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Underway on Nuclear Power: A New Change in Naval History

When Cmdr. Eugene P. Wilkinson flashed the famous message that titles this article on Jan. 17, 1955, it is unknown if he fully realized just what his order to take USS Nautilus (SSN 571) out to sea would do to naval warfare. Given that there had been a minor engineering problem just as Nautilus was getting underway, it is doubtful that he had much time for thoughtful contemplation. Professional naval officers of Wilkinson’s caliber rarely consider their places in history during the moments that it is being made. Nevertheless, as he conned the new submarine down the channel toward Long Island Sound, Wilkinson was opening a new era of naval technology and engineering that would be as important as anything that came before.

From the Nautilus would evolve the largest, fastest, most powerful, sophisticated, and deadly naval vessels in history.

From the Nautilus would evolve the largest, fastest, most powerful, sophisticated, and deadly naval vessels in history. These have ranged from mighty aircraft carriers like the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) to the research submersible NR-1. There also have been lessons learned that have affected the current-day designs of every warship of every nation on Earth. Inertial navigation systems, water desalinization/purification plants, and environmental control systems all drew inspiration from those operated first aboard Nautilus. Perhaps most significantly of all, however, would be the shadow that nuclear propulsion and weapons would throw on warfare across the entire globe. On the plus side were their deterrence effects, which helped hold off global nuclear war until politics and economic realities forced the USSR from the Cold War. The negatives are the legacy of nuclear waste and cleanup that will occupy Russia and other nations of the world for generations to come. No new technology comes without costs and vices, and that first nuclear power plant aboard Nautilus was no exception. Only a half-century later can we even begin to assess the balance between the two.

USS Nautilus

USS Nautilus practices an emergency surface in August 1955 with DD 837 in the foreground. Exercises with other U.S. Navy and NATO units showed the superiority of nuclear-powered submarines. National Archives photo

The coming of nuclear propulsion and nuclear weapons to naval warfare was perhaps the most important new development since Robert Fulton put a boiler on a boat in the early 1800s. Fulton’s development and construction of the steamboat Clermont and its successful test run on Aug. 17, 1807, would eventually free sailors from the tyranny of the wind for their mobility. Within 100 years, the world would be built around steam-powered ships and trains for transportation and commerce. Nevertheless, the need to carry bulk fuels like wood, coal, or oil meant that warships would always be tied to the land for refueling every few weeks. Even the development of underway replenishment just prior to World War II meant living at the end of a landlocked logistical pipeline.

Adm. Hyman G. Rickover’s vision of marrying atomic reactors and steam turbines in the Nautilus freed nuclear-powered warships from limits of speed and endurance dictated by fossil fuels. The first reactor core of Nautilus lasted not weeks, but two years and 62,572 steaming miles. Over the years, this early core life has been extended to the point where the new Virginia-class (SSN 774) attack submarines will have a single nuclear fuel load that will last the lifetime of the boat. Back in the early days of nuclear propulsion, however, the endurance of the new atomic-powered boats was astounding to sailors used to fossil-fueled vessels.

The first reactor core of Nautilus lasted not weeks, but two years and 62,572 steaming miles.

With that endurance came the confidence and willingness by national leaders to entrust difficult, clandestine, or high-risk missions to nuclear submarines. Nowhere was this more aptly shown than on the monumental world circumnavigation voyage of USS Triton (SSN 586) on her shakedown cruise in 1960. When Capt. Edward “Ned” Beach laid out the route and schedule, the clear limitations of the plan centered more on the ability to stow enough food and toilet paper than any endurance shortcomings of Triton’s twin nuclear power plants or her crew. By 1961, the Nautilus, already made obsolete by rapid submarine developments, was being used to conduct covert surveillance of Soviet thermonuclear weapons tests in the Arctic. Sandwiched between these two events was the coming of the USS George Washington (SSBN 598), armed with the Polaris missile system. The merging of submarine stealth, nuclear propulsion, long-range ballistic missiles, and thermonuclear warheads created the most powerful, mobile, and survivable weapons system in history.

In practical terms, the endurance of nuclear-powered warships is limited only by the needs of their crews for supplies and rest. In terms of top speed, only the minds of naval engineers and physical hydrodynamics have limited the top speed of submarines and surface vessels powered by atomic energy. Reports of the Russian Project 661 (NATO “Papa” class, with over 80,000 shp) guided missile/attack submarine achieving speeds in excess of 44 knots on trials give some idea of the ultimate potential of nuclear power plants. However, practical experience showed that the real value of atomic power in warships lay in their sustained speed. Where World War II American fleet submarines might have had an economical surface speed of around 10 knots for transit to their operating areas, Nautilus could sustain twice that rate indefinitely while running submerged. In that single fact lay much of the Nautilus’ early success.

Cmdr. Eugene P. Wilkinson

The historic message sent by Cmdr. Eugene P. Wilkinson on Jan. 17, 1955. National Archives photo

On her shakedown cruise in May 1955, Nautilus completed a submerged run of 1,381 miles, from New London, Conn., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 89.9 hours, setting a number of records. This was the fastest transit ever between the two ports, and the longest distance by a factor of 10 ever traveled by a fully submerged (non-snorkeling) submarine. Two months later, from July 11, 1955, to Aug. 5, 1955, Nautilus participated in a series of exercises off of Bermuda with NATO Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) forces. These wargames were designed to assess the effects of the Nautilus’ sustained high speed upon prevailing ASW tactics, ships, sensors, and weaponry. The results were, in a word, startling. Wilkinson, a skilled and wily submarine veteran with a Silver Star from World War II, ran circles around the NATO force with his new boat. From far outside of the NATO formations, Wilkinson would dash in at over 20 knots, unload a spread of simulated torpedoes, and run away so quickly that the ASW ships could not react in time to give chase. When they did, the escorts found that sea conditions frequently kept them from staying up with Nautilus and maintaining a tracking solution.

What makes these two incidents unique was that Nautilus was not even a commissioned warship when they took place, and that she was really just one of a pair of engineering prototypes for evaluation of atomic power plants. In fact, Nautilus was not even that fast, deep-diving, or quiet by the standards of the day. Along with her half-sister USS Seawolf (SSN 575 – which was testing a liquid sodium metal-cooled reactor), Nautilus was based upon a modified Tang-class hull. This meant that even with her STR/S2W reactor generating 13,400 shp, Nautilus was only capable of about 23 knots while submerged and 22 knots on the surface, with a test depth of only 700 feet. By comparison, the Soviet Union’s first nuclear submarine, the Project 627 (NATO “November”-class with two MV-A reactors and 35,000 shp) K-3, was capable of submerged speeds in excess of 30 knots and had a 985-foot test depth.

In short, Nautilus was, by the standards we apply in the 21st century, slow, weak, and noisy, with poor eyes and ears. She also was expensive, costing over twice as much to build and operate than a conventional diesel-electric boat with the same armament and sensor load.

As if the mechanical shortcomings of Nautilus were not enough to overcome, there was the matter of noise. Nautilus was from the last generation of American submarines that gave little or no design consideration to the issue of machinery-generated noise. Unlike earlier boats, which were relatively quiet while running submerged on electric motors (using diesel engines on the surface), nuclear submarines use the same power plant full-time, with all their pumps and other machinery running. This meant that Nautilus was vulnerable to detection by passive sonar systems, which were becoming more sensitive with the addition of solid-state electronics. The radiated machinery noise also interfered with Nautilus’ own sonar systems, which were initially rather anemic. In short, Nautilus was, by the standards we apply in the 21st century, slow, weak, and noisy, with poor eyes and ears. She also was expensive, costing over twice as much to build and operate than a conventional diesel-electric boat with the same armament and sensor load.

By the standard of the mid-1950s, however, Nautilus was a wonder, both for its crew and the sailors who had to run exercises against it. Sailors used to the “pig boat” conditions of diesel-electric submarines found conditions luxurious by comparison. Every sailor had his own berthing space, and Nautilus was almost antiseptically clean to sailors used to the smell of diesel and fuel oil in everything. In the crew’s mess, there was a Coke machine and jukebox, while the food was the best the U.S. Navy could provide. With the need to charge batteries essentially eliminated, electrical power was plentiful, allowing for air conditioning and what seemed at the time a nearly unlimited supply of fresh water. While much of this was to support reactor operations, the human benefits did not go unappreciated by the crew of Nautilus, whose morale and efficiency were among the best in the fleet.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...