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Recycling Warships

Our everyday experience of recycling is mostly domestic waste, small items that need to be sorted and sent off according to the material they’re made from. Then of course there’s industrial waste, which often involves much larger volumes and more hazardous substances. Both of these recycling streams are usually handled through ongoing collection contracts. Sometimes really big jobs come up though, one-off recycling of major items. One example of this is ships. The US Navy has just sold a decommissioned aircraft carrier, the former USS Ranger, to International Shipbreaking Limited.
Ranger is a Forrestal-class strike carrier, 1,046 feet long and with a deadweight of 56,300 tons. Her construction began in 1954 and she entered service with the US Navy in 1957. A long and distinguished career followed, but by the early 1990s she was showing her age and she was decommissioned in 1993. Since then she has been docked in Bremerton, Washington as part of the mothball fleet, but now she’s bound for the breakers. A five-month tow round Cape Horn will bring her to ISL’s yard in Florida where she will be broken up over the next few years.
ISL paid the Navy a nominal sum for Ranger, just one cent. That’s because disposing of the ship is actually a profitable business and ISL expect to make a great deal of money from the job. The carrier has been demilitarized, with most of her systems stripped out apart from obsolete ones with no value beyond their material content, but she still has a lot of inherent worth. There are several hundred tons of electronic scrap and cabling but the bulk of her weight is steel. It’s particularly high grade steel and will come in at the upper end of the ferrous scrap market, with pricing probably close to $400 a ton. Some of her metal could sell for a lot more than that because steel from older warships has some unique and valuable properties.
Since 1945 hundreds of nuclear weapons have been detonated, mostly in testing. This has increased the level of radioisotopes in the atmosphere and on the earth’s surface, and one result is that modern manufactured objects usually have a harmless, but detectable, level of radioactivity. Usually this doesn’t matter but it causes problems for some advanced medical scanners, which need to be thoroughly shielded from radiation. The problem is that any newly manufactured shield will itself be slightly radioactive and this can interfere with the scanner’s readings. One solution is to build shields with steel salvaged from old warships. While Ranger was built after nuclear testing began her steel was cast before most of the tests, while atmospheric radioactivity was still much lower than today, so much of her plating is potentially useful. The best steel for shielding is battleship armor, which can be immensely thick – up to 18 inches – but today few battleships survive and all of them are run as museums. Older carriers like Ranger do include armor though, and while it’s rarely more than two or three inches thick it can be layered to create effective scanner shields. Steel armor from the 1950s can sell for thousands of dollars per ton, far more than its scrap value.
Most of the steel from a ship like Ranger will be sold as standard scrap, and in a few years she’ll be cars, refrigerator cabinets and razor blades. Smart scrapping can maximize her value though, so there are real benefits to technologically advanced shipbreakers like ISL compared to a badly paid crew with sledgehammers on a Bengali beach. Even old warships are a valuable resource and the more efficiently they’re recycled the better.