At the same time, while Nautilus might not win any races with the Russian Project 627 boats, there was no doubt which design was more successful. Rickover had demanded that crew safety be a paramount concern in the design of Nautilus’ STR/S2W power plant and that crew members receive no more radiation than if they got a couple of chest X-rays in a year. This resulted in some unique American design features, like a fully-sealed reactor vessel with the control rods being raised and lowered by an external magnetic control system. By comparison, the Soviet MV-A reactor could not be sealed fully, allowing for the venting of radioactive gases and steam, much to the detriment of crew health. Rickover had also demanded that the quality of reactor construction and welding be the finest possible, while the early Russian reactors often suffered from poor quality control and a lack of backup systems.
Rickover had also demanded that the quality of reactor construction and welding be the finest possible, while the early Russian reactors often suffered from poor quality control and a lack of backup systems.
The result was that early American nuclear boats had a history of successful operations and safety, while their Soviet counterparts were considered deathtraps. Nowhere was this demonstrated more clearly than on July 4, 1961, when the Soviet Project 658 (NATO “Hotel” class) nuclear ballistic missile submarine K-19 suffered a leak in the primary coolant loop of one of its VM-A reactors while at sea. Only a heroic effort by K-19’s reactor team allowed an emergency cooling system to be rigged and a catastrophic meltdown to be avoided. However, 14 crewmen eventually died from radiation exposure, and the entire reactor plant had to be redesigned and replaced before the K-19 returned to sea. Rickover’s strict insistence on “fail safe” reactor designs and operating procedures meant that American nuclear submarines never suffered the kinds of problems of their Soviet/Russian counterparts.
All of these factors meant that Nautilus became a favorite of naval leaders, politicians, and the public when support for new nuclear submarines was being sought. Despite her shortcomings, Nautilus consistently outperformed simulated enemy ships in exercises and achieved a number of well-publicized “firsts” in a time when the Soviets were flexing their muscles by launching Sputnik satellites into Earth orbit aboard intercontinental ballistic missiles. The most famous of these “firsts,” Operation Sunshine, saw Nautilus conducting a submerged transit from the Pacific to Atlantic Ocean via the North Pole. To an American public searching for American technological successes, Rickover and his nuclear submariners became instant heroes, with Nautilus and her sisters as their magic carpets. It was a reputation that they have never completely lost, as shown by the continuing public fascination with submarines and the men who sail on them.
So what lessons did Nautilus teach us five decades ago? First, that even the most rudimentary nuclear-powered submarine can outperform even the finest ASW surface forces, given a bold commander and crew. The fact that Seawolf was still conducting covert intelligence missions in denied territorial waters as late as the 1980s is more than enough proof of the superiority of atomic power over conventional power plants. Another benefit of high transit speed was that nuclear propulsion allowed the American submarine fleet to be based in the continental United States, a fact that has benefited American sailors and interests greatly over time. That the atomic power roughly doubled the price of building and operating a warship was seen as the cost of naval superiority. Today, we are still assessing the final costs of atomic power, as the worldwide cleanup of nuclear waste enters its second decade since the end of the Cold War.
Perhaps as tribute to Verne, and in the hope that their boat would be as well-known and respected as the one in his most famous novel, the Navy named its first nuclear submarine Nautilus. In their wildest dreams though, none could have imaged how successful the new prototype nuclear submarine would be.
However, Nautilus also showed that there is no substitute for the best of everything when it involves nuclear power. Like manned space flight, nuclear power plant operations are not inherently dangerous or complex: anything but. However, like manned space operations, operating a nuclear power plant at sea is terribly unforgiving of any shortcoming in quality control during construction or lapse in attention while underway. That Nautilus and her early sisters were so successful is a tribute to Rickover and his single-minded obsession with quality and safety. One only need look at the list of Soviet/Russian Cold War submarine accidents like the one aboard K-19 to see the consequences of not being so careful. In retrospect, however, it must be said that Cold War tensions drove both sides to develop and adopt new military technologies at reckless rates, whatever their costs in blood and treasure. It is unlikely that any consequence would have kept the United States and Soviet Union from achieving nuclear power, propulsion, or weapons, whatever the cost.
In 1870, the visionary French writer Jules Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a book about an engineering genius who builds an amazing submarine that goes on adventures throughout the oceans of the world. More than eight decades before his vision became hard fact, Verne had Captain Nemo riding on a boat that would sweep the sealanes of shipping and was the most envied and feared warship in the world. Ironically, he called the submarine Nautilus, something Rickover and every submariner in the world knew as nuclear propulsion was getting ready to make its debut in the 1950s. Perhaps as tribute to Verne, and in the hope that their boat would be as well-known and respected as the one in his most famous novel, the Navy named its first nuclear submarine Nautilus. In their wildest dreams though, none could have imaged how successful the new prototype nuclear submarine would be.
Today, Nautilus is still the gold standard of nuclear warships, having set the bar for safety, performance, and achievement at a level never equaled. Despite having been the first of hundreds of nuclear warships in the five decades since, the American public still remembers Nautilus with pride and awe. So do the many sailors who served aboard Nautilus, who remember her comfort and reliability with the words, “First and Finest,” from her ship’s motto, with great pride. Fifty years later, her legacy is still “Underway on Nuclear Power.”
So do the many sailors who served aboard Nautilus, who remember her comfort and reliability with the words, “First and Finest,” from her ship’s motto, with great pride. Fifty years later, her legacy is still “Underway on Nuclear Power.”
This article was first published in Underway on Nuclear Power: 50th Anniversary of USS Nautilus.