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.