a life span eclipsing that of the ships they equip, typically around 50 years. Although 30 to 40 years is more
common for a submarine reactor, it still can exceed the
service life of the boat.
Yet the Navy’s embrace of nuclear power for surface
combatants has been cautious, with the notable exception of the aircraft carrier. Nevertheless, the option of
nuclear power for such vessels has not been completely disregarded.
Dougan noted that “for each new ship design the Navy
considers, through an analysis of alternative options,
nuclear power, hybrid electric mechanical and combined
plant architecture propulsion for all future surface com-
batants and amphibious warfare ships. In addition, quan-
tifiable analysis of ship warfighting, vulnerability, sustain-
ability, energy demands and mobility effectiveness are
evaluated against acquisition and life-cycle costs.”
“It comes down to cost and mission requirements,”
according to a U.S. Navy source.
In fact, the Navy is mandated by Section 1012 of the
fiscal 2008 Defense Authorization Act which states
that “it is the policy of the United States to construct
the major combatant vessels of the naval strike force,
including all new classes of such vessels, with integrat-
ed nuclear power systems.” However, the caveat is
added in the same section that this will occur “unless
the Secretary of Defense submits with the request a
notification to Congress that the inclusion of an inte-
grated nuclear power system in such vessel is not in
the national interest.”
To this end, the U.S. Navy’s CG(X) Next Generation
Cruiser had been earmarked to receive a nuclear power
plant, although the program has been canceled.
Nuclear power for surface vessels does not come
cheap. According to a 2009 paper entitled “Nuclear
Marine Propulsion,” written by Magdi Ragheb, an associate professor at the University of Illinois and an expert
in nuclear engineering, the average naval nuclear reactor
costs between $100 million for a nuclear submarine and
$200 million for an aircraft carrier.
Even at the end of their lives, naval nuclear reactors
still have a bill. Ragheb estimates the disposal of an
Ohio-class submarine’s General Electric S8G Pressurized Water Reactor can cost around $12.8 million,
with the disposal of a Los Angeles-class boat’s reactor
costing around $10.2 million. These costs, however,
must be offset against the refueling costs for a diesel- or
gas turbine-powered vessel throughout its life.
The decision on which power plant will equip a surface combatant is an issue of tradeoffs. On one hand, a
conventional diesel-powered warship requires a comparatively lower financial outlay.
The September Congressional Research Service
(CRS) publication “Navy Nuclear-Powered Surface
Ships: Background, Issues, and Options for Congress”
cited a cost increase of up to $800 million to equip a surface vessel with nuclear instead of conventional power.
Based on official U.S. Navy statistics, the unit cost for
a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser is around $1
billion. Should it be equipped with a nuclear power
plant, that cost would almost double, to around $1.8 billion. Furthermore, nuclear power may not necessarily
deliver a dramatic reduction in life-cycle costs.
The CRS report argues that the total life-cycle cost
for a medium-sized surface combatant outfitted with a
nuclear reactor would be the same as that for a conventionally powered surface vessel, provided that the price
of oil is maintained at between $70 and $225 per barrel. However, should the oil price escalate beyond that,
nuclear power could start to represent a less expensive
alternative vis-à-vis life-cycle costs.
The life-cycle costs for naval nuclear reactors, however, may shrink in the future as nuclear technology
“The major technological change since design of the
USS Nautilus [the U.S. Navy’s first nuclear submarine]
has been the increased lifetime of reactor cores. While
the USS Nautilus had to be refueled after two years of
operation, significant research and development efforts
have given the USS Virginia, the lead boat in the eponymous class of attack submarines, a 33-year life of ship
core,” said Dougan, removing the necessity of refueling
and the expense that this would incur.
Dougan notes that increasing the core’s life can help
to reduce costs in other ways.
“A longer-life core results in less time in the shipyard, more time to perform critical missions and an
overall reduction in the number of ships. These
changes, combined with the increasing price of fossil
fuels, make nuclear power a more attractive option.
The heightened interest in reducing carbon footprints
and decreasing the reliance on foreign-supplied fossil
fuel add to the benefit of nuclear power,” he said.
This is enhanced by the difficulty of predicting the
price of oil, which may rise to such a level as to make
nuclear power extremely competitive when it comes to
Whether the U.S. Navy chooses to equip its future
frigates, cruisers and destroyers with nuclear reactors
will depend on financial calculations and security
issues. If the price of oil suffers serious instability, and
if the global oil distribution system suffers shocks in
terms of terrorist actions or conflict, then it may be
strategically sensible in the long run for the service to
utilize this option. It will then be necessary to look
closely at the potential cost savings that nuclear powered warships can offer compared to their conventionally powered counterparts. ■