By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - The world's first nuclear-powered surface warship, the USS Long Beach, was put up for auction as scrap metal on Tuesday to be dismantled and recycled, after spending the past 17 years mothballed in a naval shipyard in Washington state.
The 720-foot (219-metre) vessel, the first American cruiser since the end of World War Two to be built new from the keel up, boasted the world's highest bridge and was the last such U.S. vessel with teakwood decks, according to Navy history.
Long Beach, commissioned in 1961, is not the first warship to be recycled. But the defense contractor that exclusively handles such auctions, Government Liquidation, said it would be the first time in its 11-year history that a nuclear powered guided missile cruiser has been sold for scrap.
Other decommissioned U.S. military vessels have been sunk, sold to other countries or more rarely turned into museums open to the public, as was the fate of the storied battleship USS Iowa, which opened in Los Angeles as a museum to much fanfare on Saturday.
"I'm sure that Long Beach was always designated for scrapping. We don't make a lot of ships into museums," said Pat Dolan, spokesperson at the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command.
All U.S. Navy nuclear cruisers were ordered decommissioned because of defense budget cuts after the 1991 Gulf War during the early 1990s.
Long Beach, which served in Vietnam and provided support during the Gulf War, was decommissioned in 1995 and its two nuclear reactors were deactivated.
Long Beach had 10,000 tons of steel, 300 miles of electrical cable and 450 tons of aluminum, earning it the voice radio call sign "Alcoa" after the aluminum maker of the same name.
More than a dozen scrap dealers have expressed interest in taking part in sealed online bidding for the hull, with more than 7.35 million pounds (3.33 million kg) of steel, aluminum and copper wiring, galley equipment, tables, chairs, lockers and bunks, Government Liquidation president Tom Burton said.
"It's a two-year process but it could take 18 to 26 months," Burton said. "What's left is an inert hull."
Retired engineering officer Doug Harms, 81, served from 1959 to 1962 on Long Beach, which then conducted operational missile testing near Virginia's Norfolk, Germany's Bremerhaven, Cuba's Guantanamo Bay and Puerto Rico's San Juan.
It had a crew of 80 officers and 1,100 enlisted sailors. In a two-month mission in 1964 called "Operation Sea Orbit," Long Beach steamed 30,000 miles without refueling. It joined the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier and USS Bainbridge cruiser in the world's first all-nuclear battle formation, according to Government Liquidation.
"A big ship like that was nice to be on. It was like a big city," said Harms, who now lives in Idaho.
The auction is set to close on Thursday at 5 p.m. Minimum bids are $150.
(Editing By Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)