Planning For Dismantling USS Nimitz Has Begun

The U.S. Navy has already started planning for how exactly it will execute the defueling and disposal of the first-in-class nuclear-powered USS Nimitz aircraft carrier despite the service’s intentions to squeeze more life out of the vessel. To better inform the complicated process, the Navy will likely leverage lessons learned throughout the one-of-a-kind USS Enterprise’s unprecedented ship-breaking efforts

The first to report on the Navy’s decision to get the ball rolling on Nimitz’s inactivation process was Breaking Defense, which cited a publicly available notice that was published by, a contracting website for the U.S. government, on April 6. The notice details that in order to set the necessary requirements to conduct what will be Nimitz’s quite involved decommissioning, the Naval Sea Systems Command will be working directly with Huntington Ingalls Incorporated’s (HII) Newport News Shipbuilding yard.

USS Nimitz transits the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington June 13, 2014. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Hetherington

Commissioned in 1975, Nimitz, also known as CVN-68, was the first in an ambitious class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The ship’s design was built off of the Navy’s experience with its pioneering nuclear-powered supercarrier, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), which served from 1961 to 2012.

The Navy’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget request would buy Nimitz an extended service life through May 2026. Increasing the length of Nimitz’s operational status has been kicked around by the Navy since at least 2020, stemming from a combination of contributing factors, including the heavy demands of the carrier fleet, maintenance backlogs, as well as the issues that have come with getting USS Gerald R. Ford into service

USS Gerald R. Ford turns out to sea. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Cory J. Daut

Nimitz is not only a behemoth of a ship with a full load displacement of around 97,000 tons, but the aircraft carrier is also powered by two A4W nuclear reactors. Dealing with the residual radioactivity of different components when disposing of the ship is a major concern that was not an issue when the Navy decommissioned conventionally-fueled carriers in the past. While there are certainly other variables at play, these alone come together to make for a complex, sensitive, and highly regulated inactivation process, as the National Environmental Policy Act mandates that the Navy do so in ways that are least harmful to the environment.

Newport News Shipbuilding, however, does have novel past experience in this area, as the company has built every single one of the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Newport News is also the only shipyard to provide services for the inactivation of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, despite that being an entirely new concept for the Navy. The shipyard has been conducting the first-ever disposal of a nuclear-powered carrier, the aforementioned former Enterprise

USS Enterprise makes its final voyage to Newport News Shipbuilding. Credit: U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Huntington Ingalls Industries by John Whalen

Enterprise is currently still being stored at the Newport News shipyard in Hampton Roads, Virginia awaiting its ultimate deconstruction as the Navy grapples with how best to scrap a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. USNI News reported last August that the shipyard would not be starting the dismantlement of Enterprise until 2025, which will occur at a cost that is still largely up in the air but could range anywhere from $554 million to $1.36 billion, according to the outlet.

But Newport News did successfully remove the nuclear fuel from the vessel back in April 2018. According to a corresponding HII press release, that process began not long after the Enterprise wrapped up its operational service. The defueling was certainly a milestone in the overall process, but wrapping the complete disposal of Enterprise hasn’t been so smooth. 

Newport News conducting the inactivation of Enterprise. Credit: HII

Outlined in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the Enterprise’s inactivation published in 2018, which readers of The War Zone can learn about in detail in this past feature, were two options that the Navy set for the disposal of Enterprise. The first would see the hiring of contractors to complete the disposal at the Newport News shipyard, while the second would have the Navy relinquish ownership of Enterprise to a private company that would handle the scrapping itself.

The most recent development in this saga, as Breaking Defense prominently highlighted, was the Navy’s publishing of a draft environmental impact statement last August. This document lists an additional four options for the disposal of Enterprise, which are as follows.

  • The first would involve “the partial dismantlement and removal of non-radiological portions of ex-Enterprise at a commercial dismantlement facility. The remainder, including the defueled reactor plants, would be transported by heavy-lift ship to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility for recycling, construction of eight single reactor compartment packages, and shipment by barge to the Port of Benton near the Department of Energy (DOE) Hanford Site, and via a multiple-wheel, high-capacity transporter to the DOE Hanford Site for disposal.”
  • The second is largely similar to the first, “except four dual reactor compartment packages would be constructed rather than eight single reactor compartment packages. The packages would be heavier and larger than reactor compartment packages currently transported to the Department of Energy (DOE) Hanford Site under the existing Navy program.”
  • The third option, which is the Navy’s preferred alternative because it would allow fleet maintainers to remain focused on just that, would see the service “contract with commercial industry to dismantle ex-Enterprise, including its defueled reactor plants, and dispose of the reactor plant components via several hundred shipments to authorized waste disposal sites. The Navy is evaluating three locations for commercial dismantlement: the Hampton Roads Metropolitan Area, Virginia; Brownsville, Texas; and Mobile, Alabama.”
  • The fourth and final option is identified as a non-action and would involve “waterborne storage of ex-Enterprise and periodic maintenance to ensure that storage continues in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.” 
A graphic showing how the Navy would plan to break down the ex-Enterprise if it did the work at Puget Sound. Credit: GAO

Breaking Defense, citing a Navy spokesperson, noted that the course of action the service ultimately selects will be informed by a final environmental impact statement set to be published by the end of this year. The decision will also determine the final cost of the overall effort. Regardless of the verdict, considering how complicated Enterprise’s disposal process has been thus far, it would only make sense that the lessons learned throughout it would be used to inform Nimitz’s disposal.

It’s important to mention, though, that there are notable discrepancies between the designs of Enterprise and Nimitz that would prevent that transition from being completely seamless. One such difference is the fact that the former Enterprise, which was really an experimental design, was powered by eight nuclear reactors as opposed to Nimitz’s two.

All told, while the Navy is looking to give Nimitz a reprieve for a few years by extending its service life, the aircraft carrier’s twilight has clearly arrived, which will mark the first retirement of a ship in one of the most successful U.S. Navy classes ever. 

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