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 andNuclear-Powered Carriers”, Aug-1998, GAO/NSIAD 98-1
(2)Navy Matters, “Forrestal – Ford Comparison”, 21-Oct-2019,https://navy-matters.blogspot.com/2019/10/forrestal-ford-comparison.html
(3)Navy Matters, “Nuclear Carrier Refueling Cost”, 20-Nov-2019,https://navy-matters.blogspot.com/2019/11/nuclear-carrier-refueling-cost.html
(4)Navy Matters, “Carrier Costs”, 23-Sep-2019,https://navy-matters.blogspot.com/2019/09/carrier-costs.html
(5)Navy Matters, “Ford Design Considerations”, 23-Mar-2020https://navy-matters.blogspot.com/2020/03/ford-design-considerations.html