Though no reactor accidents aboard US nuclear naval vessels have ever been reported at sea, US nuclear submarines have on numerous occasions collided with other vessels and undersea mountains. Others have been lost at sea, crushed by undersea water pressure. Environmentalists nonetheless point to the fact that increasing the number of nuclear vessels at sea leads to higher probabilities for nuclear accidents to occur.
And while the United States has managed to steer clear of reactor accidents at sea, the Soviet and Russian Navy have not been so fortunate.
The US defense authorisation bill, which was passed by Congress’ lower house last week, the House of Representatives, seeks to fund the expansion of the Navy so that all new major vessels, from destroyers, Aircraft carriers, battle cruisers and submarines are powered by nuclear reactors.
The bill is currently before the senate for consideration and would establish nuclear power for naval vessels as the official “policy of the United States” to build all further heavy vessels as nuclear powered. New nuclear powered submarines and cruisers are already under construction, the US Navy confirmed through a spokesman.
Two shipbuilders are currently certified by the US Navy to construct nuclear-powered vessels, though the spokesman would not confirm which two are carrying out the current construction.
The new policy that the Defense Department is trying to push through is predicated on fears of rising oil prices.
With prices per barrel on world markets already setting daily records above $90, a recent study by the navy concluded that life-cycle cost for even a medium sized vessel run by nuclear power is cheaper than running a similar vessels on conventional power, the US Navy said, even though nuclear vessels cost an estimated $600-$800 million more to build.
The study was based on the cost of oil fluctuating between $75 and $225 a barrel. “We’ve already passed that lower mark and there is no sign of anything stopping the price from going up and up,” the navy spokesman said.
House of Representatives and Senate negotiators are in disagreement over the policy, noted the Congressional aide, and some have suggested the US Navy would not be able to carry out the mandate to go all nuclear from here on out even though the perceived advantages of the Navy study indicate an overall long terms lower cost for keeping a nuclear fleet at sea.
The Navy and adherents of the bill note that nuclear powered vessels are able to stay a sea for much longer periods of time without refueling, and that nuclear propulsion is necessary for operations conducted under the polar ice cap, a major and growing point of territorial contest between Russia, the United States and other countries laying claim to oil reserves beneath the polar sea bed.
A History of the US nuclear fleet
The United States currently has some 100 nuclear submarines in operation, according to the London-based World Nuclear Association, an organisation that supports the use of nuclear power. The fleet was, by most estimates, at least 125 vessels larger in 1989, at the end of the Cold War, but have been taken out of service by bilateral arms agreements with Russia.
The United States also maintains 11 nuclear powered aircraft carriers and nine nuclear powered battle cruised. As of early 2005, the latest year for which figures are available, the US Navy says there are a total of 103 reactors aboard ships and submarines in operation by the United States.
US experience with nuclear powered vessels began in the late 1940s and culminated in the graving of the USS Nautilus, a Skate-class submarine, which put to sea in 1955 as the United State’s first nuclear naval vessel and represented the first nuclear powered submarine in the world.
Photo: wikipedia commonsThe US Navy has also lost two nuclear subs at sea, both during peace time operations. The first was the USS Thresher, which was crushed during deep-sea diving tests off Cape Cod on April 10th 1963. All 129 crew members were lost.
The USS Scorpion, a Skipjack Class nuclear submarine was lost during manouevers off the Azores. A large naval and public search was launched for the vessel on May 22th 1968 when non-descript distress signals were received in Greece. No evidence of the submarine ever turned up.
The USS Scorpion was listed missing on June 5th 1968. The US Navy has never come forth with an official cause for the USS Scorpion’s loss.