Pressure from House lawmakers to make more of the Navy’s ships nuclear-powered is generating some concern among U.S. shipbuilders and the Navy. They worry that the move would put more pressure on a tight budget and add instability to an already struggling industry.
Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee, has been leading the charge to compel the Navy to fuel its next-generation cruisers, large amphibious ships and destroyers with nuclear power.
Taylor has attracted bipartisan support for his idea in the House, including the key endorsement of Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.). But the Mississippi Democrat is expected to face continued resistance from senators who believe the Navy cannot afford the switch.
The conflict over expanding nuclear propulsion first surfaced last year. At the time, conferees sparred over the House requirement to make next-generation surface combatants, such as cruisers, atomic-powered unless the Navy asserted that such a propulsion system was not in the “national interest.”
The Senate conceded to the House position in the end. This year, Taylor wants to expand nuclear propulsion to large amphibious ships, which carry helicopters, landing craft and other equipment used in shore assaults.
The latest push is likely to continue to engender strong opposition, but Taylor said he is determined to press his case in conference.
“It is my intention to fight until the end,” he told The Hill in an interview.
Taylor said he plans to start visiting senators to explain and defend his rationale for requiring more nuclear-powered ships.
He believes that skyrocketing oil prices help make his case. If oil stays at $138 a barrel or goes even higher, constantly having to refuel ships will become an untenable proposition, Taylor argued.
A ship that runs on nuclear power, however, does not need to be refueled for three decades.
“Our carriers can go from here to there for 30 years without having to fuel, but the ships who protect the [aircraft] carriers … have to refuel every five to six days,” Taylor said.
Cruisers, destroyers and amphibious ships are part of carrier groups. Those ships are deployed together with an aircraft carrier.
In contrast to conventional propulsion, nuclear power also provides unlimited range and enough energy to fuel powerful new radars and directed-energy weapons, Taylor said.
But even Taylor admits that his proposition faces obstacles beyond a reluctant Senate.
Out of six remaining U.S. shipyards, only two are nuclear-certified: Northrop Grumman’s Newport News, Va., facility, and General Dynamics’ Electric Boat in Groton, Conn. The remaining four work with conventionally powered ships.
It would take years to modify a non-nuclear yard, even if the Navy was fully onboard with Taylor’s proposal.
Workers would need time to adjust as well. It takes up to eight years to become a nuclear-qualified welder, for example.
Receiving a nuclear license could also be tough because of more stringent environmental regulations, industry sources said.
The cost of outfitting ships with nuclear propulsion is mostly upfront, raising the costs of building the ship. Nuclear-powered vessels are estimated to cost around $800 million more than conventionally powered ships.
Navy officials are concerned about that added cost at a time when they are already struggling to grow the fleet.
Although high oil prices make the switch to nuclear power more attractive, some officials question whether prices will stay that high.
“The industrial base is in a very fragile state because of years of historically low rates of ship production for our Navy,” said Cindy Brown, the president of the American Shipbuilding Association.
“The focus of Congress and the American people needs to be on rebuilding the fleet and increasing the rate of ship production to 12 ships a year. The debate on what should power our ships should not distract from this fundamental challenge facing America today.”
Brown said that the industry has yet to determine what impact moving to a nuclear-only cruiser fleet would have on the U.S. industrial base.
Shipbuilders Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics — the two U.S shipbuilders that sell only to the Navy — are starting to look into which ship components can be built in a conventional yard while the propulsion systems are being built at one of the two nuclear yards. The fully constructed ship would have to be delivered from the nuclear-qualified shipyard.
Conceivably, switching to nuclear-powered propulsion could mean layoffs at some shipbuilding sites. One of the yards that could suffer is Northrop Grumman Ingalls, which is in Taylor’s district.
Ultimately, sources said the shipbuilding industry could be completely altered.
The industry has started investigating the effects of the requirements in the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill.
It is not clear how many ships would be affected by Taylor’s nuclear propulsion proposals. The Navy is planning to buy about 19 new cruisers, known as CG(X). Taylor is also proposing to build nuclear versions of the current DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.
Some shipyards, such as Electric Boat, view the changes as possible business opportunities.
“If the Navy and the Congress decide that they want to develop nuclear power in any platform, we would be interested in talking to them about potential business,” said Robert Hamilton, an Electric Boat spokesman.
“We have extensive experience in the design of nuclear ships.”
Taylor said that he ultimately is seeking a generational switch in thinking.
“There is always going to be some heartburn in industry” when it comes to change, he said. “It’s human nature to resist change.
“The ones that want to be part of the future would have to make this investment, and they will be better yards for it,” Taylor said.