The Ship/Submarine Recycling Program (SRP) is the process the United States Navy uses to dispose of decommissioned nuclear vessels. SRP takes place only at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNS) in Bremerton, Washington, but the preparations can begin elsewhere.
Before SRP can begin, the ship or submarine must have her nuclear fuel removed. Defueling usually coincides with decommissioning. Prior to that event, the vessel is referred to as “USS Name,” but afterward the “USS” is dropped and it is referred to as “ex-Name.” Defueling of submarines is carried out at naval shipyards, and the hulls are then towed to PSNS. Reusable equipment is removed at the same time as the fuel. Spent nuclear fuel is shipped by rail to the Naval Reactor Facility in the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), located 42 miles (67 km) northwest of Idaho Falls, Idaho, where it is stored in special canisters.
At PSNS the SRP proper begins. A submarine is cut into three or four pieces: the aft section, the reactor compartment, the missile compartment if one exists, and the forward section. Missile compartments are dismantled according to the provisions of the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty.
In 1972, the London Dumping Convention restricted ocean disposal of radioactive waste. In 1993, ocean disposal of radioactive waste was completely banned. The US Navy began a study on scrapping nuclear submarines, two years later shallow land burial of reactor compartments was selected as the most suitable option. In 1990, USS Scamp (SSN 588) became the first US nuclear-powered submarine to have been successfully scrapped. Prior to USS Scamp, in 1959, the US Navy removed a nuclear reactor from the submarine USS Seawolf (SSN 575) and replaced it with a new type. The removed reactor was scuttled in the Atlantic Ocean, 200 km east of Delaware, at a depth of 2,700 m.
Until 1991, the forward and aft sections of the submarines were rejoined and placed in floating storage. Various proposals for disposal of those hulls were considered, including sinking them at sea, but none were economically practical. All required removal of the numerous polychlorinated biphenyl products (PCBs) on board, which are considered hazardous materials by the Environmental Protection Agency and United States Coast Guard. Since then, and to help reduce costs, the remaining submarine sections are recycled, returning reusable materials to production. In the process of submarine recycling, all hazardous and toxic wastes are identified and removed, reusable equipment is removed and put into inventory. Scrap metals and all other materials are sold to private companies or reused. The overall process is not profitable, but does provide some cost relief. Disposal of submarines by the SRP costs the US$25-50 million per submarine.
By the end of 2005, 195 nuclear submarines had been ordered or built in the US (including the NR-1 Deep Submergence Craft and Virginia, but none of the later Virginias). The last of the regular Sturgeon attack boats, L. Mendel Rivers was decommissioned in 2001, and Parche, a highly modified Sturgeon, was decommissioned in 2004. The last of the initial “41 for Freedom” Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarines, Kamehameha, was decommissioned in 2002. Decommissioning of the Los Angeles boats began in 1995 with Baton Rouge. Additionally, a handful of nuclear-powered cruisers have entered the program, and their dismantling is ongoing. The first aircraft carrier due for decommissioning that would enter the SRP is planned to be Enterprise, intended for withdrawal in 2013