By Larry Shaughnessy
The USS Enterprise is the nation's oldest active duty warship, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and a history-making symbol of America's naval might for half a century.
But it's now headed for the scrap heap.
Virtually all the weapons and ammunition has been off loaded. By the end of the week, it'll make its final return to its home port of Norfolk, Virginia. On Dec. 1, "The Big E" will be become officially inactive.
But one doesn't just take an aircraft carrier with eight nuclear reactors in its hold and park it somewhere. The Navy will spend three years and tens of millions of dollars removing the ship's radioactive fuel and reactors before cutting it into scrap.
Mike Maus, a spokesperson for Naval Air Force Atlantic, said the process starts just up the James River.
"Following the inactivation period, it will be towed over to Newport News - to Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding - where it will be defueled. They'll remove all the fuel from it."
The fuel will be shipped to Idaho for temporary storage, Maus said. "Sometime at a later date, it will be disposed of."
While in Newport News, some of the Enterprise's equipment will be removed then the next phase begins.
The carrier, minus planes, ammunition and a propulsion system, heads to Puget Sound, the long way.
"It will be towed around (Cape) Horn to Puget Sound, Washington," Maus said.
The Enterprise, like America's other nuclear carriers, is too big to fit through the Panama Canal, so it must round the southern-most point of South America to get to Washington State.
"It'll be a very lengthy tow," he said.
Once it reaches the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, the long and difficult task of removing the eight reactors from the Enterprise's hold begins.
"In order to remove the reactors, it takes a lot of cutting and hacking on the ship to do that," Maus said. "They do cut through the flight deck and they may very well be cutting through the hull of the ship itself."
Once the reactors are removed, CVN-65 will be formally decommissioned.
According to a Navy Environmental Impact Statement, the reactors will be put on barges, floated up the Columbia River to the site of the former Hanford nuclear production complex where they will be buried in a huge trench near reactors from smaller decommissioned naval warships.
But unlike the USS Intrepid in New York City or the USS Midway in San Diego, the Enterprise is not destined to become a floating museum.
Removing the reactors essentially destroys the ship.
"Once the reactors are removed, to put the ship back in any shape to where it still resembles a ship the cost would be over the moon," said Maus.
So the ship, all 90,000 tons of it will be cut up and the metal sold for scrap.
But that doesn't mean the name Enterprise will fade from U.S. Navy history. There have been seven other warships to bear that name and there is already a petition to name a yet-to-be-built carrier the ninth USS Enterprise.