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With Minimal Legal Hurdles, the “Big E” may be a Big Opportunity for Hampton Roads Ship Repairers and Government Contractors

An unexpected surprise?

The former USS Enterprise (CVN 65), affectionately known as the “Big E,” was not only the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, it was the world’s first nuclear-powered surface vessel of any kind. Built by the proud shipbuilders of Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. from 1957-61, Enterprise served the Navy for over 50 years, calling Naval Station Norfolk home for most of that time. Just as Enterprise was at the vanguard of many nuclear-propulsion “firsts” in its commissioned service, the ship is now set to be the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier ever de-fueled, dismantled and disposed. Where that process will occur, however, has recently been the subject of speculation, concern and opportunism. Until last year, the location of Enterprise’s ultimate demise was a non-controversial subject, presumed to be the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility (PSNS & IMF) in Bremerton, Bangor and Everett, Washington. However, if recent steps by the Navy are any indication, Enterprise could be spending more of its twilight days in Hampton Roads than originally expected.

The reason for intrigue among the local ship repair industry stems from the May 2014 Navy request for information (RFI) from the private defense industry regarding the feasibility of commercial dismantling of the nuclear powered vessel. Since the nuclear recycling and disposal program began in the early 1990s, the PSNS & IMF has been the Valhalla for nuclear-powered warships, both surface and sub-surface. As the name implies, the PSNS is a government-owned naval shipyard staffed with public-sector ship repair employees.[1] To date, every U.S. nuclear-powered submarine and surface vessel has been dismantled at the PSNS & IMF. Thus, the unexpected RFI drew much speculation regarding the impetus for the Navy’s request.

According to a Defense News article published on May 17, 2015, there are two suspected rationale behind the Navy’s RFI. First, is the belief that the PSNS & IMF cost to perform the dismantling work was too high. The amount estimated exceeded the funds appropriated and included the cost of a 14,000-mile towed journey from Newport News, around Cape Horn, to Washington State. Second, with the deactivation and scrapping of legacy 688-Los Angeles-class fast attack submarines, the PSNS & IMF may be at its functional capacity.[2] While this confluence of events may be bad news for the Pacific Northwest, it stands to be a potential boon for the Hampton Roads maritime industry, even if it is unlikely that Enterprise would be completely dismantled in Hampton Roads, or that all the work would remain in Virginia.[3]

Currently, the world’s first conventionally-powered “super-carriers,” the former USS Forrestal, Saratoga and Constellation, are being dismantled by three shipbreaking companies in Texas.[4] Discussions regarding the scope of prospective work to make Enterprise (a much bigger ship than the Forrestal or Kitty-Hawk class carriers) more manageable for ultimate disposal by the PSNS & IMF has included two options. One involves cutting it to the hangar deck and floating it on a semi-submersible for delivery to Washington, and the other requires narrowing the ship so that it can pass through the expanded Panama Canal, expected to open in 2016.[5]

Still, the prospect of the PSNS & IMF losing this substantial work has caused consternation with some Washington state lawmakers. In particular, Sixth District U.S. Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA) published an open letter to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus on May 28, 2015 critically inquiring about the Defense News report. In it he states, “I have been told that no decision has been made as the Navy continues to evaluate the options of either sending all or part of the USS Enterprise to PSNS&IMF. Without exception, I have been told that the work of disposing the reactor compartment would be assigned to PSNS&IMF.”[6] Rep. Kilmer’s letter, combined with the Navy’s reticence on the issue when pressed by recent media inquiries, implies the possibility for a policy shift. If the Navy is inclined to do so, how legally feasible is a change in current nuclear-vessel disposition operations?

Legal roadblocks?

Unfortunately for Representative Kilmer and his district, the Navy’s ability to shift dismantling services to a commercial shipyard appears to be legally realistic and not excessively mired in red tape. By statute, the Department of Energy has overall authority for the disposal of nuclear materials.[7] Yet, Executive Order 12344 signed by President Reagan in 1982 more specifically delineates the roles and responsibilities of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program that the Department of Energy and Department of Defense share. Section Seven of that document sets out that the “Secretary of the Navy shall assign to the director [of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program] responsibility to supervise all technical aspects of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion work, including: . . . ultimate disposition[] of naval nuclear propulsion plants, . . .”[8] Navy instruction further delegates “final disposal” responsibilities to Naval Sea Systems Command.[9] Thus, the decision to open dismantling operations to a commercial yard appears to be a matter of executive prerogative free from significant legislative roadblocks, and therefore realistic without excessive political horse-trading. That said, the political influence of Virginia’s strong House and Senate Armed Services Committee members could wield significant influence over the Navy’s decision. Moreover, this could be a worthwhile lobbying effort if follow-on dismantling work for future Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carriers might remain in Virginia.


The potential to play an economic as well as sentimental role in the end of Enterprise’s legacy should be a welcomed opportunity for local defense contractors at all echelons. Those businesses seeking to express their opinions on this very ripe defense topic may want to consider engaging government-relations professionals to assist in effectively communicating with their elected representatives.

During its commissioned service, Enterprise circled the globe, and now its lifecycle literally has brought it back full-circle as it sits in the very waters where it was launched. Fittingly, at CVN 65’s decommissioning in 2012, Secretary Mabus announced that the third Gerald R. Ford-class carrier, CVN 80, scheduled to be built at Newport News Shipbuilding, will likewise bear the name Enterprise. It seems only appropriate that the dusk of one Virginia-built warship should occur where the next 50 years of maritime dominance meets its dawn.

1 Naval Sea Systems Command, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility: History, available at, http://www.navsea.navy.mil/shipyards/puget/page/History.aspx  (last visited July 6, 2015).

2 Cavas, Christopher P., Scrap War: US May Compete Nuclear Ship Disposal Deal. Defense News. May 17, 2015, available at, http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/naval/ships/2015/05/17/aircraft-carrier-enterprise-newport-news-puget-sound-naval-shipyard-nuclear-shipbreaking-ship-scrapping-recycling-brownsville-disposal-navy-navsea/27321139/ (last visited July 7, 2015).  

3 Id

4 Id.

5 Id.

6 Press Release, U.S. House of Representatives, Kilmer Urges Navy to Maintain Scrapping of the USS Enterprise at Kitsap Shipyard (May 28, 2015), available at, http://kilmer.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/kilmer-urges-navy-to-maintain-scrapping-of-the-uss-enterprise-at-kitsap (last visited July 8, 2015).

7 See 42 U.S.C.A. § 2121 ((3) provide for safe storage, processing, transportation, and disposal of hazardous waste (including radioactive waste) resulting from nuclear materials production, weapons production and surveillance programs, and naval nuclear propulsion programs; . . .”) (emphasis added).

8 Exec. Order No. 12344, 47 FR 4979, Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, (Feb. 1, 1982).

9 United States Navy, Chief of Naval Operations, OPNAVINST 4770.FH, Chapter 1: Roles and Responsibilities, Apr. 24, 2014.


About the Author

Cameron Rountree is an attorney with the law firm of Williams Mullen and a former active-duty Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He focuses his practice on commercial litigation, ITAR and export controls, government contracts, white collar criminal investigations and the firearms industry. He has represented clients in a range of adversarial matters and has over a dozen years’ experience in the surface warfare community.  Cameron can be reached at crountree@williamsmullen.com or (757) 629-2023.


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