Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Nuclear Power Debate

The nuclear power debate has raged since nuclear power became a viable propulsion method.  I have avoided doing a post on the choice of nuclear versus conventional power for two reasons:  one, I’m ambivalent about the issue and two, it’s impossible to reach any well founded conclusion with publicly available data.  Both sides fling numbers back and forth with little regard for the analytical rigor of the underlying figures.  Generalities abound, none supported by rigorous facts.

For example, one can compare the nuclear powered Ford at a construction cost of $15B (and counting!) to the conventional powered carrier, the Forrestal, at $2.1B (FY2019 dollars) (2) and conclude that nuclear power costs $13B more than conventional power.  While this may be arithmetically correct, it ignores all the other factors that go into carrier construction costs.  Thus, the figure is correct but the conclusion is not. 

Many studies have been conducted that purport to compare the costs of nuclear versus conventional power.  Most of the studies have been flawed, the majority badly so.  Surprisingly, relatively few studies have attempted to quantify the operational comparison of nuclear and conventional power.  In fact, the only such study I’m aware of is the 1998 GAO effort (1) which has, overall, some serious methodological problems and the resulting conclusions are suspect, at best.

Despite my reluctance to address this subject, it’s reached a point where I feel I have to.  Too many readers are making unsupported and incorrect statements about nuclear power, pro and con.  This blog is all about facts, data, and logic so I guess it’s about time to examine the issue.  That said, let’s look at the various aspects of nuclear and conventional power.

Installation Cost.  This is the obvious place to start and we immediately see all hope of analysis fall apart due to lack of data and lack of a consistent set of criteria.  For example, what is the installation cost of a nuclear reactor?  Well, that depends on what you choose to include or exclude as part of the installation.  The reactor container, itself, certainly is part of the cost but what about associated piping?  Do you include the reactor cooling system?  What about the cost of shielding around the compartments and equipment?  What about the systems and equipment required to convert the nuclear energy (heat) into electricity?  And the list goes on and on.

Similarly, what do you include in the cost of a conventional power plant?  Do you include the fuel storage tanks without which the power plant is an inert paperweight?  How about the fuel handling/pumping system?  What about the auxiliary diesel engines that are a common part of any conventional power system today?  How about the air intake and exhaust ducting and exhaust stacks?  What about the exhaust IR suppression systems that are required for a conventional power system?  What cost do you associate with the enormous ship’s volume that is consumed by the giant ducting runs?  And the list goes on and on.

The installation cost, then, will depend on what pieces you include and exclude.  If you favor conventional power, you’ll include every nuclear related item you can think of to drive up the nuclear cost and make your position look better and you’ll exclude all but the direct items for conventional power.  If you favor nuclear power, you’ll do the reverse.

In addition, while we can find some reasonably accurate costs for some of the isolated big ticket items like the GE LM2500 turbines, it’s very difficult or impossible to find accurate data for reactors or for any of the ancillary equipment, nuclear or conventional.  Worse, the costs that we can see, like the Navy’s SCN line item budget figures, are undefined.  For example, the 2020 Navy SCN budget document has a Virginia class line item that reads, “Nuclear Propulsion Plant Equipment” but no description of what is included in the cost figure.  For the Ford class, there is a line item that reads, “Propulsion Equipment” (it doesn’t even mention nuclear!), and has a cost of $2B but, again, no description of what is included/excluded in the figure.  It’s not even clear that the reactor itself is included in the SCN propulsion line items.  They could be Government Furnished Equipment (GFE) that isn’t accounted for in the SCN budget.  However, given the magnitude of the propulsion line items, it seems likely that the reactor is included.

On the conventional side, the SCN budget has no line item for propulsion.  There is a line item for HM&E (Hull, Mechanical, and Electrical) but the detailed breakdown of that line item shows no propulsion machinery.  Alternatively, propulsion may be included in the line item, “Basic Construction/Conversion”, but, again, there is not description of what is included in the line item.  There is a “Main Reduction Gear” line item but that seems extremely specific and the dollar figure is fairly small.

Conventional wisdom claims that nuclear power is more expensive to install but I can find no data to support or refute that claim.

So, we have no hope of determining even the seemingly straightforward installation cost. 

Manning.  Nuclear critics claim that it requires many more people to man and operate a nuclear propulsion plant than a conventional one.  Again, I can find no data to support or refute the claim.  We did just recently see that the USS Ford has two reactors which require <25 watchstanders (5) which suggests that there is no great manning penalty associated with modern nuclear plants and they may even require fewer personnel !

Operating Costs.  After the installation costs, there are daily operating costs.  Again, this all depends on what you include/exclude.  Nuclear proponents would claim that there are no daily operating costs (manning aside, which is a wash between nuclear and conventional) and that this is the major advantage of nuclear power.  However, what about the long term nuclear disposal and storage costs that ultimately become part of the overall operating costs of nuclear power and that continue for decades/centuries after the individual nuclear ship is long gone?

Conversely, what about the costs to operate an entire fleet of tankers to replenish conventional powered ships?  What about their crew costs?  What about the land based fuel tank farms that are required to support the tankers?  What about the drilling and refining operations to make fuel?  And on and on.

As we noted, the evaluation of this depends on what you include and exclude.  Without dipping into a quagmire of debates over what to include/exclude, and without attempting to put a specific dollar figure to it, it seems as if the operating costs of conventional power are far beyond those of nuclear given the requirement for a vast infrastructure of fuel processing, storage, transport, and tanker fleets to support conventional powered ships.

Operational Benefits.  This ought to be a major factor and yet almost no one factors it into their discussions.  If nuclear power conveys a significant tactical or operational benefit, that would compensate for, or outweigh, many disadvantages.  However, the only operational benefit is the reduced need for tanker support and even that is only a limited benefit since the carrier’s escorts all need tanker support.  Of course, eliminating the need for ship’s fuel frees up internal ship’s space for larger magazines, more jet fuel, more food and water stores, or whatever else the ship designer wishes to include.  Is this enough of a benefit to justify nuclear power?  I don’t think so.  The benefits are nice but not critical and do not enable any significant combat enhancements.

Battle Damage.  This factor strikes me as potentially one of the more significant aspects of nuclear power.  While a reactor is protected, to a degree, within the ship, the possibility of battle damage resulting in nuclear contamination is real.  What is the likelihood?  I have no way of knowing but it would seem unlikely that the reactor has any inherent immunity to damage so the likelihood would seem as great as for any other area of the ship.  The problem is that the potential exists for relatively minor damage to produce a serious contamination issue which could result in the operational loss of the ship.  I don’t know the ins and outs of naval nuclear power plants but, conceptually, a damaged ancillary system (cooling, for example) might be the source of a radiation leak even though the reactor had no direct damage.  Depending on the location and spread of the leak the carrier might have to be abandoned or operations halted from a relatively small amount of physical damage.

As I say, I have no inside information about the likelihood of such a scenario but the potential for radiation related battle damage seems all too high.  This factor, alone, strongly sways me away from nuclear power.

Midlife Refueling.  We have seen in recent post discussions that the stated midlife refueling costs for carriers are mostly fraudulent in the sense that the Navy includes extensive overhaul costs with the nuclear refueling costs (see, "Nuclear Carrier Refueling Costs").  So, again, we’re left with no actual, verifiable, authoritative costs to look at.  It seems clear, however, that of the multi-billion dollar overhaul and refueling costs that the Navy cites, the vast majority of it is for non-nuclear work.


So, where does all this leave us?  Well, it leaves us right where we started which is clueless.  We have no actual comprehensive cost figures to examine and what partial cost figures we have seem to be a wash – depending on what is included/excluded.  Therefore, I see no definitive conclusion based on costs.

Manning is a non-issue with manning levels seeming to be comparable for modern nuclear plants.

Operational benefits of nuclear power are limited and not significant.

The only factor that seems significant is the issue of battle damage and, unfortunately, we have no reliable assessment of the likelihood or severity of such an occurrence.

Once upon a time, when we were dependent on foreign oil, one could make a compelling argument for nuclear power based on our strategic vulnerability to oil shortages during war.  Today, however, the US is essentially energy independent so that argument is invalid.  This does, however, highlight the benefits of ensuring that our strategic resources are under our control (I’m looking at you, rare earths!).  But, I digress …

In the end, we wind up arguing about nebulous numbers.  Is it any wonder I find myself ambivalent about the whole issue?  If I had to offer a conclusion, I’d lean towards conventional power on the basis of the battle damage issue but, lacking definitive information on the subject, my ‘lean’ is not very strong.

I can conclusively and definitively state that I am deeply and profoundly ambivalent about nuclear power.


(1)General Accounting Office, “NAVY AIRCRAFT CARRIERS, Cost-Effectiveness of Conventionally and
Nuclear-Powered Carriers”, Aug-1998, GAO/NSIAD 98-1

(2)Navy Matters, “Forrestal – Ford Comparison”, 21-Oct-2019,

(3)Navy Matters, “Nuclear Carrier Refueling Cost”, 20-Nov-2019,

(4)Navy Matters, “Carrier Costs”, 23-Sep-2019,

(5)Navy Matters, “Ford Design Considerations”, 23-Mar-2020


  1. Other positive CVN factors:
    - No exhaust on a CVN which causes additional corrosion to the planes passing through it on landing for conventional.
    - Less turbulence from a smaller island with a CVN.

    I contend the cost is really stacked against a CVN for the following:
    -1987 SLEP of Kitty Hawk 1.772 billion in 2020 dollars
    -1991 SLEP of JFK 1.647 billion adjusted for inflation
    -Those nuclear watch standers cost more to train and get paid more. They also can get high paying jobs outside the military. A conventional plant operator only has a small US fleet to go to and those ships would still mostly have different propulsion. Keeps them in the navy.
    -Without a strong commercial sector, all the reactor work, fuel, design, and test the reactors is its own giant federal supply chain. I would say the fix is more nuclear power generally, but reality is the commercial world is moving bigger ships with less gas and growing power needs when you look at the cruise industry. If we follow your model and deploy flattops less and train more domestically the day to day need for a CVN shrinks as does the support need for a conventional carrier. The need will be to have surge capacity in Oilers.
    - Total CVN costs are still unknown. CVN-65 hasn't been scrapped yet.
    - CVNs are geographically limited for repairs to the dock in NNS, Norfolk, and Puget Sound. NNS is always full with a refueling. They are to build another dock in Puget Sound. A conventional CV could still dock in Pearl, Yokosuka, Toulon, potentially Philly, Potentially Bayonne. Hunters Point and Long Beach are gone. Aside from size the CVN needs more hotel services pier side for a home port.

    1. On top of this, making a port suitable for homeporting a CVN costs billions (up to $7B to make HMAS Stirling a suitable CVN base). In theory, a CV would be much cheaper to homeport abroad.

    2. "making a port suitable for homeporting a CVN costs billions"

      Really? Tell me about the costs.

    3. Not sure about HMAS Sterling, but I think making the pier ready in Yokosuka was 250 million in2003? The plan to dredge Mayport was 46.3 million in 2009. Guam 67 million 2014. Not sure about costs to extend the dock in Norfolk or the costs to upgrade everything from Nimitz to Ford standard. I also wonder what the risks are when the dock a CVN not for a refuel. They keep that reactor running. What happens when the dock gets knocked apart in a storm or attack?

    4. None of that sounds like nuclear related costs, just normal costs bringing a dock for a large ship up to standard.

      I can't imagine any risks docking a nuclear carrier that wouldn't also apply to a conventional ship.

    5. There are some additional security risks that have to be addressed with nukes. And I don't believe nukes ever go completely cold iron. As I understand it, there are some needs for cooling water to be circulated around the core even if the plant is idled.

    6. HMAS Sterling was briefly proposed by CSIS as the potential host for CVBG back in 2012.
      Sterling is designed to for frigates, destroyers, subs and tenders. It could fit an LHD at a pinch but would require significant drenching and a whole new wharf for a CVN. Additional wharves and facilities would also be needed to host escorts. The cost was estimated at somewhere around $750 million to $1 billion total, not $7 billion.

      Currently, when CVBGs visit Western Australia they dock at the much larger civilian dockyards at Fremantle, not at HMAS Sterling.

    7. "HMAS Sterling"

      Let's all get our facts straight. The described changes were needed to accommodate ANY large ship. They were not unique to nuclear powered carriers.

    8. Mayport, FL has been consistently mentioned as a possible CVN home port. The problem (as I understand it), is the lack of a nuclear repair facility. Adding this could cost somewhere in the hundreds of millions to low billions. YMMV.

    9. Yeah, it. has nothing specific to do with nuclear propulsion. The work would be to accomodate ships with a large draft, and new wharves that could handle the weight of a carrier.
      It's only to do with scale and size not propulsion. The same would apply to an equally sized conventionally powered carrier.

    10. There were specifics regarding a "nuclear repair facility" that obviously wouldn't be needed for conventional ships. Unclear how much that contributes to the cost.

    11. " Unclear how much that contributes to the cost. "

      So why did you make the comment? If you can't offer a specific example or a specific cost then the statement is on the order of an unsupported rumor. The standard of this blog is data and logic. Go find some! I mean that sincerely. Do some investigation and see if there actually is nuclear-specific accommodations and, if so, what they cost. I'd be fascinated to hear what you find.

      I suspect that there is little or no nuclear-specific accommodations because I can't think of anything that would make sense. However, I'm not a nuclear operator so there could be something I'm not aware of.

      This is a great opportunity for us to learn about this. See what you can find and let us know.

    12. You "suspect"? where's your evidence for this? You have a detailed understanding of the maintenance requirements of a nuclear carrier? Impressive.

      "Propulsion plant work, on the other hand, consists of maintenance and repairs related to the carrier’s nuclear reactors and associated systems that are largely
      performed in a controlled environment. This type of work is primarily performed by public shipyard personnel. Public shipyard personnel can also perform the nonpropulsion plant work performed by the private sector if needed. In order to support the required propulsion plant work, additional facilities will need to be
      constructed at Naval Station Mayport, including a controlled industrial facility that is used for the inspection, modification, and repair of radiologically controlled equipment and components. During the carrier and planned incremental availabilities, public shipyard personnel (most likely from Norfolk Naval Shipyard)
      will travel to Naval Station Mayport to perform the propulsion plant-related work.
      The propulsion plant maintenance strategy for Mayport is based on the model that has been used for nuclear carriers homeported at North Island Naval Air Station, San
      Diego, where public shipyard personnel (normally from Puget Sound Naval Shipyard) travel to North Island to perform this work during carrier and planned incremental
      availabilities. "

    13. "You "suspect"? where's your evidence for this? You have a detailed understanding of the maintenance requirements of a nuclear carrier? Impressive."

      I know I stung your pride a little bit so I'll give you a bit of a pass on this. Here's what I said, which you completely ignored:

      "I suspect that there is little or no nuclear-specific accommodations because I can't think of anything that would make sense. However, I'm not a nuclear operator so there could be something I'm not aware of."

      See? No claim to any expertise and, in fact, just the opposite. I also made clear that I was purely speculating. So, you had your answer without the need to be snarky. I'll leave it at that.

      Now, to address the rest of your comment, you've provided one example of a nuclear carrier related facility need: what sounds like a small lab/shop test facility for the traveling techs to use when working on a carrier. See? You did some research and found something and we all benefit. Thanks!

      Did you find any costs? A shop for traveling techs doesn't sound terribly expensive but I'd love to see some actual costs.

    14. Sorry, don't have time to be an RA.

      That GAO doc has some costs in there. Maybe you can find what you're looking for there.

    15. No problem. You've pretty well confirmed what I suspected, that there are no great nuclear-specific requirements or costs associated with carrier ports. Thanks!

  2. (Don McCollor)...the only place nuclear really (kind of) makes sense are BIG ships (aka carriers) and subs. They are not tethered to their fuel supply (although carrier escorts are)[NR-1 was an exception]…

    1. ".the only place nuclear really (kind of) makes sense are BIG ships"

      Why? Why does a nuclear carrier make sense given that its escorts require constant refueling?

    2. Don't the CVNs sometime act as the oiler and the CSG boogie out in front of the support?

    3. Carriers have, in the past, refueled escorts. Whether that's still the practice today, I don't know.

    4. There are a few studies out there about nuke vs conventional costs. Most were brought about by the high/increasing cost of oil in the past. It was interesting to see that at $X per barrel, the recommendation for nuclear powered DDs and CGs would win out...

    5. "They are not tethered to their fuel supply (although carrier escorts are)"
      I take exception to that comment. They are tethered to refueler assets. The air wing does not run on nuke power. If a carrier is doing its mission and flying a full sortie rate, fuel runs out quickly. Thus having a refuelr/supply ship run alongside.

    6. They also require other kinds of stores and supplies, food being the obvious one.

    7. "If a carrier is doing its mission and flying a full sortie rate, fuel runs out quickly."

      While your overall point about needing refueling support is valid, your example of a 'full sortie rate' is not - at least not during pseudo-peacetime. Carriers simply don't fight that way. I'm going to keep hammering on this. Carriers go out, execute a mission, and return to base to refuel and resupply. There is no such thing as a wartime maximum, sustained sortie rate. If a carrier is sitting in one spot trying to run sortie after sortie, it will be sunk. Carriers survive by moving, striking, and moving. The history of carrier warfare clearly demonstrates this.

      Even the Vietnam days of standing on a station and providing strike support was not 'full sortie rate' operations. The carriers would assemble a strike package, launch, and recover in cycles. There was no attempt to operate in a maximum sortie rate mode.

  3. I have a question that may be pertinent. Back when I was on active duty, there was a big move afoot to move the Navy to one fuel--JP-5 if I recall correctly. I was on the first destroyer to convert to distillate fired boilers, and my last ship was an LST that we were running on JP-5 and the Marines were running everything they had on JP-5 as well, so we only had to carry JP-5. The reason I'm bringing this up is because if the carrier, its aircraft, and its escorts all run on one fuel, then the logistics problem gets easier to solve because there's no issue with needing more of one type and less of another. JP-5 wasn't quite as economical as black oil, but we made up for it with reduced maintenance and ability to run everything--ships, aircraft, vehicles--with one fuel. Are we still doing that today?

    Nuke carriers can and do refuel their escorts. And it's not limited to nukes, we used to do it on Ranger. The nuke has the advantage that it doesn't have to burn ship's fuel, so every drop it can store can go either to aircraft or escorts. And if everybody is burning one fuel, then escort fuel and aircraft fuel are interchangeable.

    Consistent with my Zumwalt high/low approach, I would like 12 carrier strike groups, each with a pair--one big one and one smaller (but still pretty capable) one. In that pairing, I lean toward the big one being nuke and the small one being conventional. Quite frankly, that's more out of history and tradition than anything else, but there is a belief that the people who took us to nuke carriers had some sound reasoning. They were certainly sounder than the folks who gave us the Fords, the LCSs, and the Zumwalts,

    The area where I see nukes offering a big advantage is subs. Being able to pull the plug and disappear for extended periods has significant advantages. Of course, here I go high/low again and would build some smaller nukes, along the lines of the French Barracuda or DARPA Tango Bravo, and would also look at some AIP subs for shallow water/littoral work.

    Back to when I was in Ranger, at that time Enterprise was the fancy new nuke kid on the block, but we felt that we outperformed the Big E, and there was considerable evidence on our side. We weren't called Top Gun for no reason. So a conventional carrier can still accomplish a lot.

    As far as battle damage, I'm guessing that anything that would be likely to compromise the reactor would be a sufficient hit to the engineering spaces that your chances of staying afloat are pretty slim.

    1. Subs are a logical choice for nuke power (agreeing with the need for high/low concept for them also, given the advancements in AIP).
      I think that the case for nuke power shouldnt be about cost, but rather combat capability. If the carrier has unlimited fuel/ range at high speed but the escorts dont - why bother? 99% of the time the additional capabilities it gives wont be combat-useful.
      The battle damage argument is genius however - a battle-damaged CVN could be permanently out of commission if the radiation is bad enough. Leaking radiation can be stopped, but if large parts of the ship are now irradiated & uninhabitable, the ship is a mission kill regardless.

      Obviously, conventional powerpplants can be badly damaged too, but theres no argument that human ability to get in & physically repair these is easier than with a leaking reactor. Considering if CVs in WW2 were nuke-powered, how many of the battle-damaged ones that limped back to port & were returned to service before the end of the war could have done so if they had nuclear powerplants? That would be an interesting topic that I'm not qualified to comment on really, but I bet there would have been several that couldnt be repaired within that window.

    2. Ugh, I forgot to add in that battle-damaged Subs are ... not as much of an issue; they sink or survive. So the same argument isnt as strong for conventional vs nuke subs.

    3. A CV burning exclusively JP-5 could use its entire ships bunker as a combination of propulsion fuel and aviation fuel. When transiting at high speed, when aviation ops are lower, it could allocate more of its overall bunker towards propulsion. Once it refuels in theater, it could be the reverse.

      Kennedy had 1.8M gallons of aviation fuel and 2.4M gallons of ships fuel. If it used only JP-5, it would actually carry more than a larger Nimitz (4.2M gallons vs 3.5M gallons), even though some would still be needed for propulsion.

  4. Would nuclear escorts present a ww1 "fleet in being" kind of conundrum?

    An escort has to be expendable to an extent; willing to take a hit or draw fire so the CV does not. A destroyer or frigate without a reactor is more expendable than a warship with one.

    You'd almost need escorts for your nuclear escort, to ensure the enemy doesn't destroy your nuclear destroyer.

    1. With Burke's costing $1,8 billion per are they really expendable?

  5. Does anyone know the rough extra fuel required for a conventional carrier if it was part of a carrier battle group. IE assuming 1 Tico, and 3 AB'S would the carrier increase group fuel consumption by 30%, 50%, 100%?

    For my uneducated eye, Damage / "Repairabilly" and the fact CVN's speed is limited to the fuel on the escorts would make me go conventional.

    Personally, unless you can demonstrate a big advantage in going nuclear I wouldn't, but that's not very scientific just personal. As you say (to para phase Rumsfeld) there is that many known unknowns never mind the unknown unknowns we will never know. Especially as any investigation into which is the best solution would probably be decided before the investigation started and fixed to get the desired result, so makes it impossible for us to come to a fact based conclusion.

    Anyway I think the navy has go bigger problems to resolve than how to powers their carriers. Even the Ford can move even if it can not launch, land or arm is aircraft. IE fuel type for my next generation carrier would be on page 2 of my "to do list" if I was in charge of navy procurement.

  6. Given the extra power requirements for EMALS, computer-controlled everything, laser weapons etc, I suspect that nuclear would be needed and a conventional carrier would need far more engine power than Kennedy had. Of course, if you kept steam catapaults etc you could manage at the older power levels.

    To be really radical, you could use less-sophisticated engines that did not have electronic engine control so when an EMP event happened you could just take new spark plugs out of a protected box and re-start the engines.....

    1. Laser weapon err ok as soon thay fit a bunch on Zumwalt and show doing something beside a canned test I will think that is a good design rational.

    2. Isn't this only a factor of the thermal efficiency of the conventional plant? Gas turbines around 40%, Boilers about 50% and diesel around 60%? And gas turbines get better when they add the steam system tied to getting more power from the exhaust heat in big ships like the cruise industry. The old steam catapults needed steam plants, right? What was the thermal efficiency of the entire system? What weight and volume did that system require vs what we now have on Ford. Tough questions no one ever seems to give us answers regarding.

  7. Sort speculatively and big picture and without any data I'd say nuclear power is likely more expensive in that big picture. The US is not France. We really don't build hardly any reactors anymore, we don't train many nuclear engineers, we don't spend much on innovation nor does our industry.

    That means the US has a fairly tiny industrial base to make a nuclear powered ship, and the US government has little choice but to go always to same contractors. That I think is certainly going to raise costs vs non nuclear.

    For the kind of subs we want its a choice that has to be and cost is not a key consideration. But why make a CV nuclear when is consorts are not. We loose flexibility in biding. Tangential - but given shrinking air wings why not similar to even smaller conventional ships - again more to be bid across multiple yards. That would of course create a deeper production base in some future extended war.

    1. It would be good if we could have a platform other yards could bid for. Or bid for part of it. Something where we could get Philly or even Nassco involved. What's goofy with nuclear is that whereas we can't even design our own ships built in our own yards some of the time, its actually our reactor designs China builds for their own nuclear power industry. The funny part is, the new reactors are much safer than what we have lingering on here, yet China has cooled on nuclear since Fukushima as they fear their own public sentiment. So NIMBYs in China are impacting one of our successful engineering products.

  8. As CNO noted difficult to find costs for nuclear, dev and build of reactors plus their nuclear fuel cores and expense of disposing of the highly radio active elemnts, can anyone point to a source providing cost for the R&D and procurement of the new A1B nuclear reactors developed for Ford, have been unable to find info, makes it look like figures and sources of funding hidden under cloak of secrecy as revealing costs to light of day would be too embarrassing.

    Mentioned previously Modley's comment October 28, 2018 USNI News

    Modly noted that the carrier strike group has always been a large expense for the Navy but that today it constitutes a much larger percentage of the bill. In the 1980s, the carrier strike group cost about 14 percent of the total Navy operating cost. Today it’s 31 percent. “We have to think about how we reverse that trend,” he said.

    The big change from the 1980s to now is the carriers 100% nuclear whereas in the 1980s if my figures correct it was 8 conventional powered and 6 newish nuclear carriers and none reached stage requiring expense of mid-life refuelling, so question is it the CVNs driving the explosion in O&M costs, CSIS reported the average O&M per ship that we’re spending is roughly double what we spent in the ’80s and ’90.

    1. "difficult to find costs for nuclear, dev and build of reactors"

      You may be missing one of the main points of the post which is the question of what to include. If you're going to try to include the developmental costs for a new version of a reactor then, for the sake of consistency, you need to include the developmental costs for any new conventional turbine, diesel, combining gear, fuel pump, etc. Similarly, if you're going to include the cost of fuel cores and ultimate disposal then you need to include the costs of conventional fuel exploration, drilling, extraction, transport, processing, refinement, storage, distribution, etc. and the ultimate cost of scrapping/recycling of all that infrastructure and equipment when adding up conventional costs.

      Do you get the point?

      I have never seen a study that fairly and evenly compared costs. The reports invariably favor one side or the other of the issue by the factors that they include and exclude. As I said in the post, you can come up with any cost you want and any conclusion you want by manipulating the factors you include/exclude.

    2. CNO - The Point

      With nuclear the total development cost of the new A1B reactor has to funded by total sale of 8 units for the four Ford class carriers, maybe possibility of few more, whereas if you take the conventional power plants eg GE GT LM2500 it has sold well over a thousand units and so development costs only minor element of cost as it can be spread over a major order magnitude of higher numbers.

      Fuel, very limited info on nuclear, assuming very specialized/expensive/radio active plant built to meet Navy specific requirements, assume operated by DoE. Re your comment "Similarly, if you're going to include the cost of fuel cores and ultimate disposal then you need to include the costs of conventional fuel exploration, drilling, extraction, transport, processing, refinement, storage, distribution, etc. and the ultimate cost of scrapping/recycling of all that infrastructure and equipment when adding up conventional costs." it applies equally to fossil and nuclear, but nuclear costs will fall totally on taxpayer.

      Scrapping of nuclear carriers looking $5 billion plus reading GAO reports. Enterprise was deactivated, Dec 2012 at Norfolk, towed to Newport News Shipyard for inactivation, in preparation for dismantlement and disposal, it cost $863 million to complete its inactivation, removing the nuclear fuel from the reactors and taking off equipment and other materials, the last of the eight reactors was defueled  Dec 2016, with decommissioning Feb 2017 and was then stricken from the Naval Vessel Registry (NVR).  In Apr 2018 NNS stored it at Hampton Roads and two years later awaiting Navy decision/funding for Enterprise final disposal plan.

      Scrapping conventional carriers eg Ranger CV-61, NAVSEA paid one cent to transport and dismantle June 2017 (16,000 miles from Bremerton to Brownsville, Texas )

    3. "the total development cost of the new A1B reactor has to funded by total sale of 8 units for the four Ford class carriers,"

      Semi-true. The development costs of the reactor are spread over ALL reactors and nuclear work both commercial and military. Thus, the costs are spread over a WIDE array of business ventures. If the A1B reactor were truly a one-of-a-kind with absolutely no crossover technology or methods then your statement would be completely true but the reactors borrow heavily from all of the manufacturer's nuclear work.

      The larger point is that if you're going to include a specific type of costs for nuclear then you have to include the same type of costs for conventional and vice versa. This was the point of the post. No study I've yet seen has been consistent in their comparison of factors and you, yourself, seem to have fallen into it, as well!

      You cite the very small number of reactors as a cost disadvantage without simultaneously acknowledging the advantages of small numbers and a locked in market. The reactor manufacturer doesn't need a sales force, marketing, or ad department to any great degree because their naval reactor work is locked in. In contrast, the LM2500 manufacturer has to compete hard to get work and needs a much larger sales, marketing, ad force which adds to the costs. You see how the nuclear debate quickly breaks down into a case of which factors you want to include and exclude?

      " nuclear costs will fall totally on taxpayer."

      Oh, come on, now. You understand basic business, right? The entire cost of the conventional fuel business is paid for, 100%, by the taxpayer although we refer to him, in that case, as the consumer. The consumer and the taxpayer are the same person!

      "NAVSEA paid one cent to transport and dismantle"

      Again, by consistent. Ranger didn't pull up to the dock the final time and just sit there, untouched, until NAVSEA paid one cent to have it hauled away. The ship was stripped of equipment, tanks were voided and made safe, spaces were decontaminated, systems were drained, etc. All of that cost money. You noted the cost to 'inactivate' Enterprise but you totally ignored the cost to inactivate Ranger. Be consistent. You appear to be trying to make a case for nuclear power being significantly more expensive and you're doing exactly what I said in the post: you're cherry picking costs to make your case and not equally applying the factors you've chosen. You are an example of the post!

      I don't say this maliciously. Everyone in the nuclear debate does it, often without realizing it. You see it, now, right? That was the point of the post and why the conclusion was that there was no conclusion possible.

    4. My gut feeling is nuclear costs are hidden as too embarrassing to disclose, as NICO said "I doubt it's possible to really compare the two, there's so many variables and let's face it, so much of the costs on the nuke side are classified...maybe it's classified to avoid showing the true costs of a nuclear carrier?"

      If this is the case Navy will continue to spend excess billions on the CVNs, the only possibility of the true costs being revealed was the Modly March Navy Future Carrier Study, but the nearly first action by the new Acting SecNav McPherson was to cancel it May 12 and when nominee Braithwaite was testifying in front of Congress for the SecNav position he gave full support to Ford program, he would be mad not to if he wanted confirmation as there would be a threat to the nuclear element of the Ford 57,000 industry jobs, pork barrel politics reign supreme.

      Nuclear Costs, a few chinks of light on development costs of a nuclear reactor, S1B for Columbia. CRS Columbia reports over the years include figures for PE0603570N (line 049)/Project 3219 the R&D for the new SSBN(X) nuclear reactor plant S1B, looked at the reports thru the years, classes of spend changes over the years, but adding the figures from start in FY2010 and with projected spend to FY2025 total is $2,986 million if I my arithmetic correct. Think more than enough fat in the $3 billion that would more than fund "a sales force, marketing, or ad department" :), seriously don't think for a minute GE spent a billion dollars developing the LM2500 a derative of an aircraft GT.

      Re the nuclear scrapping costs you are quite right to pick up that I did not include cost for inactivation of the Ranger, apologize, whereas noted Enterprise cost $863 million including removing the nuclear fuel from the reactors and taking off equipment and other materials, have no info for nuclear/non-nuclear cost split, did not have cost for Ranger, it was an oversight that I did not highlight.

      The nuclear Enterprise future costs compared to the Ranger's one cent Navy have the following future costs to fund, dismantlement and disposal phase of the highly radioactive nuclear reactors etc. The first is to have the Navy manage the job but let the commercial industry do the non-nuclear work. The Navy would allow industry to scrap the non-nuclear parts of the ship but preserve a 27,000-ton propulsion space containing the radio active reactors. The propulsion space would then be transported to Puget Sound Naval Base, where the reactors would be removed and sent to Hanford. This is the most expensive option, costing a minimum of $1.05 billion up to $1.55 billion and taking 10 years to complete, starting in 2034. The second option: let commercial industry do everything, with a reactor storage location to be determined. This would cost $750 million to $1.4 billion and would take 5 years to complete, starting in 2024 

      The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program says the civilian federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission could oversee a commercial effort, but the NRC says Navy nuclear reactors are not its job. It’s not clear exactly why NNPP doesn’t want the job, although it currently has a backlog of 10 submarine reactors and two cruiser reactor to deal with at Puget Sound Navy Shipyard (probably why a Navy effort won’t start until 2034, still has the USS Long Beach CGN-9 decommissioned May 1995!!).

      Your point that of why the conclusion was that there was no conclusion possible would contest in that there is more than enough information leaking out that nuclear carriers are very, very expensive and nuclear reactors not needed, purely in my view:)

    5. I trust you understand that I'm not arguing that nuclear power is more or less expensive than conventional? I'm saying that we don't have enough actual data to draw a valid conclusion one way or the other. You may have a feeling about it but (whichever way) but it's unsupported by hard data.

      Further, I'm pointing out (the point of the post) that NO ONE fairly and evenly compares the various factors consistently. For further example, you note the cost of dismantling Enterprise (even after the nuclear inactivation) yet you make no mention of the cost to inactivate and dismantle all the tankers that conventional power requires. Those ships (and wells, and tank farms, and distilleries, etc.) all need to eventually be inactivated and disposed of. That's a long term cost imposed by the choice of conventional power and yet you ignore it while loudly pointing out the cost to dismantle Enterprise. Consistency! If you're going to include long term, ultimate disposal costs for nuclear then you need to do the same for conventional. I'm not debating costs, I'm debating consistency. People (you seem to be one of them) seem to think that conventional power has no costs beyond the price of fuel and nothing could be further from the truth.

      More factor inconsistency: nuclear critics point to the mid-life refuel and overhaul of the carriers as a huge cost but they totally ignore the maintenance done on the fleet of tankers (as if they're free to operate), the wells, the refineries, etc.

      "My gut feeling is nuclear costs are hidden as too embarrassing to disclose,"

      Possible but I always tend to look for the more mundane explanations over semi-conspiracy theories. In this case, I don't think the Navy is 'hiding' the costs, I think they just don't care enough to be bothered itemizing them. They've made their decision to use nuclear power so, from their perspective, why bother expending more time providing spreadsheets of detailed cost breakdowns that benefit no one but people like us? They've got other things to spend their time on. See? A simpler explanation. Sherlock Holmes: the simplest explanation that fits the facts is invariably the correct one.

    6. " The development costs of the reactor are spread over ALL reactors and nuclear work both commercial and military."

      What industry? The US has almost no civilian industry.

      Consider this list

      Sure GE stills makes third place but...

      I suspect most of that work is was by Hitachi for the Asian market - mostly for Japan in Japan.

      The US by in large for the few new civilian reactors it has built builds old designs.

      The military is essentially aside from a few DOE projects a closed loop.

      The number of engineering grads in nuclear engineering is what some 1/3 of it peak in the 70s?

  9. As for the midlife refueling costs, my understanding is that the Ford-class and the Columbia-class do not require a mid-life refueling overhaul. Thought, it would be interesting to know if that caused an increase in the installation cost.

    1. Fords will have mid life. They aren't life of ship. You can dig around and find RCOH schedules for them. If they had been, it would have been advertised more.

    2. "Ford-class and the Columbia-class do not require a mid-life refueling overhaul."

      From what I've seen, the Ford will require a mid-life refueling.

      As far as subs go, I note that many of the Los Angeles class subs have been retired before needing a refueling!

    3. I saw this line at the Navy Fact File on their CVNs and interpreted it as the cost of the midlife refueling, "Each ship in the new class will save nearly $4 billion in total ownership costs during its 50-year service life, compared to the NIMITZ-class." It probably refers to the savings from the reduced manpower and other improvements. Oopsie.

      The Columbia's though are SSBNs and with a limited number, I would think they would be retired early only under special circumstances. Such as a new nuclear treaty that reduced the number of platforms/launch tubes we were allowed to have. But, who knows, they may have to extend their lives much like we're doing with the Ohio-class until their replacements are commissioned.

  10. I've always thought it would be prudent to build 1 nuke escort and 1 nuke supply ship with each CVN built.

    We build dozens and dozens of nuke subs, so I dont really get the heartburn over nuke surface combatants.

    1. What would one nuclear escort accomplish? I could see an argument for an entire nuclear escort group but just one?

    2. To my mind, if mandated by law - as we do force levels of divisons, fighter wing equivalents, and carriers, - would force the Navy to maintain at some largish nuclear surface combatants. There would be guaranteed availability if we had 1:1 building schedules.

      In short, legislate some small level of common sense in procurement strategy. If carriers are too big to fail, like in passing legislation, add in some pork for nuclear cruisers and a aoe(n) for each CVN.

    3. I'm still missing whatever concept you have in mind. A single nuclear escort in the midst of dozens of conventional escorts offers no advantage. I'm missing your point.

  11. As Nick mentioned, during 80s, USN had a nice mix of conventional/nuclear carriers and safe to say general feeling that I remember of US carriers and air wings when they deployed on time and operated were far better balanced than today. Makes me wonder if going all nuclear was really the best way to go, seems it was "kind of a given" but did USN ever really do the math?!? I can't recall really a debate that we should go all nuclear was CNO mentioned, you can make numbers go either way, just my general recollection. I doubt it's possible to really compare the two, there's so many variables and let's face it, so much of the costs on the nuke side are classified...maybe it's classified to avoid showing the true costs of a nuclear carrier?

    I tried to find info on the USN nuclear cruisers, not much there either, interesting to note that USN got rid of those cruisers really fast, add numerous LA class subs that were never refueled or decommissioned with still years left on them, I bet USN knows the real numbers on nuclear reactors and it's horrendously expense for anything else than carriers and subs to justify.

    I was even looking at civilian nuclear reactor prices, again, it's tough to know really the breakdown with out clear definitions of costs, even civilian plants are horrendous costs wise, reason why the industry is pretty much dependent on gvt subsidies and backing, there's really not much private financing, too risky and expensive, I think that says a lot!

    Are the new reactors going on the Ford and Columbia similar? Or they pretty much different designs? Is that one reason we keep nuke carriers, kind of helps with the industrial base having more than just nuke subs? What would happen if we went back to conventional carriers, apart from the logistics on the fleet, would that impact the nuke subs design and industrial base? I don't know...

  12. "If nuclear power conveys a significant tactical or operational benefit, that would compensate for, or outweigh, many disadvantages. However, the only operational benefit is the reduced need for tanker support and even that is only a limited benefit since the carrier’s escorts all need tanker support."

    Moreover, the carrier air wing needs fuel as well, requiring extended refueling at sea ever few days during high intensity air operations.

    This is why Dr Friedman pointed out in his book on carriers that carriers were among the ships least suitable for nuclear power.


  13. I think that as a matter of politics--both internal Navy politics and congressional politics--it is going to be hard to build a conventionally powered super carrier in the near future. I think there is some sentiment in congress for building a mix of nuke super carriers and smaller conventional carriers. IIRC, John McCain was a proponent of that approach.

    The one advantage that nukes have is that they can carry more fuel for both escorts and their air wing. Whether that's worth the cost is debatable. If they are fueling the whole escort squadron, that advantage probably gets used up pretty quickly.

  14. Replies
    1. Hopefully something more enlightening than that! :)

  15. Wouldn't the nuke powered one enable alot more power generation though for quite a few of the "futuristic" weaponry? That big handicap has been the reason so many things cannot be used when it comes to downsizing say a rail gun or lasers. As pointed out astutely on this size, lasers could have limited usage, and range could be one. But if you had a serious load of them, say equivalent to what the old Bofors were on old carriers, you could reverse that, and you'd need alot of power (nope, I don't have the stats). Ditto on a rail gun, or many of them, which would have less weather restrictions, a nice counterbalance to lasers, and in turn provide more "shooters" for self-defense. One way to lessen carrier debates is make it more survivable on its own and let the fleet be more offensive oriented (maybe a cruiser and destroyer for ballistic missile defense as that seems too much to ask of lasers- rail guns maybe another matter with guided projectiles reaching several miles up due to the extreme velocities). A carrier that can rely less on other ships, and free up what is too short on fleet resources for the price of nuke power seems a win win. That could as well go for the next large surface combatant especially if it's Cruiser mode and not a destroyer replacement. Just seems easier to explain than say Berger's new Marine Corps of island squatters.

    1. "Wouldn't the nuke powered one enable alot more power generation though for quite a few of the "futuristic" weaponry?"

      Well, yes, kind of. Nuclear power doesn't produce electricity directly. It produces heat which can be converted to electricity indirectly through steam turbines, for example.

      Similarly, conventional power converts fuel energy to electricity through combustion and turbines or diesel generators. If you want more power you simply install more generators.

      Nuclear power has no inherent advantage in producing electricity other than you don't need to keep adding fuel. You still need to add more turbines/generators to a nuke plant if you want more electricity.


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