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How the World’s First Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrier Changed History

It’s time to say goodbye to the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The USS Enterprise, hull number CVN-65, was officially decommissioned earlier this month, which means it is no longer officially on the Navy’s register (the ship was actually transferred to inactive status in 2012, when preparations began to dispose of its nuclear reactor).

On November 25, 1961, the Enterprise, sometimes known as “Big E,” was put into service. The following 25 deployments of the ship resemble a history of Cold wαr and contemporary U.S. foreign policy: the Big E took part in the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, served in Vietnam six times, traveled to the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 India-Pakistan conflict, conducted missions in Bosnia, and supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Enterprise could be found wherever there was danger.

The Enterprise was the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which is the foundation of American naval strength, therefore that was what made it so amazing. Any wαrship’s capabilities are only as strong as its support infrastructure. The wind, a natural resource that wasn’t always available when you wanted to move, was the power source for sail-powered boats. World wαr I saw the introduction of coal propulsion, which provided more consistent power but required big teams to shovel it into the engines and adjacent bases for resupply. By World wαr II, ships could run on oil, but doing so still required going back to port or engaging in laborious at-sea refueling from risky tankers.

However, the nuclear reactors on U.S. aircraft carriers are designed to be refueled every twenty-five years. That doesn’t spare carriers from the need to dock for maintenance, and they still need ammunition, food and rest for the crew. But at least it gives nuclear-powered ships more time to stay at sea. Plus, nuclear fuel generates tremendous energy relative to the small amount of space it takes up. As the Heritage Foundation puts it, “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 ωεɑρσռs. When compared to its conventional counterpart, a nuclear aircraft carrier can carry twice the amount of aircraft fuel, 30 percent more ωεɑρσռs, and 300,000 cubic feet of additional space (which would be taken up by air intakes and exhaust trunks in gas turbine-powered carriers).”

For another comparison between nuclear and conventional ships, see here. What’s fascinating is what happened to the U.S. Navy’s nuclear surface fleet. In addition to carriers, the Cold ധąɾ Navy had nuclear-powered cruisers (the USS Long Beach, history’s first nuclear-powered surface ship, was commissioned just two months before the Enterprise). But no more: by the late 1990s, the Navy’s only nuclear-powered wαrships were aircraft carriers and submarines. Russiα has nuclear-powered wαrships such as the Kirov-class battlecruiser Pyotr Veliky, while France’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle has experienced reactor problems.

Will nuclear power ever come back for other surface ships? A 2010 Congressional Research Service study points out a few advantages, were the Navy to again embrace nuclear surface ships such as cruisers. On the plus side, nuclear-powered ships can remain on station longer, need to devote less space to carrying fuel and, while more expensive to build, they are cheaper to maintain relative to oil-fueled ships depending on the price of oil.

On the downside, finding manufacturers and shipyards that can construct and assemble components comes at an added cost when developing a nuclear surface ship. Logistics and diplomacy may be made more difficult by some countries’ refusal to permit nuclear-powered ships to land in their ports. Of course, the specter of the atom also exists. Despite the U.S. Navy’s stellar safety record with nuclear propulsion, accidents or acts of terrorism are always a possibility.