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Declining Commercial Nuclear Industry Creates Risk for Navy Carriers, Subs

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) is pushed by tugboats as the ship enters Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding to begin Post Shakedown Availability. US Navy Photo

The Navy’s ability to maintain and manufacture aircraft carrier and submarine propulsion systems is at risk, a panel of experts say, because the commercial nuclear industry has been in failing health for two decades.

Today, the Navy operates more nuclear reactors than the entire U.S. commercial reactor industry. The Navy’s 101 reactor-powered carriers and submarines provide an unmatched advantage to operate around the world continuously. Building these reactors, though, relies on a shrinking pool of vendors, Adm. James Caldwell, the director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, said at the Nuclear Energy, Naval Propulsion, and National Security Symposium at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The base is small. The base is healthy and capable of supporting our Navy propulsion needs. It’s sustainable through the program of record, but it takes a lot of energy to sustain that,” Caldwell said.

For example, the Navy only has one contractor making reactor plant heavy-components and only a handful of companies make the flow control, valves, pumps and other parts, Caldwell said. Several companies make reactor instrument controls.

The vendors the nuclear Navy relies on are being hurt by a retracting commercial nuclear power plant industry. Cheaper fuel alternatives, such as natural gas, are making it too expensive for power companies to run their nuclear plants, said Mike Wallace, a senior advisor at CSIS and former Chairman of the Constellation Energy Nuclear Group. Wallace also is a former Navy nuclear submarine officer.

As a result, today the U.S. has 98 commercial reactors, and Wallace expects this number will continue decreasing. With fewer commercial reactors operating, there is not enough business for the nuclear industry’s vendors.

“We are continuing if not accelerating in a decline, impacting not only domestic nuclear energy but also the infrastructure to support naval propulsion and the infrastructure supporting our weapons complex,” Wallace said.

A solid 30-year shipbuilding plan and stable budget environment would signal to the nuclear industry they could earn a return on investing in new equipment or expanding their business operations, Caldwell said.

“What helps the commercial industry helps the Navy nuclear propulsion industry,” Caldwell said. “More vendors mean more affordability; also means the ability to have some innovation that might help us out.”

In 16 years – between 1946, when then Capt. Hyman Rickover was in charge of developing nuclear propulsion for the Navy, and 1962, when USS Enterprise (CVN-65) began its maiden deployment – the Navy went from considering a theoretical propulsion unit to operating the an eight-reactor ship larger than anything the world had ever seen, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said during a keynote speech at the event.

“The speed this nation can achieve if we put our minds to it is just stunning,” Richardson said.

Wallace was not so sure the commercial nuclear industry would survive. He doesn’t see the federal government doing enough to ensure the health of these companies, which are vital to maintaining a nuclear Navy.

“Under current conditions, in the next 15 to 20 years we could see all commercial plants shut down in the U.S.,” Wallace said. “It’s a trend line down that, at some point, hits a click because you don’t want to be the last one holding a commercial plant.”

Meanwhile, Russia and China are rapidly expanding their state-sponsored nuclear energy industries, which include a robust export market, said William Ostendorff, a retired Navy captain and a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. Ostendorff is also a former commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Russia and China are building dozens of nuclear power plants around the world, in countries such as Turkey and Pakistan, Ostendorff said. The U.S. nuclear power industry is building two plants domestically and zero overseas.

“U.S. companies lack the capital and structure to emulate the Russia and Chinese models,” Ostendorff said.

  • airider

    Recommend a few things:

    If DoD needs to retain this critical capability and NAVSEA 08 is the main innovator and customer, then it’s time to federalize the capability. Single company, sole source acquisition is not acquisition; it’s a subsidized industry setup just like in Europe. Let’s stop paying more than required for the capability, via profit margins to the company, and just federalize it..

    The country has an opportunity to enhance its energy industry by dialing back the restrictions on new nuclear power plant construction, and resurrecting a U.S. capability that can reprocess nuclear fuel. The number of fissionable nuclei within the currently “used” fuel remains high and reprocessing would do several things…establish a new industry and new jobs centered around reprocessing, allow the nuclear power plants to empty their spent fuel storage (which is filling up), reduce the need for long term storage of the spent fuel (since the fuel can be reprocessed many times), and provide a sustainable energy source that can be managed completely within U.S. borders without being subject to “global markets” price fluctuations.

    There has been lots of false starts and poorly managed efforts to revitalize the U.S. nuclear industry. I see right now as a prime time to get good leadership behind it and move these efforts forward…..and it can be sold as “Green” since it can help reduce the percentage of power that is produced from oil and coal, while creating new workforce that would supplant the mining workforce that would be reduced.

    • Pete Novick

      Excellent points.

    • RunningBear

      NO!, America has spent 50 years and untold millions of dollars (if not billions) on social engineering to resent nuclear power. Leave them to their foolish ways, dopers prefer the dark!

      Require all military installations to be electrical power independent, with standard military grade power reactors; “No wires outside the fence”. This will rejuvenate the military nuclear industry and remove all of the “tree hugger” restrictions that the NRC laughs about, behind closed doors. Provide design specifications for a limited number of size ratings and any US military facility that doesn’t meet the spec., be closed and sold off to the state (a nuclear BRAC). We’ve spent 30 years combining facilities to achieve jointbases, so now we can take advantage of their acreage and rejuvenate our military portable, nuclear electrical power industry. It might be nice to align these specs with the current demand for reactors in our subs and carriers and might even be the correct timing for re-nuking the cruisers and even some amphibs. Nuclear reactors for shore power would be a big hit during these tumultuous climate change events. Gee!, with Nukes, we could even power saltwater conversion plants and begin to achieve utility independence for all military facilities.
      Fly Navy

      • RobM1981

        Running Bear is correct. We need to embrace Progress and be Progressive. The US Navy has to reflect the norms and preferences of the citizens that it protects. Thus:

        I demand a study on Solar Powered Submarines, with Wind Power as a backup for cloudy days.

        • Leatherstocking

          Sails on an aircraft carrier…. I wonder how high the topgallants will be above the deck?

          • Rocco

            It was done already in WW2

          • vetww2

            See this month’s Maritime Reporter.

      • Duane

        There are no simple solutions as you suggest.

      • PolicyWonk

        America has spent 50 years and untold millions of dollars (if not billions) on social engineering to resent nuclear power…
        Not exactly. After all, we didn’t have to spend anything for the Chernobyl and Fukishima incidents, neither of which includes 3 Mile Island. Each of these incidents had a dramatic negative effect on the nuclear power industry, partially because of less than accurate information, and/or cover-ups, that ultimately endangered and/or got a lot of people killed. In the case with Fukishima, for example, the USS Reagan had to be decontaminated from stem to stern and a number of our sailors lives were endangered while trying to help the Japanese recover from the disaster.

        While it is certainly possible to build vastly safer nuclear reactors (the USN being an outstanding example), the problem of disposal of nuclear waste has not been addressed, even after blowing many billions of dollars on Yucca Mountain for permanent storage of said waste/by products. The Russians and Chinese have governments based largely on dictatorships, where the people have little to say about such policies. In a functioning democracy, this is a much more difficult problem.

        But the USA didn’t have to spend a lot of money directly educating people about the problems and dangers of mismanaged/poorly designed nuclear power: our own major disaster, and those in Russia and Japan provided plenty of education, all by themselves.

        The USA could benefit by standardizing nuclear power planet design, using the French model, where all of the plants use identical reactors, and control rooms, etc. This allows for efficient reaction when there are emergencies, as experts can be flown in and will instantly know where everything is and how it all works: in the USA, the reactors and control rooms are all very different, which means experts have to learn the site-specific nature of every installation, when time is of the essence.

        In allowing this to happen, the USA shot itself and the nuclear industry in the foot.

        • John

          “USS Reagan….and a number of our sailors lives were endangered”
          As one who was there I can say authoratatively that lives being endangered is a bunch of BS. Yes, there was some contamination, but the exposure to any personnel was far far below the levels that carry any meaningful health risks. Decontamination was lengthly and expensive true, but this is mainly because the standard is so extermely low that you have to remove every last bit of anything, not because it was that badly contaminated or levels were that high. If you actually look at the science what we consider contaminated and what has been documented to cause actually stastitically significant health risks are very far apart – even Chernobyl has not resulted in anywhere near the impacts everything thinks it did.

          • muzzleloader

            The Fleet Readiness Center Jacksonville was tasked with processing every engine that was attached to the GW airwing at the time of the Fukushima event.
            The task took three years to do, with personal wearing bunny suits and respirators in a clean room.
            The radiation detected was almost zero.

          • NEC338x

            ALARA baby! 10 CFR 20.1003 Poopy suits and respirators in any condition where there is a probability of working with contamination at detectable levels. Of course we can detect minuscule amounts.

        • NavySubNuke

          “In the case with Fukishima, for example, the USS Reagan had to be decontaminated from stem to stern and a number of our sailors lives were endangered while trying to help the Japanese recover from the disaster”
          Yikes —- just a wee bit of overzealous exaggeration here.

        • Graeme Rymill

          Fifteen thousand fatalities in the 2011 Japanese tsunami is a major disaster. Zero or at most one fatality in the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown…..not so much.

        • Duane

          American commercial and naval nuclear power reactors are extremely safe, with a record that is totally unblemished in terms of any deaths due to reactor accidents.

          TMI actually proved the safety of American reactor designs … not a single human being received a dose of radiation that presents any measurable increase in health risk. It was a very expensive accident, in terms of cleaning up the debris, but nobody was hurt.

          Try spending some time in the oil and gas patch, where workers are constantly getting killed and suffering life threatening injuries from a wide variety of causes … from drilling accidents, to sulfur dioxide “burps”, and plain variety industrial type accidents. I once worked at a nuclear facility located square in the middle of the oil patch … one of our biggest challenges was retraining former oil field workers from the local labor force to work to US nuclear safety standards, and to get them to respect safety management as something not to be ignored. It was a very tough process reorienting their minds to even think of safety as something important. But it wasn’t optional – if they didn’t quickly get it, they were shown the door.

          Even the renewable energy sources like windmills and solar panels have their share of industrial accidents.

          The two sunken US SSNs resulted in perfectly protected reactor cores sitting on the bottom of the ocean many thousands of feet down – losses that had nothing to do with reactor safety.

          • vetww2

            Duane, you floor me, I have rarely read a statement as coherent , clear, comprehensive and valid as this. I am going to have to reevaluate my position on you. Great post of yours.

        • vetww2

          This is a very complex and political football. The posts here are very useful and clear.

      • Marauder 2048

        “Require all military installations to be electrical power independent, with standard military grade power reactors; “No wires outside the fence”.”

        Completely agree. They bumped into this recently with the Long Range Discrimination Radar’s partial dependence on the commercial electrical grid. There is a pilot-program to at least study a micro-reactor demonstration at a DOE/DOD facility

        Certainly more needs to be done.

      • vetww2

        Congratulations. Very sharp and innovative approach. Now if we can only get DOD behind it.

      • TomD

        I don’t know the numbers with the reactor industry, but I do know the numbers with the health care insurance industry.

        Private health care insurance companies operate at a cost of about 1% less of gross income than their government counterparts. That 1% savings, of course, is not passed on to the policy holders (customers), it is disbursed to the stockholders and bondholders (owners and debtors). And who are the stockholders and bondholders? About 75% are IRAs, 401ks, pension funds, and the like. The bottom line is that nationalizing health care insurance would hurt the economy.

        Something similar in the realm of unintended effects happened when the markets crashed in 2008. One of the big Wall Street brokerages was about to disburse hundreds of millions in dollars to its employees, but cancelled it due to public criticism. When they cancelled it the governor of New York said “We just lost 80 million dollars in taxes.

        I’d like to see the numbers on the overall effects on the economy of such a move before it is done with the reactor industry.

      • vetww2

        I just reread your post and it is right on target. The anti-Nuc Greens all over the world hope to return to some agrarian utopia, similar to what Hitler dreamed of, which looks good in the shower, but is very foolish. If you think that my Hiler comment is off base, read, “Mein Kampf.”

    • Duane

      You are operating under several misconceptions.

      One, NAVSEA doesn’t run the naval nuclear program … that is and always has been run by NR – Naval Reactors. That was the creation, both administratively and politically, by Admiral Rickover back in the 1940s. NR is its own universe.

      Second, reprocessing of spent fuel is already performed by NR at government owned facilities for our naval spent cores. It has always been done since the beginning of the program.

      Third, reprocessing of spent fuel from civilian reactors is a process that is very different from that of naval reactors, the fuels are themselves very different. Civilian reactors use very low enriched uranium in non-metallic form, while naval reactors use very high enriched uranium in metallic form. Apples and oranges.

      There really aren’t big restrictions against new civilian reactor construction. Rather, the main reason we aren’t building many new reactors today is the economics of the post-fracking world of extremely cheap natural gas. Nuclear simply cannot compete economically with NG at this point in time. Maybe in ten, twenty, or 100 years from now, that will no longer be the case. But in the long run, we’re all dead. The need at the moment is for a competitive number of quality nuclear suppliers, and the long run doesn’t matter. But given that that need is not being met, the natural result will be increased cost to produce nuclear reactor components, at least in the short run.

      • NavySubNuke

        Duane, one quick correction —- NAVSEA 08 IS Naval Reactors. It is just their actual NAVSEA code.
        I’m also fairly certain that the fuel reprocessing is GOCO – Government Owned/Contractor operated just like the rest of NNSA’s facilities. Don’t forget that NAVSEA 08/NR wears both a “Navy” hat and a “DOE/NNSA” hat and has since Rickover (though it was DOE/NNSA in Rickover’s time).

        • Duane

          When I was in it was just called NR, never heard it referred to as NAVSEA08 … maybe that changed some time in the last few decades. Rickover – who WAS NR – reported straight to the CNO .. and in truth, pretty much reported directly to Congress, and routinely went over the head of naval leadership to get his way with Congress.

          As for GOCO contracting at what at least used to be called “NRF”,, yes, of course … but I just wrote that the government owns it, which it does.

          In most of Rickover’s time there was no DOE, which wasn’t created until the 1970s. It was just the Atomic Energy Commission, which handled the civilian reactor safety oversight, and NR.

          • vetww2

            Duane. Information, to clear up a confusion. During the time you address, a lady scientist in Oregon, whose name I have forgotten, headed the NRC. Rickover reported to her on general nuclear matters, but not of those under NAVY CONTROL, or for Navy ships. He was totally in charge of those, as NAVSEA08 , even though he was a 4 star and COMNAVSEA was a 3 star.
            In 1975, as NAVSEA 003, For a while, I controlled his R&D funds, until we got them seperated, to avoid him taking cuts which came down from DOD. There was never a doubt on who controlled the specific R&D.

      • airider


        1) SEA 08 = NR

        2) Yes, but only for Navy reuse in the Navy’s specialized reactor configurations, R&D, etc…

        3) Agree, we need to reprocess both. Since the commercial sector doesn’t need as high an enrichment level based on their reactor designs, the cost to reprocess is lower. Also, with the different types of fissionable products that can be extracted, different reactor types can be used/investigated …

        There is always an economics piece … my view on the non-nuclear high energy density fuels (coal, oil) is we’re getting to a point where it’s getting too expensive to keep them viable (if you include the cost of the wars we’re engaged in to keep the supply flowing). Low energy density fuels (gas, solar, electric) are just that.

        U.S. should start the transition of the high energy density fuels to be primarily focused on nuclear (it’ll take about a century if we start today based on the red tape involved). Low energy density fuels will be limited by our ability store their energy in highly concentrated levels. Lot’s of R&D needs to happen there … looks like lots of places to invest your money.

    • James Bowen

      Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • Nick

    Nuclear propulsion reactors are expensive.

    In July Navy awarded contracts to Fluor Marine Propulsion of approximately $30 billion over ten years to operate the Navy Nuclear Labs comprising the DOE owned locations (including the Bettis and Knolls Atomic Power Laboratories, the Kenneth A. Kesselring Site, and the Naval Reactors Facility) and personnel responsible for developing advanced naval nuclear propulsion technology, providing technical support to ensure the safety and reliability of naval nuclear reactors, training the Sailors who operate the reactors in the U.S. Navy’s submarines and aircraft carriers.

    Also Fluor Marine Propulsion awarded a $1,2B cost-plus-fixed fee contract for naval nuclear propulsion work, options which, if exercised, would bring the cumulative estimated value of this contract to $13.1B – assuming for the Columbia SSBN reactor, $1.1B each, if so would guess Ford’s two rectors costing ~$2B, and with re-fuelling and decommissioning another $2B, total $4B?

    Though certainly see justification for nuclear subs, the justification for carriers looks questionable at that cost.

    • Rocco

      In my opinion reality hits now as older Nimitz class will be sitting next to old CVN -65 on the cost to dispose of them!

      • tom dolan

        Disposal is certainly going to be a problem but in terms of overall operating costs of a nuclear as opposed to conventional and with aircraft carriers long operational life spans is the disposal problem an engineering problem simply waiting a cost effective solution and not some insurmountable issue. The Enterprise is likely to be the test bed for the Nimitz class disposal. I think it unlikely that by the time Nimitz comes up for disposal Enterprise hasn’t been already been safely scrapped having taught how to proceed with future disposals.

        • Duane

          Actually, the “test bed” was designed and implemented decades ago with D&D on our nuclear submarines and former CGNs. Nothing that is involved in D&D on the Enterprise, or any Nimitz class carrier, is materially different from what we’ve been doing for decades. The scale of an individual ship is larger, but it’s the same stuff.

        • Rocco

          Agreed. Hopefully the Nimitz class not so much as it not having as many Reactors as the Nimitz. Having served on the Nimitz plus 2 other conventional carriers I know what it takes. The Nimitz class still has to replenish 2 times a week so makes no difference on operating costs other than the ship needing fuel itself!

        • tim

          What is so expensive? Take out the fuel and store it where we store all other spend fuel. Dismantle the radioactive parts and store in a similar fashion and the rest is scrap metal. On second thought- sell it to the Chinese- they may want to learn how the real thing looks like and compare to their building plans they must have acquired over the years … this post is ment for entertainment only 😉

    • Duane

      Nuclear propulsion is expensive, but it also delivers unrivaled operational capability in both submarines and aircraft carriers. Nukes are our national edge. It is worth any price we need to pay to keep us safe.

      • vetww2


    • Marauder 2048

      The nuclear propulsion plant for Columbia is like ~ $1.7B each. CVN-78 is averaging ~ $2B for its entire propulsion system. Whether it’s cost effective or not depends on energy consumption and $/bbl for the next 50 years. Lots of uncertainty there vs. firmer figures on upfront/lifecycle cost on the nuclear side.

      • Duane

        It’s not cost effective. It’s operationally effective.

        • Marauder 2048

          There are crossover points where it can be both. Just depends on fuel costs/energy consumption.

        • vetww2

          Very well said.

    • disqus_CbFK3MPhJu

      OUR deficit spending is over 2B a day, A DAY!
      1.2B is a rounding error. lets look at EBT cards and free cell phones.

  • Taitennek

    Back to basics…….. coal or sails 🙂

    • NEC338x

      Sails are “green energy”. Maybe the next Administration will make that a priority!

  • tim

    Education is another factor to worry about! The son of our friends has applied out of school to work for the Navy as a nuclear engineer (not as a sailor). That was almost two years ago and they still have not cleared him. He waited for half a year bumming around, than started to work odd jobs. After a year the Navy now puts him in classes, but admin is still not finished. How can that be? He is loosing interest rapidly and now worrying about alternatives if he ever wants to get out of this job later in life, as jobs will become scarce in the commercial market. If an industry dies, you will loose know-how fast! The taxpayers will pay for it somewhere, somehow, via higher energy prices or higher military budgets. With that in mind, I would rather see a more varied energy mix, even when it is government mandated. That mandate should also include guidance for the kind of technology used, so that it indeed reflects a direction the military is also interested in. If it is of strategic interest, unfortunately, the government has to interfere, as our adversaries certainly do. We do not live in a perfect world and pretending we do does not help.

    • NEC338x

      NR Engineer slots are even harder to get than SUB/SWO NUPOC. NR Eng has its own career path – last time I heard there was no Lat Xfrs in or out. Best of luck to your friend’s son.

    • vetww2

      It is caused by an institutiona DISEASE called BEUROCRACY. Its symptoms are ;
      1. never make a decision, if a failure can be traced to you.
      2. a no is is almost always a safe position.
      3. hand off or hire someone to do part or all of your work. EXAMPLE. IRS has a building at New Carrolton, Md larger than the Pentagon, where the main job is contract mgmt, mostly to CTC (or maybe a new name) who has a huge building right next to it, where all the work is done.

  • johnbull

    The Royal Navy (or what’s left of it) builds nuclear submarines at a very slow rate. Economically how do they manage that, if production could be threatened here while we are cranking out two attack boats per year, plus the carriers every five years or so?

  • Eyes open

    “Shrinking base” translates to higher cost, plain and simple.

  • Merlin Dorfman

    …and in the background of the picture, USS Enterprise (CVN-65) is being disassembled (or stored until a disassembly process is developed and approved).

  • James Bowen

    The Navy and the DoD spend much time and effort working about the state of vital industries. There are two better ways to approach this.

    1) Industries in decline that provide vital capabilities should be nationalized if the only way for them to stay in business is for the Federal Government to give them larger contracts.

    2) The Federal Government needs to adopt economic policies with an intent to maximizing our industrial productive capacity instead of one that looks to maximize growth of commerce and corporate bottom lines.

  • Leatherstocking

    It’s more dire than stated here. A number of the vendors are gone and the Admiral can group the survivors but they don’t make every device (pump, valve, et al.) in a product class. Reverse engineering a product with no jigs , test systems or other supporting technologies is more than difficult. We can’t export because of ITAR so our existing business base continues to shrink. The last 8 years of yo-yo budgeting has decimated the supplier base. Many sourced components are only OCONUS manufactured now or obsolete. I’ve got one shipyard clamoring for spares – the original supplier is gone and they modified their system so it’s incompatible with my standard MIL-SPEC product and I’m the only vendor left in this product space. We’re going to look like the Soviet Navy photos in the 1990s with rows of rusting hulks in port.

  • disqus_CbFK3MPhJu

    the DoD is one of the largest, most technically advanced Co. in the world.
    they OWN all the info necessary to create these objects.

    it’s no big deal.

  • Ed L

    Unfair labor practices exist at American private shipyards

    • vetww2


      • Ed L

        It seems that HR for certain companies have a tendency to dismiss workers for the slightest infraction. Apprenticeship suffer according to my inside sources suffer a 20 percent turnover due to lack of a mentor program. They throw those kids out there and let them sink or swim

  • vetww2

    The article paints a very glum picture, with Chernobyl (due to defficient failsafe shielding enclosure) and Fukajima (buiding in the “Ring of Fire ‘ tsunami zone), have given the tree huggers amunition to kill ciivilian nuclear development. They never mention the perfect French, British, German, Swiss or Italian safety records. Nor do they cite actual minimal damage from 3 mile Island, This is a great problem to the Navy. It will take considerable will power and cleverness to overcome.

    • El_Sid

      Can’t speak for the others, but Britain’s certainly not had a “perfect” safety record – the 1957 Windscale fire was rated a level 5 incident (same as 3 Mile Island) and there’s been several smaller scares.

      • vetww2

        Yes, but my point was not to address generaf mishaps, but only nuclear damage. Maybe it appeared that i think them inconsequential, i assure you, I do not.

  • ed2291

    Just what we need, more subsidies for civilian nuclear power. Over half a century of nuclear power reveals it is enormously expensive and unsafe, always promising that improvements to make it safe and cheap are just around the corner. The Navy has good need for nuclear power, civilian reactors not so much. Let us pull the plug, deal with it, and move on.

  • vetww2

    Great discussion