Naval Nuclear Propulsion: Assessing Benefits and Risks

The United States and other countries with nuclear navies have benefited from having nuclear-powered warships. But do the continued benefits depend on indefinite use of highly enriched uranium (HEU)—which can be made into nuclear weapons—as naval nuclear fuel? With budgetary constraints bearing down on the U.S. Department of Defense, the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program is finding it difficult to address many competing needs including upgrading aging training facilities, handling spent nuclear fuel, and designing the next generation submarines to replace the Virginia-class attack submarines.

FAS convened an independent, nonpartisan task force of experts from the national security, nuclear engineering, nonproliferation and nuclear security fields to examine effective ways to monitor and safeguard HEU and LEU in the naval sector, and consider alternatives to HEU for naval propulsion so as to improve nuclear security and nonproliferation.

The results of the year-long task force study are compiled in the report, Naval Nuclear Propulsion: Assessing Benefits and Risks. The task force concluded that the U.S. Navy has strong incentives to maintain the continuing use of highly enriched uranium and would be reluctant, or even opposed, to shift to use of low enriched uranium unless the naval nuclear enterprise is fully funded and the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program has adequate financial resources to try to develop a life-of-ship reactor fueled with LEU that would meet the Navy’s performance requirements. The task force endorses having the Obama administration and Congress allocate adequate funding for R&D on advanced LEU fuels no later than 2017 in time for development of the next generation nuclear attack submarine. “The United States should demonstrate leadership in working urgently to reduce the use in naval fuels of highly enriched uranium–that can power nuclear weapons–while addressing the national security needs of the nuclear navy to ensure that the navy can meet its performance requirements with lifetime reactors fueled with low enriched uranium,” said Dr. Charles D. Ferguson, Chair of the Independent Task Force and President of FAS.

Four companion papers written by task force members are also available:

Naval Nuclear Propulsion: Assessing Benefits and Risks can be read and downloaded here (PDF).

The task force members thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for its generous support of this project.

One thought on “Naval Nuclear Propulsion: Assessing Benefits and Risks

  1. I really don’t understand why people are wasting time and money looking at this issue. The cost argument really doesn’t hold water when you think about the down stream effects.
    The cost of switching to LEU would be astronomical. We would need to be build bigger submarines – which would cost more. We would also need to refuel the submarines more often – which would cost more. Because the submarines are being refueled more often we would need to build more of them in order to have the same number of submarines at sea – which would cost yet more money. Because we had more submarines we would need more crews – which would cost yet more money.
    Because the submarines are bigger they would either be less effective and less stealthy or less effective and much more expensive (the bigger it is the harder it is to make it quiet). So the Navy can choose to either get sailors killed or bankrupt the national treasury all to prevent a hypothetical future tragedy/encourage countries to behave by leading by example.
    Haven’t we proven by now that when we try to encourage countries to behave by leading by example we just end up at a disadvantage? Here are just three of the many examples:
    – Russia’s thousands of tactical nuclear weapons for all domains vs. US’s hundreds tactical nuclear weapons for dual capable aircraft only
    – North Korea chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons vs. US lack of chemical and biological weapons and all nuclear weapons withdrawn from the region.
    – US and Russia decreasing the size of their nuclear arsenals vs. China, India, and Pakistan increasing the size of their arsenals, including China moving towards MIRV’d ICBMs and a functional SSBN with MIRV’d SLBMs, and an SSBN for India.

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