End of an Era: Farewell to the Nuclear Cruiser USS California

Article excerpt

The last of the Navy's nine nuclear powered surface combatants is deactivated as the long process of removing its nuclear waste is begun at Puget Sound.

On the morning of 28 August 1998, the steaming ensign was slowly hauled down on the nuclear cruiser USS CALIFORNIA (CGN-36) at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington. Lowering the ensign is the cornerstone of what is now the "Deactivation Ceremony" which has been developed for the nuclear powered ships in the US Navy that are going out of service. This has become necessary as the lengthily and highly sensitive deactivation process must safely treat nuclear waste and ships' components in a security zone. Ultimately it renders the ship into a hulk which is then decommissioned, consequently the deactivation ceremony has been adopted as a means for the crew and others to bid farewell to a ship while it is still a viable fighting unit. This novel ceremony marked the end of the CALIFORNIA's useful life as a surface combatant in the United States Navy. Rear Admiral Floyd Miller, USN (Ret.), the ship's first commanding officer gave the keynote address in which he fondly remembered the early days of nuclear surface ship development. He spoke of the teething troubles experienced, and his personal goal of making this ship one of the finest in the US Naval Service. By all accounts, he and the commissioning crew were successful as the sleek cruiser still looks shipyard fresh even after 24 years of arduous service.


The USS CALIFORNIA (DLGN-36/CGN-36), was initially designed to act as a fast escort for the Nimitzclass nuclear aircraft carrier. Three ships were planned, but due to funding shortfalls, only the CALIFORNIA and sister ship, the USS SOUTH CAROLINA (CGN-37) were built. Both nuclear cruisers were built by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. The CALIFORNIA was commissioned on 16 February 1974, just over four years after her keel was laid.

Thell,548-ton full load displacement CALIFORNIA is 596 feet in length with a 61-foot beam. She is powered by two D2W pressurized water nuclear reactors and is capable of sustained speeds in excess of 30 knots on two geared steam turbines. Up to 60,000 shaft horsepower is available turning two shafts. This propulsion plant generates ample electricity for today's high consumption electronic systems, and having just recently been refueled with two new reactor cores (1990-1993), she is still capable of an additional 15 years of service. The value of nuclear power in surface ships has been proven over and over, yet the initial construction costs and expensive periodic refueling renders their continued existence out of the question by a cost-conscious Congress. The choice has been to spend precious naval dollars on electronics rather than power plants. This is evident with the advent of the Arleigh Burke- and Ticonderoga-class Aegis ships that will comprise the surface force of the early 21st century.

The CALIFORNIA is armed with two fore and aft single arm missile launchers capable of firing Standard missiles (40 reloads per arm), and an eight-tube ASROC (16 reloads) forward. She is also equipped with Harpoon missiles and has two five-inch/54 Mark 45 guns sited forward and aft. This particular weapon and the digital Mark 86 fire control system was introduced to the fleet by the CALIFORNIA and has become a highly successful gun system. It will serve as the precursor to the upcoming use of the ERGM (extending range guided munitions) shells capable of ranges in excess of 100 miles. …