Four thousand workers at Newport News Shipbuilding are expected to take part in a massive overhaul of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis.

The project is scheduled to last four years and cost $3 billion. The Stennis is the seventh of the Nimitz-class carriers that Newport News has overhauled. The company is also working on the USS George Washington, which is 85% complete.

WHRV’s Paul Bibeau spoke with Gary Graham, a program director for Newport News Shipbuilding, about this undertaking.

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Paul Bibeau (PB): Gary Graham, thanks for talking to us.

Gary Graham (GG): Hey, Paul, thank you for having me. I'm glad to meet you today and look forward to the discussion.

PB: So the carrier Stennis is beginning a midlife maintenance period called the Refueling and Complex Overhaul. Can you break down what that involves?

GG: So it's about a 20-million man hour project. It takes approximately four years to complete from start to finish - from the time that it shows up in here in the yard until we get back to delivery. Obviously, the "R" in the RCOH piece is the refueling of the vessel. So it only happens once in the lifetime of the carrier at its midlife point. But it's an upgrade of all the weapons systems on it. It's a very extensive maintenance time period. It's a dry dock availability, right? So it goes in a dry dock and and we're working shaft and rotors. It's really a full modernization and upgrade maintenance period for the whole ship.

PB: Now, what is the process specifically of refueling a nuclear reactor for a ship? What's involved in that?

GG: It's a very intrusive process to be able to go through that. A lot of openings that need to be made in the ship in order to conduct it. And it's a pretty extensive process in order to accomplish that. But it only happens once in the in the whole refueling or life cycle of the ship. It only gets one refueling.

PB: Now, what happens in the midpoint of a carrier's life that makes this procedure necessary? In other words, what happens to the systems that make up the ship? And why is the 25-year mark important?

GG: It really is centered around the refueling piece of it, right? The carrier is made to last for a 50-year time period. It has to be refueled once during its life. And so because of the intrusiveness and the work that goes into that refueling, that's really why you do all the other maintenance at that time period. A carrier has multiple maintenance availabilities as it goes through its life. Not all of them are drydock availabilities. It has to be in the dry dock to do the refueling because that's where the facilities are. And so you definitely take advantage of that time period to do things like tank work and other intrusive work that can't be done when the ship is water-borne. So you are doing other similar maintenance along in the life cycle of the ship. It's just that it's all centered around that refueling piece when we when we do it here at Newport News.

PB: Thank you so much for talking to me.

GG: I hope it was informative, and I definitely enjoyed it.