November 09, 2009

Boats, Not Bombs: Going Nuclear Without Getting MAD

The future of nuclear power is under debate in a variety of forums, with some proponents arguing that nuclear energy provides a greenhouse-free alternative to coal, and opponents claiming that the risks aren’t worth the rewards. In the United States, no nuclear power plants have come online in 13 years. But now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering 26 new plants throughout the United States, mainly because of pressures to produce lower-carbon energy. Much of the nuclear energy debate takes place in the civilian realm, but there is also debate over the future of nuclear energy in the U.S. military, especially the Navy.

The Department of Defense has experimented with non-weapon nuclear energy for decades, though not at a large scale. Weapons research tended to dominate the nuclear market during the Cold War, with energy just an afterthought. The Army began its Nuclear Power Program in the 1950s to explore using nuclear generators, but the program was scrapped 20 years later (see the book The Army’s Nuclear Power Program: The Evolution of a Support Agency). The Air Force has a fascinating history with nuclear propulsion systems: it instituted the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program (pdf) in 1946 and developed the X-6 jet to fly on nuclear power before cancelling the program in 1961 (the project apparently suffered from lack of focused goals).

Most of these programs were discontinued, but one program remains DoD’s longest-lasting and most successful application of nuclear energy for non-weapon purposes: the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program. Nuclear submarines have been roaming beneath the seas since 1953, the result of several extraordinary years of research under Admiral Hyman Rickover. Eventually, conventional submarines were phased out entirely, and nuclear propulsion began to be used in surface ships as well.

Today, the nuclear fleet is significant: 71 submarines, several cruisers, and all 11 of the Navy’s aircraft carriers. The Navy’s next-generation cruiser, the CG(X), is almost certain to be designed with a nuclear propulsion system, thanks to a provision in the FY 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requiring “major combatant vessels of the strike forces of the United States Navy, including all new classes of such vessels, [to be constructed] with integrated nuclear power systems.” Though some senators in shipbuilding states tried to cancel this provision in the FY2010 NDAA, their attempts were apparently unsuccessful, because the amendment does not appear in the final version of the bill. Also deleted was a mandate requiring DoD to study thorium as a fuel source for its nuclear fleet.

Every energy source has its political friends and political enemies, as evidenced by certain Senators’ attempts to strike the nuclear propulsion mandate from the Navy’s shipbuilding requirements. Cost is an issue here. A recent report by the Congressional Research Service (pdf) estimates that a medium-sized surface combatant ship costs $600–$700 million more to procure than a conventionally-powered ship of the same class. But procurement cost is only one factor, and is arguably less important than lifecycle costs. The Navy and the Government Accountability Office are currently disputing whether the CG(X) cruiser will be cheaper over its lifecycle if it uses nuclear or petroleum fuel (the argument comes down to projections about future petroleum prices).

Going forward, nuclear power is likely to play a role in helping DoD to meet its mandated cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The Navy will continue to build nuclear ships, while the Air Force has looked into nuclear power (open the pdf) at its facilities. In addition, Congress is pushing for a Department-wide look at nuclear energy: section 2845 of the FY 2010 NDAA states that “The Secretary of Defense shall conduct a study to assess the feasibility of developing nuclear power plants on military installations” (due to both Armed Services Committees by June 1, 2010). But DoD is also looking into other forms of cleaner and more renewable energy, and the Navy’s more energy-efficient amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island recently completed its trial phase. Makin Island is estimated to save $250 million in lifecycle fuel costs over a comparable ship, which may skew the Navy towards a preference for similar ships over nuclear ships, depending on what future needs it envisions. If the Navy ultimately prefers such a route, Congress will have to muster the resources to fight the “only nuclear” provision. It’s an interesting time for nuclear power in the military, and I certainly can’t predict what will happen next.