The U.S. Navy is planning significant upgrades at the Kenneth A. Kesselring naval nuclear training base in West Milton, with the aim of keeping it an active training site for nuclear engine operators for at least another 20 years.
Plans are underway for a $180 million engine room simulation system in a new building at the site, at which computer simulators would put students through the experience of managing a shipboard nuclear engine room.
Kesselring’s main training reactor, known as the S8G, is meanwhile scheduled for an overhaul and to have its uranium fuel replaced next year. Upgrades to storage facilities and base security is also planned, though a second training reactor on the site is being decommissioned.
The number of sailors at the site isn’t expected to change, but the plans seem to guarantee the continuation of a military site whose presence has a major economic impact in Saratoga County.
The improvements “will allow the site to continue training sailors for the next 20 years,” said Gene Terwilliger, a spokesman for the Naval Nuclear Laboratory.
The secure training facility sits in the middle of a 3,900-acre site in rural western Saratoga County, in the towns of Milton and Galway. A core of industrial/training buildings is surrounded by hundreds of acres of woods.
There, approximately 900 sailor-students each year learn how to safely operate the nuclear-powered propulsion systems used in U.S. Navy submarines and aircraft carriers.
The site is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy but operated by Bechtel Marine Propulsion Corp., which owns the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna, where naval nuclear research and development takes place. Knolls in turn operares the Kesseling for research and training purposes. Both operate as part of the Naval Nuclear Laboratory.
The new investment at Kesselring is taking place as President Donald Trump has said he wants to increase the nation’s naval fleet from 275 to 350 ships, including an additional aircraft carrier and more nuclear-powered submarines. The Navy currently has 86 nuclear-powered vessels, including 75 submarines, and a new class of submarines — the USS Virginia-class — is coming on line over the next few years, as USS Los Angeles-class subs are retired.
Since there are also about 500 naval staff assigned to the site and 400 civilian employees, Kesselring’s economic impact in the Capital Region is huge — estimated by the Navy in 2015 at $1.3 billion annually. There’s a naval housing base in Saratoga Springs, but many of the staff and students either rent or own housing in Ballston Spa, Saratoga Springs, and other local communities.
Plans for the Navy to invest in the site are “great news,” said Milton Town Supervisor Dan Lewza, who was recently briefed on some of the plans.
“We have a great working relationship with the Navy,” Lewza said. “They’ve been great partners. They’ve been great to work with and the money they pump into the economy is great.”
The Kesselring site, which opened in 1957, is one of just two sites where sailors learn hands-on about nuclear engineering before being sent to sea. More than 50,000 students have graduated, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The only other training is done aboard moored submarines or in simulators in Charleston, South Carolina.
There have been rumors or threats of cutbacks at the site from time to time over the decades, most recently during a federal budget dispute in 2014.
Terwillinger confirmed plans for construction of a $180 million Engine Room Team Trainer “which will use advance computer simulation coupled with an immersive learning environment to augment the training provided to sailors on the S8G Prototype’s nuclear propulation plant.” He said it will allow students to complete training evaluations without using the actual reactor.
The building and simulation equipment are currently being designed. Construction of the building is expected to start in 2018, Terwilliger said, with installation of the “state of the art” simulation system starting in 2020 and the system going into service in 2022.
In addition to the training simulator, federal budget documents show the new building would contain engineering and technician offices, classrooms, and equipment and maintenance storage space.
The refueling, which last took place in the 1990s, involves removing depleted uranium from the S8G reactor and moving it on a slow-moving, heavy-equipment trailer to Ballston Spa, where it is loaded on a railroad car. The reverse process happens when a new fuel core, which has a roughly 20-25 year life, is brought in.
The refueling plans haven’t been previously reported, but Saratoga County emergency organizations drilled with a simulated nuclear fuel container two weeks ago at the Mechanicville railroad yard.
Despite the new investment and potential growth of the Navy, no increase in the number of sailors being trained at West Milton is anticipated. “We are not planning on increasing the number of Navy personnel that will be trained at Kesselring,” Terwilliger said.
Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus noted that the planned construction means hundreds of construction workers in the area over an 18- to 24-month period, and he said both those workers and the sailors contribute to the local economy, using restaurants, buying cars and gas, and seeking entertainment locally.
“A lot of those construction workers will be in from out of town, so that will be good for hotels and restaurants, similar to the way GlobalFoundries was, with people having both long- and short-term stays,” Shimkus said.
“This investment means that that facility is going to be here over the long term,” he said.