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#663 - The CVX Decision: A Rare Opportunity, 11-Aug-1999

In the U.S., many people think nuclear power is dead because it
proved to be too expensive and too unmanageable. In this view,
the fuel melt at Three Mile Island March 28, 1979 ended nuclear
power in this country.

This picture of nuclear power is incomplete. There is still one
sector of the U.S. economy where new nuclear reactors are being
built: the Navy.

Now the Navy is facing a crucial choice that may well determine
the future of civilian nuclear power: will the next generation of
aircraft carriers be powered by nuclear reactors, or by diesel

Currently the Navy maintains 12 aircraft carriers -- three
diesel-powered and 9 nuclear-powered.[1,pgs.2,123] The Navy plans
to build two more nuclear Nimitz-class carriers, and then it will
introduce a new generation of carriers, called CVX. (Nimitz-class
carriers are named for the 100,000-ton U.S.S. Nimitz which
entered service in 1975.)

Will CVX carriers employ nuclear propulsion? That is the

The Navy began planning for the new CVX class of aircraft
carriers in 1996. CVX carriers will have many new features -- a
new hull shape, better computer communications, and more killing

The Navy intends to begin building the first CVX in 2006 for
service starting in 2013. A carrier typically remains in service
for 50 years. With construction costs of roughly $4.6 billion, an
aircraft carrier is the nation's most expensive piece of military

Each aircraft carrier forms the centerpiece of a "battle group,"
which in turn provides the strategic basis for Navy operations
worldwide. The battle group includes:

(1) the carrier itself (with crew numbering between 3200 and
3400) with its 80 aircraft (24 for support, 56 for attack, plus
the 2500 people needed to maintain and fly them);[2,pg.24]

(2) six surface combat ships of which at least three are cruisers
or destroyers with Aegis weapons systems, and at least four are
equipped with vertical launching systems that can fire Tomahawk
cruise missiles;

(3) a total of 10 anti-submarine warfare helicopters embarked on
the six combat ships;

(3) two attack submarines (one of them equipped with a vertical
launch system);

(4) and one multi-purpose fast combat support ship (known as an
AOE), which resupplies the other ships in the group (with fuel,
ammunition, food, etc.) from stocks maintained at 22 supply
depots around the world.

These naval "battle groups" have three responsibilities:

(1) maintaining a "forward presence" during peacetime --
constantly reminding the world just how powerful and
militarily-oriented the U.S. is;

(2) responding to crises;

(3) fighting wars.

Since the end of World War II, the Navy (or a combination of Navy
and Marines) has participated in 205 out of 207 international
crises, versus 53 for the Air Force and 38 for the Army.[2,pg.3]
Thus for the past 50 years the Navy has participated in an
international crisis every three months, on average.

From the perspective of the Navy and its private-sector
industrial partners (which President Eisenhower in 1961 termed
the "military-industrial complex"), there are good reasons why
CVX carriers should be nuclear-powered:

1) If civilian nuclear power is ever to stage a come-back, the
nation must maintain teams of scientists and engineers with
up-to-date nuclear skills and expertise. Thus Navy reactors serve
to "keep the nuclear design team together" against that future
time when Three Mile Island has faded from memory, oil has become
costly, solar photovoltaics have been scuttled by the oil
companies that own the relevant patents, and nuclear energy is
the only technology being offered to the public. From the
viewpoint of the military-industrial complex, nuclear is far
preferable to solar for generating electricity because nuclear
plants require huge investment and are highly complex, thus
demanding centralized control. Solar panels can be much smaller,
simpler, and more widely dispersed, thus making centralized
control impossible.

2) Nuclear power is modern; diesel is a 19th century technology.
The Navy first embraced nuclear power in 1954. If the Navy had
its way, every ship over 8000 tons would be nuclear powered
today. Indeed, in 1974 Congress formally set the policy that all
surface combat ships must be nuclear-powered. Between 1961 and
1975, nine nuclear-powered surface-combat ships were commissioned
(in addition to the nuclear carriers), but it soon became clear
that nuclear-powered surface combat ships were simply too
expensive to maintain. Maintaining them would require cuts in
other naval operations, and so the Navy capitulated to fiscal
realities.[1,pgs.37] Since 1975, the only nuclear-powered surface
ships built have been carriers. In fiscal year 1993, the Navy
decided to scrap its last nuclear-powered non-carrier surface
combat ships, rather than put them through an expensive nuclear
refueling process. Thus after only 17 years of service, with more
than half of their planned service life remaining, the Navy's
non-carrier nuclear-powered combat ships were forced into
retirement by excessive costs. Submarines are still being built
with nuclear propulsion systems, but by their nature submarines
are not highly visible. Thus aircraft carriers are the last
highly-visible ships to carry the torch for nuclear modernity.

3) If the CVX is nuclear-powered, there is only one ship yard
equipped to build it: the Newport News Shipbuilding Company
(NNS). Thus the purchase of nuclear-powered carriers occurs
without the messy uncertainties of competitive bidding and
further solidifies the tight relationship between the Pentagon
and NNS.

4) The Navy is silent on these first 3 reasons for preferring
nuclear-powered carriers, but offers other arguments why they are

(a) They can accelerate faster than diesel-powered carriers;

(b) They can travel indefinitely without refueling;

(c) Because they don't require refueling they can arrive at their
destination earlier than diesel-powered carriers;

(d) Nuclear carriers can carry more jet fuel and ammunition than
a diesel-powered carrier, thus making them less reliant on
resupply ships.

In 1994, Congress ordered the U.S. General Accounting Office
(GAO) to compare the cost-effectiveness of nuclear-powered vs.
diesel-powered aircraft carriers. In August 1998 GAO issued its
lengthy report,[1] in which it evaluated the Navy's claims of
superiority for nuclear propulsion:

(a) It is true that nuclear carriers can accelerate faster
because their steam boilers are always operating. A nuclear
carrier can accelerate from 10 to 20 knots in 1.5 minutes and
from 10 to 30 knots in 3 minutes. With only 4 of their 8 boilers
operating, diesel carriers can accelerate from 10 to 20 knots in
2.5 minutes but they need all 8 boilers to achieve 30 knots. If
they have to light the 4 additional boilers, they can take 1.5 to
2 hours to reach 30 knots.

The Navy says rapid acceleration helps a carrier position itself
for aircraft landings, especially in bad weather. However, when
the GAO inquired, the Navy could not provide examples in which a
plane crashed or was lost because of slow carrier acceleration.
Navy staff told GAO that design of the flight deck is a more
important factor in aircraft safety than is carrier

(b) It is true that nuclear-powered carriers can voyage
indefinitely without refueling. In submarines this confers a
military advantage but the situation with carriers is entirely
different because their support ships and their airplanes require
regular refueling. Therefore, carrier groups remain "tethered to
the pump" despite the carrier's nuclear propulsion.

(c) Because nuclear carriers do not require refueling, it is true
that they can arrive at their destinations earlier than
diesel-powered carriers. On a 12000-mile voyage from San Diego to
the Persian Gulf, a nuclear carrier would arrive in 17.9 days. A
diesel carrier would arrive six hours later. On a 4800-mile
voyage from Norfolk, Virginia to the eastern Mediterranean, a
nuclear carrier would arrive in 7.1 days, 2 hours earlier than a
diesel-powered carrier.[1,pg.49]

During long voyages, diesel-fueled carriers slow to 14 knots for
refueling. However, GAO points out that this can be an advantage.
Pilots are required to remain flight-qualified to engage in
combat. This requires regular practice. While a carrier is
steaming at full speed, planes cannot fly from its decks. Slowing
down to refuel gives pilots a chance to fly and remain qualified
for combat. Therefore, when a conventional carrier arrives at its
destination, its pilots are ready to enter combat immediately.
Pilots on a nuclear carrier must delay combat while they

(d) GAO says diesel-fueled carriers can be designed to carry the
same quantities of jet fuel and ammunition as nuclear-powered
carriers. The propulsion system isn't the determining factor, GAO

The GAO finds that diesel-powered carriers have several important

(a) Because they require much less maintenance, and therefore
less down-time, diesel-powered carriers can provide a greater
"forward presence" than nuclear powered carriers.

(b) Since 1973, the U.S. has maintained ("homeported," in Navy
jargon) a carrier group at Yokosuka, Japan. The Japanese
contribute Japanese maintenance personnel worth about $5 billion
(U.S. dollars) each year to defray the annual costs of this
group. For obvious reasons, the Japanese people won't tolerate
U.S. military nuclear technology within their sovereign
territory. If the CVX is nuclear-powered, then Japan must be
persuaded to change its policy, or the U.S. will need to employ
six U.S.-based carrier groups (on rotating duty) to achieve the
same "forward presence" in the Pacific, GAO says.[1,pg.104] Even
if the Japanese were willing to change their policy, permanently
homeporting a nuclear carrier in Japan would require construction
of nuclear maintenance facilities which by U.S. law would exclude
Japanese personnel.

(c) One of the Navy's stated design goals for the CVX is to
reduce carrier costs by 20%.[1,pg.30] GAO finds that this
requires conventional propulsion because nuclear carriers are so
costly to operate. GAO concludes that the 50-year lifetime cost
of a nuclear-powered carrier ($22.2 billion) exceeds the lifetime
cost of a conventional carrier ($14.09 billion) by $8.1 billion,
or 58%.[1,pg.9]

GAO says wars of the future were prefigured in the Gulf War of
1991.[1,pgs.54-55] Examining the record of both conventional and
nuclear-powered carrier groups in that war, the GAO found no
difference in military effectiveness.

In sum, the GAO finds that nuclear-powered carriers provide no
significant military advantage. The nation has a
once-in-a-generation opportunity to stuff an important part of
the nuclear genie back into the bottle from which it escaped at
Hiroshima in 1945.

To get involved in this important decision, contact Laura Hunter,
Environmental Health Coalition, San Diego, California: (619)
235-0281. Fax: (619) 232-3670. Email:

--Peter Montague(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] United States General Accounting Office, NAVY AIRCRAFT
August 1998). To find this report on the world wide web, go to
http://www.gpo.ucop.edu/cgi-bin/gpogate and search for "Navy
aircraft carriers."

CARRIER (Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
The MIT Security Studies Program Center for International
Studies, January 1998): http://www.syntek.org/-
documents/CVX%20Document.html .

Descriptor terms:

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