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Nuclear Carriers Headed For Oblivion
by James Dunnigan
November 1, 2012

The U.S. Navy is about to retire its first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. This ship entered service in 1961, and will be decommissioned next year. While the U.S. Navy has made many large vessels available as museum ships, the nuclear powered carriers will be off-limits. This is because it costs over half a billion dollars to retire a nuclear powered carrier and most of the cost goes to removing and disposing of the nuclear reactors. A non-nuclear powered carrier costs less than $60 million to decommission. Many veterans of the ten Nimitz class carriers pressed the navy to allow the “island” (the tall structure on the side of the flight deck) of the Nimitz (to be retired in 2025) to be preserved as a museum, but the navy refused. It would be too expensive. That may not be a problem, as there are over half a million veterans who served on a Nimitz class carrier and some of them may come up with a solution and the needed cash.

Meanwhile the U.S. already has five retired aircraft carriers (USS Hornet, Intrepid, Lexington, Midway, and Yorktown) that have been turned into museum ships. There are also ten battleships (USS Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, New Jersey, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin) plus over fifty destroyers, cruisers, amphibious ships, and submarines. More are on the way, if the cost of maintaining current museum ships does not scare off everyone. The World War II museum ships are all up for major refurbishment and the few that have had it have demonstrated that this sort of thing is very expensive, even more so for post-World War II ships.

For example, three years ago the U.S. Navy retired its last non-nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy. The navy offered the ship to any government or non-profit organization that wanted to maintain it as a museum ship. The navy is still waiting for a response. Entering service in 1968, the Kennedy is 321 meters (1052 feet) long and displaces 82,000 tons. It would be the largest museum ship ever. The ship is currently docked in Philadelphia and there is much enthusiasm in Boston for taking the carrier, named after a native son, and establishing a museum ship. The big problem, for whoever takes the ship, is money. That's a lot of money, as in hundreds of millions to outfit the ship as a museum and maintain it.

The navy has long been willing to donate old ships to groups that were willing to maintain the retired vessels as museum ships. But the navy attaches some very expensive strings. That is, the navy expects the ship to be kept in decent shape. This is a problem with many old metal ships, as they rust. And eventually they rust so much that the hull is breached and ultimately will collapse. The navy has not yet repossessed any museum ships but a growing number of these ships are deteriorating badly. Refurbishment is so expensive that some sponsoring groups are considering letting the navy have the ship back.

For example, the World War II era Essex class carrier USS Intrepid, in New York City, returned to its display berth in 2009, after a two year refurbishment costing $120 million. The entire hull was examined, in dry dock, for decay and over a hundred square meters (nearly a thousand square feet) of hull had to be replaced. A sister ship of the Intrepid, the Yorktown, requires a similar refurbishment. Since 1975, the Yorktown has been on display in Charleston, South Carolina, with several other museum ships. The Yorktown, which entered service four months before the Intrepid, needs the same kind of work. The navy is insisting on it, with the alternatives being sending the ship to the breakers or a lawsuit. The naval museum in South Carolina is in a bad situation, as $120 million is hard to find, even when the economy (and wealthy donors) are doing well. The big donors are much harder to find these days.

The decommissioned Nimitz class ships have to be drydocked and have the hull cut open to remove the nuclear reactor. After that the plan is to keep going and take the entire vessel apart. To preserve a Nimitz as a museum ship would mean rebuilding the hull after the reactor components were removed. This could be extremely expensive, well over $100 million plus the cost of refurbishing for museum ship use. Raising that kind of money would be an unprecedented effort.

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