The once proud aircraft carrier Enterprise is now a financial burden on the Navy.
Officials announced Monday that the Navy will fork over an additional $34 million to the Huntington Ingalls Newport News shipyard to keep mothballing the world’s first nuclear carrier and prepare its hull for towing elsewhere.
In 2013, the Navy awarded a $745 million contract to the shipyard to drain the flattop’s reactor fuel and prep the warship for permanent deactivation, but it hasn’t budged since.
That’s because the Navy has been squabbling with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over which one will control the dismantling.
By law, Naval Reactors is the Navy department handling all the service’s nuclear propulsion programs while the NRC oversees civilian nuclear reactors, materials and waste disposal.
Navy officials began requesting bids from commercial contractors in 2016 but had to stop in early 2017 because of the ongoing dispute.
Since 1990, the Navy’s Puget Sound facility in Bremerton, Washington, has dismantled and disposed of more than 130 reactors while sending its non-nuclear vessels to industry to break apart and recycle, including ex-carriers like the Constellation and Ranger.
But the government-owned yard is reeling from a glut of vessels the fleet needs to be repaired now. If the Big E gets towed there, officials estimate workers won’t start dismantling it until 2034 and it would take another decade and between $1 billion and $1.5 billion to complete the job.
Commercial companies have decommissioned 32 civilian nuclear reactor plants, work the Navy agrees is comparable to the process at Puget Sound. One of those contractors could scrap the Enterprise by 2029 for between $750 million and $1.4 billion, without harming fleet readiness, GAO found.
The Big E has been towed before.
Shortly after a late 2012 inactivation ceremony at Norfolk Naval Station to commemorate 51 years of service in the Navy, the Enterprise was brought to nearby Newport News.
But the Enterprise wasn’t officially decommissioned until early 2017 because Huntington Ingalls workers had to remove the nuclear fuel.
The new deal with the shipyard indicates that the warship now will "be held for a temporary storage period while the government evaluates disposal alternatives, conducts an environmental impact statement, and plans for towing of the vessel.”
It sets no deadline for renting space, saying only that the analysis is “expected to be completed by September 2021.”
By that point, the Big E will have been tied up in the Newport News yard for nearly a decade.
GAO pointed out that it’s important that the Navy figure out how to scrap the Enterprise because the Nimitz-class supercarriers are getting old, too.
Commissioned in 1975, the nuclear-powered Nimitz is slated to reach the projected end of its service life around 2025, with the Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Carl Vinson following soon after.
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.