Bremerton to swap aircraft carriers, dispose of reactor

BREMERTON — Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility will swap aircraft carriers in a couple of months, and some groundbreaking work is planned on a third one.

The Navy announced Friday that it has prepared a draft environmental assessment on disposing defueled reactor plants from the USS Enterprise. That’s never been done. Enterprise, the Navy’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and its oldest operating ship, was commissioned in 1961. It’s useful life will end in 2012.

The Navy’s preferred alternative, according to the draft environmental assessment, is to dispose of Enterprise’s reactor compartments the same way it has for 144 other ships — primarily submarines — since 1986: Remove them at the shipyard and barge them up the Columbia River to a designated Navy trench at the Hanford nuclear waste dump.

Enterprise, the only ship of its class, is expected to enter dry dock at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia in 2013, where it will be inactivated and have its spent fuel removed. Then, the Navy will tow it to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Reactor compartment disposal would begin in 2018 or 2019 and take six to eight years, the assessment says.

The rest of the ship will be recycled.

The draft environmental assessment will be available for viewing at mentalAssessments during the public comment period, which is from Sunday to Nov. 30. Comments can be sent to Public Affairs Office (Code 1160) Bldg. 850, Fifth floor, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility, 1400 Farragut Ave., Bremerton, WA 98314.

Early next year, the USS Nimitz will leave the shipyard and the USS Ronald Reagan will slide into its spot. Nimitz is wrapping up a yearlong, $239 million docking planned incremental availability. Much of the work was performed with the ship in dry dock. After more than 10 months out of the water, it moved to Pier D Sept. 29.

USS Ronald Reagan returned from Asia to its San Diego home Sept. 9. While on deployment, it was used as a floating refueling station for helicopters flying relief missions after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. It is scheduled to arrive in Bremerton in early 2012 for a $218 million docking planned incremental availability, said shipyard spokeswoman Darcy Jenne.

During the project, USS Ronald Reagan’s homeport will be changed to Bremerton, joining the USS John C. Stennis, which is deployed to the Middle East.

After the work, Nimitz will move to its new homeport at Naval Station Everett to replace the USS Abraham Lincoln, which will make its way to Newport News for nuclear refueling and a complex overhaul in 2013. The work will take three to four years and cost about $3 billion.

Shipyard work has returned to nearly normal since summer, when some employees had to work lots of overtime, cancel vacations and outside help was brought in, though some jobs are still working multiple shifts and using overtime, and pockets of private-sector workers remain.

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan disrupted PSNS’s work on the carrier USS George Washington in Yokosuka and affected major projects here on the Nimitz and submarine USS Seawolf, Jenne said. The $222 million Seawolf project will be completed in early 2012.

Enterprise’s retirement will reduce the Navy to 10 aircraft carriers until the launch of the Gerald R. Ford in 2015, and the nation’s budget deficit could make it permanent.

The Pentagon has been directed by the White House to find at least $464 billion in cuts over the next 10 years. If the congressional “super committee” can’t agree on a budget-reduction plan, military spending would be slashed even more.

One option that has been discussed is decommissioning the USS George Washington when its nuclear reactors run out of fuel in 2016 instead of refueling it for another 25 years.

Puget Sound Naval Shipyard crews travel to Yokosuka, Japan, where the ship is forward deployed, to help maintain it. Early retirement would save the cost of operating the 2,700-man ship and the more than 70 planes in its air wing.

U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks wouldn’t support a permanent drop to 10 carriers because of their power-projection capability and many areas of potential conflict don’t have airfields open to U.S. planes, said spokesman George Behan.

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