New large U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships will be required to be nuclear powered as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2009 signed into law by President George W. Bush on Tuesday, October 14.
The Senate had originally not included this provision in its version of the act. It had been part of the House version, pushed by Representative Gene Taylor, chairman of the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. A major shipyard for building amphibious assault ships, Northrop Grumman’s Ship Systems facility, is located in his Mississippi district.
But in recent weeks, the Senate Armed Services Committee added under a section of the act titled “Policy Relating to Major Combatant Vessels of the Strike Forces of the United States Navy,” a parallel requirement that new “amphibious assault ships including dock landing ships (LSD), amphibious transport-dock ships (LPD), helicopter assault ships (LHA/LHD) and amphibious command ships (LCC) if such vessels exceed 1,500 dead weight ton…displacement” be nuclear-powered.
Safe-energy and environmental groups have been critical of the scheme.
“This reckless plan gives ‘we’ll fight them on the beaches’ a whole new sinister meaning,” said 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,” said 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, 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 has also been concerned because the price of the nuclear-powered amphibious assault ships is estimated at $1.5 billion-plus each, some $700 million more than if built with conventional power systems. There would also be the tens of millions in cost for their eventual radioactive decontamination and disposal.
The rationale for the plan, which Taylor’s subcommittee had included in the House version of the act, is 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. The 2009 act’s provision that amphibious ships, too, be nuclear-powered is set up as an amendment to this.
The New Scientist, a British magazine, noted in a June 14th article on the U.S. plan for nuclear-powered assault ships that 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.” It added that “a U.S. Navy website confirms that such ships ‘are designed to get in harm’s way.’”
Another problem 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 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.”
In addressing environmental impacts, it 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.”
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)