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Most new large U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships would be required to be nuclear powered under the National Defense Authorization Act for 2009 which the House of Representatives has passed by a vote of 384 to 23. It now goes to the Senate where many senators are uneasy about the scheme as is the Navy and the shipbuilding industry in the U.S.
As to safe-energy and environmental advocates, “This reckless plan gives ‘we’ll fight them on the beaches’ a whole new sinister meaning," says Linda Gunter of Beyond Nuclear of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute. "If one of these amphibious ships is hit, or has an accident, we would be fighting a tide of radioactivity on beaches that could leave them contaminated indefinitely."
“Expanding the use of nuclear technology as a form of propulsion puts our sailors at risk,” says Jim Riccio of Greenpeace U.S.A. Also, because “nuclear-powered vessels are already rejected from ports around the world, it undermines the ability to actually use them.” Further, they would be “more of a target” for terrorists. “And what if the Cole had been nuclear powered?”
Indeed, if the U.S.S. Cole, the destroyer struck by suicide bombers who crashed into it with explosives off Yemen in 2000 had been nuclear-powered, a nuclear disaster could have occurred killing many more than the 17 crewmembers who died.
The Navy is concerned about the cost of the plan. The price of the amphibious assault ships that would be mandated to be nuclear-powered is $1.5 billion-plus each. Adding nuclear propulsion would raise the price by $800 million each. And there would be the tens of millions in cost for their eventual radioactive decontamination and disposal.
The U.S. shipbuilding industry is worried about the impact on an industry already in precarious shape. Only two shipyards in the nation, Northrop Grumman’s Newport News, Virginia facility and General Dynamics’ Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut are certified to build nuclear-powered ships.
The push for nuclear-powered amphibious assault ships is being led by Representative Gene Taylor, chairman of the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. Taylor, a Democrat, also has in his Mississippi district a shipyard that is the major one for the construction of amphibious assault ships, Northrop Grumman’s Ship Systems facility in Pascagoula.
The rationale for the plan which his subcommittee had included in the act is, after its declaration that all new “assault echelon amphibious ships…must be constructed with integrated nuclear power systems,” that “the future naval force should not be reliant on the availability of fossil fuel for fleet operations. Removing the need for access to fossil fuel sources significantly multiplies the effectiveness of the entire battle forces.”
The National Defense Authorization Bill of 2008 required that all new U.S. aircraft carriers, cruisers and submarines be nuclear-powered. Although there was some reluctance to this in the Senate, it passed and was signed by President Bush.
Dr. Ralph Herbert, professor emeritus of environmental studies at Long Island University, sees the Bush administration, ardent about all things nuclear, seeking nuclear power for amphibious assault ships, too, because “it wants to get as much nuclear as it can in the pipeline before it’s finished it’s harder to get rid of once it’s in. The Bush administration will do anything it can to solidify its damage.”
The amphibious assault vessels to be built with nuclear power, if the Senate approves this year’s act, are those designated as LHA and LHD, ships with large flight decks for helicopters and vertical-take-off-and-landing airplanes, and the LPD, a smaller vessel mainly carrying landing craft and troops.
“The vessels’ position in combat can…vary from a ‘stand-off’ over-the-horizon location to be being moored to a pier in a combat zone,” noted The New Scientist, the British magazine, in a June 14 article on the plan. It added that “a U.S. Navy website confirms that such ships ‘are designed to get in harm’s way.’”
The Congressional Resource Service, in a December 2006 report to Congress, examined a variety of non-oil energy alternatives for Navy ships. Titled “Navy Ship Propulsion Technologies: Options for Reducing Oil Use,” it considered “integrated electric-drive propulsion,” fuel cells, solar power, nuclear energy and various “synthetic fuels” especially “alternative hydrocarbon fuels.” It noted that the Navy “started making its own biodiesel fuel” in a pilot program in 2003.
This report said that “shifting” amphibious assault ships to using nuclear power “might make them potentially less welcome in the ports of countries with strong anti-nuclear sentiments” and “reduce the number of potentially suitable location for forward-homeporting the ships.”
A May 2008 Congressional Resource Service Report, “Navy Nuclear-Powered Surface Ships: Background Issues, and Options for Congress,” related that in the 1960s the Navy began building nuclear-powered cruisers and nine were constructed, indeed at one point Congress mandated it, but after 1975 “procurement of nuclear-powered cruisers was halted…due to…costs.”
This report, in addressing environmental impacts, spoke of “those associated with mining and processing uranium to fuel reactors, and with storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel cores, radioactive waste water from reactors, and the reactors and other radioactive components of retired nuclear-powered ships.” Also, “a very serious accident involving a nuclear-powered Navy ship…or a major enemy attack on a nuclear-powered Navy ship might damage the ship’s hull and reactor compartment enough to cause a release of radioactivity.”
Another issue involves nuclear proliferation. “Military reactor fuel,” said the New Scientist, “can reach 90 percent enrichment level.” That is atomic bomb-grade. “This could make reactor maintenance sites at U.S. bases in ports around the world a tempting target for any thief intent on making weapons-grade fuel for a bomb.”
The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2009 does not include having nuclear-powered amphibious assault ships.
Will the Senate stick with common sense?
KARL GROSSMAN, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury (www.karlgrossman.com) is the author of Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power and writer and host of numerous television programs about nuclear technology ( www.envirovideo.com)