Submarines: Where Nukes Go To Die

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July 9, 2008: The U.S. has decommissioned over a hundred nuclear subs. These "nukes" are eventually dismantled at the Puget Sound Naval Base in Bremerton, Washington. The nuclear fuel is removed. The radioactive portions of the reactor compartment are shipped, by barge, some 500 kilometers down the coast, and moved inland 40 kilometers by truck to storage trenches in the Hanford nuclear storage facility. Hanford is in a desert area, and it will take about 600 years for the buried metal components to completely degrade.

The non-radioactive portions of the sub (over 95 percent of the metal) is sold for scrap. Even with that, it costs the U.S. Navy about $30 million to dismantle each nuclear sub. 

The U.S., and other industrialized nations, have paid for a similar program to deal with over a hundred Soviet era Russian nuclear subs. Before this program was created, in the 1990s, the Russians were simply sinking their old nuclear boats off their northern coast, hoping no one would notice. But Scandinavian nations, that fish these waters, did note an increase in underwater radioactivity, and inquiries were made.

The first nuclear powered carrier to be dismantled will cost much more (over $500 million), because of more reactors, and more noxious (but non-nuclear) materials. More recent nuclear ships are being built for less expensive dismantling and disposal. This subject was brought up half a century ago, when the first nuclear ships were built. But much less was known about the subject, so the disposal angle got little attention.

 


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