BREMERTON -- Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility might be too busy to dispose of the USS Enterprise and Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.

Adm. John Richardson, responding to concerns from U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said the Navy will analyze whether PSNS or private industry should perform the work.

"Regardless of the option selected for dismantlement of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility will continue to be utilized at full capacity as they execute their vital role supporting fleet readiness," wrote Richardson, director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and nominee to be the next chief of naval operations.

The Enterprise, commissioned in 1961, is the world's first nuclear-propelled aircraft carrier. The only ship of its class, it's powered by eight small reactors. The first of 10 Nimitz-class carriers is 40 years old. They have a service life of about 50 years.

Workers at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia are deactivating and de-fueling the Enterprise. Then it was planned to be towed to Bremerton, where the remaining parts associated with the reactor plant would be removed and barged to the Hanford nuclear waste dump.

Related Video:

PSNS is the only U.S. facility certified to recycle nuclear ships. It has completed 127 submarine and cruiser reactor compartment packages and shipped them to Hanford.

Much has changed since 1984, when PSNS was the only practical choice. Now, the shipyard is bursting with work as it tries to maintain and modernize the Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers, along with 13 locally based subs and others as assigned. The workforce has swelled to 13,100 and continues to grow. Several submarines await dismantling.

"As PSNS & IMF began detailed planning to implement the full ship disposal and recycling of Enterprise, it became clear that this work would have a significant adverse impact on the ability of PSNS & IMF to carry out its existing workload of supporting active nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and submarine maintenance," the white paper states.

Others could potentially do the work. The commercial nuclear industry has dismantled and disposed of several civilian reactors. The Navy received an unsolicited proposal from Newport News Shipbuilding to perform the complete disposal of the Enterprise, including the de-fueled reactor plants.

And there now are radioactive waste disposal sites other than Hanford.

The Navy intends to begin on the environmental-impact statement within the next year. It will evaluate three alternatives:

* Partial commercial recycling of nonradioactive sections of the carriers, followed by preparation of reactor compartment packages at PSNS for disposal at Hanford.

* Commercial dismantlement of the de-fueled reactor plants, disposal of radioactive waste at sites other than Hanford and recycling of non-nuclear portions of the carriers.

* No-action alternative of indefinite floating storage.