|The aircraft carrier Coral Sea, seen in 1994 being dismantled in Baltimore, is the largest warship ever to be scrapped by any nation. Its disposal took more than seven years and was beset by numerous problems.|
The flight decks that once thundered and boomed with jet aircraft are silent. The passageways and compartments where thousands of sailors worked, ate and slept are empty. The once meticulously swept and kept decks are worn and torn, some covered in bird droppings.
The names of the Navy’s 7 decommissioned non-nuclear aircraft carriers conjure up well-earned reputations as Cold War bulwarks. And while at least some are the objects of preservation efforts, chances are slim more than one will survive as a museum ship. The rest are taking up valuable pier space, and the only thing the Navy wants now is to get rid of them.
But that could prove a real challenge, if history is any guide. Breaking up the carriers presents unique industrial and security issues, and estimates of the cost to scrap them ranges from nearly nothing — according to the Navy — to as much as a half-billion dollars per ship.
The cost will depend on the price of scrap steel; the worst-case scenario for the Navy would be $2 billion to $3 billion to make all the ships go away. But with scrap steel trading at almost historically high levels, the government’s disposal costs could be far less.
One carrier, Saratoga, already has been offered for scrap. Bids for the work closed in August, and a contract award announcement was initially expected in a month or two. But the Navy has yet to make a decision, although Chris Johnson, a Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman, said Feb. 9 the award would be made “soon.”
In the meantime, the Navy on Jan. 27 announced that three more ships would soon be offered to bidders. Forrestal, Independence and Constellation are “supercarriers” of the same 1950s/1960s vintage and size as Saratoga, and each contains about 59,000 tons of scrap metal.
Saratoga would be the first supercarrier to be scrapped. Two other ships, Ranger and John F. Kennedy, are on donation hold, a status meaning the Navy will hold off on getting rid of the flattops while preservation groups strive to raise funds and strike a deal for a location to display the ships.
Only one old carrier, Kitty Hawk, is on standby in case it needs to be used again.
The cost to maintain and keep secure each ship is about $100,000 a year, NAVSEA said.
FIGURING THE COST:
The service also is gearing up to dispose of the nuclear-powered carrier Enterprise, a 50-year-old ship similar in most ways to conventional carriers, save for its nuclear reactors. Enterprise is to begin its decommissioning process in 2013 after one more deployment.
Navy and government analysts estimate it will cost $1.1 billion to $1.7 billion to dispose of Enterprise and its eight reactors, spread over 10 years; as reported in May by the Congressional Budget Office, the Navy estimated that the reactors accounted for about $730 million of a $1.1 billion price tag.
But until a contract is awarded to dispose of Saratoga, the cost to ditch the non-nuclear ships remains unclear. This may be the best time in years to get rid of the ships.
“The supply of scrap steel now is tight,” Bryan Berry, a veteran reporter with MetalPrices.com, said Feb. 9. “These are the second-highest prices in history.”
Prices peaked during the summer of 2008, he said, when scrap steel traded at more than $800 per gross ton.
“That was ridiculous,” Berry said. “It was a bubble, and fell after only a few months.”
But prices have crept steadily back up to about $400 per ton for many scrap metals.
“Heavy metal scrap — obsolete metal, often from demolition jobs — right now is selling in Chicago for about $417 per gross ton [PGT] delivered to a steel mill,” he noted. “In the 1980s, it was below $100.”
No. 1 busheling steel — clean scrap steel in pieces less than a foot long — is trading for about $482 PGT, he said, with shredded scrap going for about $440 PGT.
The service already has taken advantage of the high scrap prices, if only on a few ships.
“The Navy’s cost of ship dismantling in 2010 and 2011 was just pennies per ship,” NAVSEA’s Johnson said. Although specific prices weren’t provided, he added that the recent contract awards were for less than 10 cents each.
SCRAPPERS READY TO GO:
At least two scrap companies have acknowledged bidding on the Saratoga job. Both are based in Brownsville, Texas, where about half the ship breaking operations in the U.S. are concentrated.
Scrapping an aircraft carrier is a “big, big job,” said Richard Jaross, president of Esco Marine. “There’s tremendous oversight and costs. It’s not the same as other ships.”
Jaross has been in the ship scrapping business for decades, and broke up the World War II Essex-class carrier Bon Homme Richard in 1992 at Long Beach, Calif. That ship, he said, contained about 20,000 tons of steel. Jaross noted the industry is vastly different after the turmoil of the 1990s, brought on in large part by the problems with the Coral Sea.
Strict regulations were slapped on the Navy and the industry in the late 1990s after Coral Sea, a 50,000-ton 1940s aircraft carrier, was scrapped in Baltimore. One generation earlier than the supercarriers that began with the Forrestal, Coral Sea remains the largest warship ever scrapped — and it wasn’t easy.
The carrier’s disposal stretched over 7 years, bankrupted the original scrapper — who was sent to jail for environmental violations — exposed problems with the ship-scrapping industry, prompted several congressional hearings and led to federal regulations prohibiting the disposal of U.S. government ships to foreign countries.
A lasting effect of the fiasco — the Coral Sea was the last Navy ship sold for scrap. Since then, the Navy has had to pay to dispose of all its old vessels.
“It’s a totally different industry now,” Jaross said. “We’ve transformed into a very disciplined business, with strict safety and environmental programs.”
Those changes “didn’t come overnight,” he noted. “It took a lot of rules and time to convince people how to deal with it.”
Bob Berry, head of International Shipbreaking in Brownsville, handled the largest Navy ship breaking job in recent years, the 1970s-era amphibious assault ship Saipan. Work on that 24,000-ton ship was completed in February 2011. He was more sanguine about the prospect of scrapping Saratoga.
“Is it a bigger job? That’s just not so,” Berry said. “All of the same challenges in the Saratoga are no different than what we dealt with on the Saipan.”
Berry is looking for work for his yard, having just finished scrapping the Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruiser Vincennes in November. Getting the carrier, he said, would “probably create close to 400 jobs.”
Both Jaross and Berry expressed strong interest in bidding on the next 3 carriers to be offered, and were perplexed by the delay in awarding a contract for Saratoga.
“They move so slow, it’s very secret, it’s not transparent,” Jaross said of the Navy. “I don’t know what the reason is behind it, I really don’t.”
“I haven’t got a clue,” Berry said.
The Navy Inactive Ships Program Office declined numerous requests for an interview about the ship disposal situation, its plans to dispose of the carrier fleet, or how the Navy changed its mind in recent years about a decision to sink most of the ships as artificial reefs. The office based its refusal on the fact that a contract award had yet to be made.
“This is the first carrier scrapping procurement and as such contains unique terms, conditions and requirements,” Johnson wrote in a Feb. 2 email. “The procurement process has been longer than expected, but announcement of the apparent successful offer or is expected shortly.”
Carriers awaiting disposal:
Shown are the carriers’ current locations and the planned disposal option for each.
• Forrestal (AVT 59, ex-CV 59), stricken Sept. 11, 1993. In Philadelphia. Scrap.
• Saratoga (CV 60), stricken Aug. 20, 1994. In Newport, R.I. Scrap (changed from donation hold).
• Ranger (CV 61), stricken March 8, 1994. In Bremerton, Wash. Donation hold.
• Independence (CV 62), stricken March 8, 2004. In Bremerton. Scrap.
• Kitty Hawk (CV 63), decommissioned May 12, 2009, and placed in Mobilization Category B, or “mothballs,” for preservation and possible future use. In Bremerton. Unstated disposal option.
• Constellation (CV 64), stricken Dec. 2, 2003. In Bremerton. Scrap.
• John F. Kennedy (CV 67), stricken Oct. 16, 2009. In Philadelphia. Donation hold.
Source: Naval Sea Systems Command.
• Coral Sea (CV 43) was scrapped in the 1990s in Baltimore. The scrap job took more than seven years and was declared finished Sept. 8, 2000. Coral Sea remains the largest warship ever scrapped.
• America (CV 66) was sunk by explosives May 14, 2005, as a fleet training and design study exercise. No photos of the ship sinking have ever been made public, save for one image of the swirl of water from the ship’s descent into the ocean.
Source: Staff research.
Source: Navy Times. By Christopher P. Cavas. 19 February 2012