Congress is debating whether future naval ships should include nuclear propulsion. The House version of the Defense Authorization Act of 2008 calls for all future major combatant vessels to be powered by an integrated nuclear power and propulsion system; the Senate version does not. While Congress must be careful in dictating how America's armed forces are resourced, it also has a constitutional mandate "to provide and maintain a Navy." Although nuclear-powered ships have higher upfront costs, their many advantages make a larger nuclear navy critical for protecting national security interests in the 21st century.
Nuclear Propulsion's Unique Benefits
As the defense authorization bill is debated, Members of the House and Senate should consider the following features of nuclear propulsion:
Unparalleled Flexibility. A nuclear surface ship brings optimum capability to bear. A recent study by the Navy found the nuclear option to be superior to conventional fuels in terms of surge ability, moving from one theater to another, and staying on station. Admiral Kirkland Donald, director of the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program, said in recent congressional testimony, "Without the encumbrances of fuel supply logistics, our nuclear-powered warships can get to areas of interest quicker, ready to enter the fight, and stay on station longer then their fossil-fueled counterparts."
High-Power Density. The high density of nuclear power, i.e., the amount of volume required to store a given amount of energy, frees storage capacity for high value/high impact assets such as jet fuel, small craft, remote-operated and autonomous vehicles, and weapons. When compared to its conventional counterpart, a nuclear aircraft carrier can carry twice the amount of aircraft fuel, 30 percent more weapons, and 300,000 cubic feet of additional space (which would be taken up by air intakes and exhaust trunks in gas turbine-powered carriers). This means that ships can get to station faster and deliver more impact, which will be critical to future missions. This energy supply is also necessary for new, power-intensive weapons systems like rail-guns and directed-energy weapons as well as for the powerful radar that the Navy envisions.
Real-Time Response. Only a nuclear ship can change its mission and respond to a crisis in real-time. On September 11, 2001, the USS Enterprise--then on its way home from deployment--responded to news of the terrorist attacks by rerouting and entering the Afghan theater.
Energy Independence. The armed forces have acknowledged the vulnerability that comes from being too dependent on foreign oil. Delores Etter,Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, said in recent congressional testimony, "[We] take seriously the strategic implications of increased fossil fuel independence." The Navy's use of nuclear propulsion for submarines and aircraft carriers already saves 11 million barrels of oil annually. Using nuclear propulsion for all future major surface combatants will make the Navy more energy independent.
Survivability. U.S. forces are becoming more vulnerable as other nations become more technologically and tactically sophisticated. Expanding America's nuclear navy is critical to staying a step ahead of the enemy. A nuclear ship has no exhaust stack, decreasing its visibility to enemy detection; it requires no fuel supply line, assuring its ability to maneuver over long distances; and it produces large amounts of electricity, allowing it to power massive radars and new hi-tech weaponry.
Force Enhancement. Though effective, modern aircraft carriers still depend on less capable fossil-fueled counterparts in the battle group. Increasing the number of nuclear surface ships would increase the capability of U.S. naval forces to operat