Why Does It Take So Long to Refuel a Nuclear Aircraft Carrier?

Refueling a nuclear aircraft carrier is a complex and time-consuming process. It involves taking out the spent core from the reactor and replacing it with a new core and nuclear fuel. This is a highly radioactive process, so elaborate radiological handling precautions must be taken. According to the Navy, the two main causes of the delay in refueling are unplanned growth work and labor inefficiencies.

The Advanced Deployed Naval Force (FDNF) aircraft carrier, such as the USS George Washington (CVN-7), performs shorter deployments each year and then moves to short annual maintenance availability. This means that it receives more frequent routine maintenance on the hull, mechanical and electrical systems than other aircraft carriers that go through a three-year cycle of maintenance availability, training, and deployment. However, the shipyard in Japan cannot do all the work on the nuclear propulsion system that a shipyard in the United States can do. The USS George Washington is more than halfway through its refueling and complex overhaul and is scheduled to leave the Newport News Shipbuilding dry dock next month to begin the next phase of a four-year review.

Lawmakers have made it clear that they will not allow the Department of Defense to dispose of an aircraft carrier instead of refueling it. The Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is expected to serve for half a century, but it requires a mid-life refueling to exchange worn reactor fuel rods. This is the first RCOH for the Nimitz class and only the fourth achieved on a nuclear aircraft carrier. The work has been delayed by more than a year due to new jobs that emerged during the repair and pandemic-related labor challenges.

The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN-7) is now at Newport News Shipbuilding for its middle-aged nuclear refueling and overhaul, according to the Navy. Refueling a nuclear aircraft carrier is an intricate process that requires extensive safety precautions and labor inefficiencies. It is essential for keeping these vessels operational for years to come.

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