Lawmakers call for future Navy cruisers to be nuclear powered

House and Senate lawmakers are requiring the Navy to power its future classes of cruisers with nuclear reactors, unless the service decides that doing so isn't "in the national interest." This somewhat muddled provision is contained in the recently released fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill.

The provision states that all new ship classes of submarines, aircraft carriers and cruisers should be built with nuclear power plants. Since the Navy's plans for submarines and carriers already include nuclear propulsion, the provision would most directly affect the service's next-generation cruiser, designated CG(X). If nuclear powered, the service's designation for the ship would be CGN(X).

The Navy plans to award the contract for the lead ship of the CG(X) class of cruisers in 2011, at an estimated cost of $3.2 billion, and 18 more by 2023. Because of the long lead times needed to order nuclear components, procurement funds for the proposed cruiser's nuclear power plant would have to be included in the 2009 budget, currently being drafted by the Defense Department.

But if the Navy prefers to equip its future cruisers with conventional power, it does have an out. The measure states that with the budget request for the CG(X), the Defense secretary can submit a notification that "inclusion of an integrated nuclear power system is not in the national interest."

Navy officials told Congress that equipping the service's future cruisers with nuclear power, instead of conventional oil burning power plants, would increase the price of a ship by $600 million to $700 million.

The Navy also must report on the provision's potential impact on shipbuilders and whether additional yards must be certified to build nuclear-powered ships. Only two yards are certified to build nuclear-powered ships: Northrop Grumman Newport News, of Newport News, Va., and General Dynamics electric boat division of Groton, Conn. The two yards have built every nuclear-powered Navy vessel since 1969.

The Navy also has stated that due to the huge power demands of a cruiser's anti-ballistic missile radar and the rising cost of oil and gas, nuclear power might be more appropriate, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

The House bill contained the nuclear power provision, and is strongly favored by House Armed Services Committee, seapower subcommittee chairman Gene Taylor, D-Miss., and ranking member Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md. The Senate version of the bill did not express a view.

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