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My understanding is that the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine is now a museum. This boat was a real nuclear vessel, so it should have all the hazards associated with a decommissioned nuclear propulsion system.

Why was this allowed, whenever ships like the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) are not permitted to become museums? The ostensible reason for the Enterprise is that it is too dangerous due to the ships nuclear reactors. I would think the same would apply to the Nautilus.

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    What has your research shown? What is the danger? Is there a prohibition against using Naval vessels as museums? – Mark C. Wallace May 13 '18 at 15:17
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    Two questions here. First, what hazards? Second, how many ships converted into museums do you think one Navy needs? – jamesqf May 13 '18 at 17:58
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    It's worth noting that pretty much everything aft of the attack center (including the reactors and the turbines) in this diagram is not accessible to the public. Source: the thing's right across the river from me and I take out-of-towners to visit it frequently. – Michael Seifert May 13 '18 at 22:39
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According to Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Self-Kyler, the Enterprise's public affairs officer, it would have cost too much.

The ship, among the first to respond after the Sept. 11 attacks, won't be turned into a museum like some other carriers. Crews have to cut large holes in the vessel to remove the nuclear fuel, and it would be too expensive to repair, said Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Self-Kyler, the Enterprise's public affairs officer.

Source: Associated Press

Part of the disparity is the sheer scale of the USS Enterprise vs the USS Nautilus. The Enterprise is 85,000 tonnes carrying 5,800 people. The Nautilus is 3,500 tonnes carrying 105 people.

  • Note that the Enterprise (name to be reused for a new carrier, CVN-80 around 2027) is the only US nuclear carrier to ever be decommissioned. So for now this is The Answer. Some Nimitz carriers are due to be replaced by new Ford-class carriers when they are built, and perhaps the issue of what to do with the old hulls will be readdressed then. – T.E.D. May 14 '18 at 14:54
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    Specifically, the Enterprise has eight submarine-sized reactors in a layout corresponding to the eight boilers of a conventionally-fueled ship. Removing them pretty much requires disassembling the ship clear down to the reactor deck, so turning the ship into a museum would in turn require rebuilding it from the reactor deck on up. – Mark May 16 '18 at 0:05
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    @Mark: From what I've heard from my friends at EB (who were telling me Rickover legends one evening), the Enterprise is pretty much unique in its reactor configuration. Later carriers only had two reactors, which might make the decommissioning easier. – Michael Seifert Jun 9 at 13:57
  • @MichaelSeifert correct. The Nimitz class have 2 reactors, the Ford class have 2 with the space to place a 3rd if this becomes necessary to meet growing needs for electricity in the ship. They're also built to more modular designs, making servicing (and thus removal) easier. – jwenting Jun 11 at 4:45
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It has to be cost. There's no question that the reactors can be safely removed and the ship made safe (as least as far as radioactivity is concerned) for visitors. Not only do you have the Nautilus, but EBR-1 (Experimental Breeder Reactor #1) in Idaho has been decommissioned and turned into an historical site with self-guided tours, even inside the reactor room. So 100% decontamination is possible. And EBR-1 was more primitive and probably messier reactor than what drives an aircraft carrier. So, unless there was massive contamination of the ship's structure (which seems unlikely), there's no insurmountable technical issue.

Consequently, I suspect that the reason is the sheer cost of turning an aircraft carrier of that size into a tourist site and then of maintaining it afterwards.

Note that no matter what you choose to do with it -- tourist site, scrap metal, hotel, just letting it rust away, whatever -- you need to pull the reactor and any radioactive elements around it first, so that cost is there regardless. (It's possible that the cheapest way to remove the reactor is to dismantle the ship around it, which would be another reason that preserving the ship was the more expensive option.)

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    Design features of the carriers could be considered more sensitive than those of the Nautilus, which would influence decisions of letting random people wander about inside. – Jon Custer May 13 '18 at 16:36
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Another thought: size. Aircraft carriers have been converted into museum ships, e.g. the USS Intrepid. However, the Enterprise is much larger than the Intrepid. So, converting a nuclear aircraft carrier into a museum gives you a huge museum.

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