The Nuclear Submarine

On September 30, 1954, the USS Nautilus was commissioned. Under Captain Hyman G. Rickover, the idea of a nuclear Navy came to life. The Nautilus was much larger than its diesel predecessors. She stretched 319 feet and displaced some 3,180 tons. Due to the atomic engine, she could remain submerged for almost an unlimited amount of time because no air was needed. The uranium-powered nuclear reactor produced steam that drove propulsion turbines, which allowed the her to travel at speeds in excess of 20 knots.  Rickover was considered a fanatic by his colleagues, and to many the idea of harnessing nuclear power to run a submarine was science fiction. However, Rickover’s background in engineering and science paved the way for our modern submarine force. But why switch to nuclear power at all? What makes a nuclear submarine a modern marvel?

A nuclear ship propulsion program was first studied in 1939. After the end of WWII, a theory began to circulate that the atom bomb could be harnessed and turned into an engine. Commander Edward L. Beach recalls the period, saying, “I remember at that time thinking to myself, by George, there’s the way to go. The nuclear engine would give a submarine tremendous capability, because, you see, the submariners right away to relate to air – you have to have air to run the {diesel} engines. That requires that you come up all the time; you can’t run the engines submerged … But if you could run a nuclear engine – not need air – it could go indefinitely.”[1] In 1947, Beach was assigned to the Atomic Energy Division of the Navy, which at the time was solely dealing with atomic bombs. That October, a secret memorandum was signed that would initiate the development, design and construction of a nuclear powered submarine within the department. Rickover headed the nuclear-propulsion program, with its sole mission to figure out how to extract power from an explosive radioactive substance and have it drive a propeller. Rickover was famously known for being a rigid and at times difficult man. But his determination led to a new submarine Navy. He would not allow any corners to be cut and safety was his number one priority. The project was fast paced and anything Rickover needed was procured immediately. No expense was spared and the project consumed $55 million. Nuclear-propulsion development was a completely new undertaking when Rickover was assigned to the program. His conservative approach to reactor and propulsion plant designed ensured that manufactures and shipyards followed specific guidelines. He emphasized in-depth inspections and rigorous training. Rickover knew that working with such an unstable element needed to be handled with respect and caution in order to move ahead with the project. The guidelines he set during his tenure as Director of the program (1940’s-1982) are still followed today. The US Naval record for safety on nuclear power is excellent directly because of  their high level of standardization and training.

In order to work on this revolutionary project, the propulsion division worked with private industries including Westinghouse and Electric Boat. The first Naval reactor which was used in the

Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Idaho Chemical Processing Plant, Fuel Reprocessing Complex, Scoville, Butte County, ID https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.id0446.photos/?sp=14

Nautilus was the Mark I (later designated as S1W). The construction of the reactor took place at a power plant in Idaho. The success of the Mark I and the plant changed the way we view nuclear power. Working with Westinghouse, the first nuclear power plant that generated commercial power on a large scale was built in Pennsylvania as a direct result of harnessing this technology in submarines. In the decades following the success of the Nautilus, nuclear propulsion was used beyond attack submarines and introduced to ballistic missile submarines, guided missile cruisers and aircraft carriers.  But how does a nuclear reactor work?

Understanding how the nuclear reactor works can be complex. According to the National Museum of American History, “Nuclear reactors are basically heat engines. As uranium fissions, the breaking of atoms releases energy, much of it in the form of heat, which can be used to do work. In a nuclear-powered submarine, reactor heat produces steam to drive the turbines that provide the submarine’s actual power.” Sea water is pumped into the boat and desalinated to create the steam used to drive the turbines. The power generated by the nuclear reactor not only drives the boat but provides all of its electricity and systems that provide oxygen. The auxiliary systems that are driven by the turbine generators furnish power for cooling equipment, lighting, cooking, climate control and water distillation. It purifies the air, allowing the submarine to remain a closed system and maintain its own atmosphere.Nautilus was the Mark I (later designated as S1W). The construction of the reactor took place at a power plant in Idaho. The success of the Mark I and the plant changed the way we view nuclear power. Working with Westinghouse, the first nuclear power plant that generated commercial power on a large scale was built in Pennsylvania as a direct result of harnessing this technology in submarines. In the decades following the success of the Nautilus, nuclear propulsion was used beyond attack submarines and introduced to ballistic missile submarines, guided missile cruisers and aircraft carriers.  But how does a nuclear reactor work?

By 2010, The United Stated had built 219 nuclear powered vessels. A nuclear reactor can last 33 years without refueling, which greatly changed how long submarines could stay in service compared to their diesel ancestors. According to the World Nuclear Association, the US Navy has “accumulated over 6200 reactor-years of accident-free experience involving 526 nuclear reactor cores over the course of 240 million kilometers without a single radiological incident, over a period of more than 50 years.” In order to decommission boats, handle the nuclear reactor properly, and maintain its safety records, the Navy has the Ship/Submarine Recycling Program (SRP. All SRP’s take place at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.

Moored submarines awaiting their final fate at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, WA sometime in 1996: From left to right:
Shark (SSN-591),
Plunger (SSN-595),
Snook (SSN-592) &
Patrick Henry (SSBN-599). http://www.navsource.org/archives/08/08592.htm

The beginning of the Nuclear Navy forever changed the submarine force. Since its inception, all submarines built have been nuclear, allowing longer lifespans for each boat and the ability to protect our waters for longer periods at a time. The Nautilus was extremely loud compared to today’s standards, but her speed and ability to stay submerged created a new asset for militaries around the world. As the science developed, reactors were made quieter and powered the ships more quickly. Despite this ability to use a reactor onboard ships, nuclear power is still an unstable element and must be used with extreme caution. While Rickover may have been considered a fanatic, he has taught us that nuclear energy can do wonders, but only if it is handled with the proper care and respect.

 

[1]Arctic Mission: 90 North by Airship and Submarine by William F. Althoff. Pg 28

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