The U.S. Navys first nuclear-propelled aircraft carrier - the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) - will soon be the Navys oldest flattop. Today the oil-burning carrier Kitty Hawk (CV 63) is the oldest. Both ships were completed in 1961. The Kitty Hawk is based in Yokosuka, Japan; the only American carrier based overseas. She will be retired next year, and be replaced in Japan by the nuclear-propelled George Washington (CVN 73).
The Navy has recently awarded contracts for more than $40 million to the Northrop Grumman Corp. - and to the firms yard at Newport News, Virginia - to continue maintenance of the Enterprise and for inactivation planning. The Big E is schedule to be decommissioned in 2013, having been in service for 52 years - a record for U.S. aircraft carriers.
Decommissioning of the Enterprise will be the most complex effort yet undertaken to remove a nuclear ship from service. Previously the Navy has decommissioned nine nuclear cruisers (each with two reactors) and more than 100 nuclear submarines (all with one reactor except for a radar picket craft, the USS Triton [SSRN 586], which had a two-reactor plant).
The Enterprise has an eight-reactor nuclear plant. The cost of removing those reactors and providing burial for them, cleaning portions of the ships massive engineering spaces, and other decommissioning procedures are expected to cost several hundred million dollars.
With the Enterprises decommissioning, the number of large carriers in the Navy will drop to ten. However, the Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is expected to be completed in 2015, raising the number of carriers back to the authorized 11-ship force.