyway. Those were the major deficiencies that I noted. The good points included the following: 1) Because of the nuclear power plants, the Virginia-class ships could cruise around the world without refueling or resupplying if needed (not recommended, but it could be done). That is a great asset to have, when you’ve got to get there NOW, and there aren’t any oilers around to top off your tank or accompany the ship. 2) As far as I know, there never was any kind of nuclear contamination or accident that ever occurred on the ship I was on. I think I would have heard about it on the crew grapevine if it had happened. I always felt very safe on the ship, and I bunked (along with about 500 other men onboard) within only a few dozen feet from two nuclear reactors. This was with technology from the 1960’s and 70’s when the ships were designed. Not too shabby. 3) The nuclear-powered cruisers were extremely important assets to the Navy, because they could accompany the nuclear-powered carriers anytime, anywhere (although the carriers could leave them in the dust if they wanted too. They were designed for real speed, not like the Virginia-class). In summary, I believe and have long felt, that the Navy badly needs to return to building nuclear-powered cruisers and even destroyers too. Not only would there be a lot less greenhouse gas emissions in the environment, but the Navy would save a lot of money on fuel. Yes, I know the capital expenditures are high initially, but the long-term returns (see comments above) are well worth it, in my opinion. The negative aspects I mentioned could be easily overcome with some smart design built-in from the start, and a willingness to spend what is necessary to get the best product. Finally, with future weapons like electric/solid-state lasers and rail guns coming on line, and also electric-drive ships, the nuclear power option seems to me to be ideal to meet the need for lots of power to provide the energy we need to make those things viable. I just can’t imagine an oil-fired ship, whether a boiler or a turbine, being suitable for those things.