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US Navy seeks public comment on Enterprise disposal

The USS Enterprise was the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier in the world. Decommissioned in 2017, the Navy is currently exploring options for its dismantlement, but the process is time consuming and expensive.

(CN) — At a cost of some $10 million per year, they could just let it sit there, like it has since it was decommissioned in 2017. The flagship aircraft carrier now designated the ex-USS Enterprise has been stored at a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia since its functional use by the Navy ended. 

It was the world’s first nuclear powered carrier when it was launched in 1961 and remains the longest naval vessel ever built. Her radioactive fuel, certain electronics and defense armament has since been removed, but what remains is nearly 75,000 tons of steel and other metals in the hull, plus eight reactor plants that propelled the ship around the globe as she responded to conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East. 

Letting it sit there is but one of four alternatives the Navy is considering for the future of the ex-Enterprise. Other options would see her broken down and recycled, either by the Navy, a contractor or a combination of the two. 

If the Navy is involved, the work could cost more than $1.3 billion and take longer than 15 years to complete. The preferred alternative, on the other hand, is to let the private sector do it. According to a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) released in August and currently open for public comment, the preferred alternative could save the government more than half a billion dollars and complete the project in as few as five years. 

The Navy has dismantled conventional aircraft carriers before and more recently, has awarded private sector contracts to dismantle other nuclear-powered vessels. But the ex-Enterprise will likely be the first nuclear powered carrier to complete the process. If the venture is successful, it will likely set protocols for other aging nuclear carriers in the American fleet.

“The purpose of the proposed action is to reduce the Navy inactive ship inventory, eliminate costs associated with maintaining the ship in a safe stowage condition, and dispose of legacy radiological and hazardous wastes in an environmentally responsible manner, while meeting the operational needs of the Navy,” the EIS states. 

The preferred alternative is also advantageous because it allows the Navy to prioritize its public shipyards and workforce for active fleet management. If that alternative is ultimately selected, the ship will be towed to a private shipyard in either Hampton Roads, Virginia, Brownsville, Texas, or Mobile, Alabama. Its eight reactor plants would be disassembled for packing into several hundred small containers and shipped to licensed landfills in Andrews, Texas, Clive, Utah or Aiken, South Carolina. 

The EIS suggests environmental effects of the preferred alternative are negligible and exposure to radiation would fall within applicable federal limits, even though the risks of potential latent cancer fatalities is marginally higher than if there were no exposure to the radiation at all. 

“To place exposure into perspective with normal everyday activities of the general public, a typical person in the United States receives 310 [millirem] of radiation exposure each year from natural background radiation,” the EIS claims. Comparatively, the estimated total occupational exposure to entirely dismantle the reactor plants is 540 [rem] over three years. 

Along with the radioactivity, the ship also contains asbestos, lead, PCBs and other fuels and oils deemed hazardous. Still, the program “would not have the potential to contribute meaningfully to any potential significant cumulative impact to any of the resource areas,” including human resources, the EIS says.

The work will be subject to more than three dozen federal laws or regulations, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Atomic Energy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act, among others. Former U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama, who is currently the president and CEO of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, said he was briefed on the proposal years ago and is happy to see it moving forward. 

“It’s an extra several hundred jobs” to whoever receives the contract," Byrne said, noting it’s his understanding the work will involve very little environmental or health risks. 

“What I've been told is that [the ship] has been thoroughly cleaned of any nuclear material and contamination, so from that point of view, I don't have any concerns because they have such strict regulations about things like that,” he said, adding local environmental groups have also been in the loop. 

Last year, a U.S. Navy surface ship support barge arrived in Mobile to be dismantled. During its active duty, the barge was used to refuel nuclear vessels or swap nuclear components. Byrne said the work to dismantle the barge is ongoing, and contractors are taking care its environmental effects are undetected. 

“I am thoroughly impressed with the extent to which they follow very demanding protocols to deal with a piece of equipment like that,” he said. “The hoops they have to jump through and the precautions they've made with all the test instruments that are out there … it really gives me a lot of confidence that they're being as careful as they possibly can be and that there really is a very low risk.”

The Draft EIS is open for public comment through Oct. 3. The Navy will host two virtual public meetings on the proposal on Tuesday, Sept. 20 at 4 p.m. central time and Thursday, Sept. 22 at 4 p.m. central time. Additional information can be found at https://www.carrierdisposaleis.com/

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