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Nuclear Propulsion


The use of nuclear power to propel submarines under water was first proposed by an NRL physicist, R. Gunn, soon after fission was discovered in 1939. In March 1939, Navy officials, one of which was Gunn, met with several civilian scientists who felt the military should be made aware of the vast possibilities of nuclear fission. Among the civilian scientists was Enrico Fermi. While most of the Navy personnel present at the meeting concentrated their attention on a nuclear weapon, Gunn was conceiving the idea of using nuclear power to drive the world's first nuclear submarine. Within a few days after this historic meeting, Gunn had requested and received $2,000 for preliminary work on the possibility of developing nuclear power for ship propulsion.

In 1946, at the conclusion of World War II, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act, which established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to succeed the wartime Manhattan Project, and gave it sole responsibility for developing atomic energy. At this time, Captain Hyman G. Rickover was assigned to the Navy Bureau of Ships, the organization responsible for ship design. In April 1946, NRL forwarded a report to the Bureau of Ships entitled "The Atomic Energy Submarine," which concluded that it was considered feasible to construct atomic power plants of a size and output suitable for ship propulsion. This report also marks the first interest in liquid metal coolants for reactors. Captain Rickover recognized the military implications of successfully harnessing atomic power for submarine propulsion and that it would be necessary for the Navy to work with the AEC to develop such a program. He arranged for himself and several officers and civilians to be sent to the AEC laboratory at Oak Ridge, TN for one year to learn the fundamentals of nuclear reactor technology.

Although the concept of using a reactor to produce heat was understood, the technology to build and operate a shipboard nuclear propulsion plant did not exist. Though there were several reactor concepts, the real challenge was to develop the technology and transform theory into practical engineering. New materials had to be developed, components designed, and fabrication techniques worked out. Further, installing and operating a steam propulsion plant inside the confines of a submarine and under the unique sub-sea pressure conditions, raised a number of technical challenges. With these obstacles, the team at Oak Ridge knew that to build a Naval nuclear propulsion plant would require substantial commitment of resources and a new level of government and industry commitment.

Captain Rickover returned to Washington and used every opportunity from his post at the Bureau of Ships to argue the need to establish a Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. Since there were many unknowns, he recommended undertaking two parallel reactor development projects: a pressurized water cooled reactor and a liquid metal cooled reactor. On August 4, 1948, the Navy created the new Nuclear Power Branch with Rickover as its head within the Bureau's Research Division.

By 1949, Captain Rickover had forged an arrangement between the AEC and the Navy under which he would proceed with both projects. In 1949, Rickover's new organization contracted with Westinghouse to develop a facility (the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory) to work on the pressurized water design. In 1950, he contracted with General Electric to determine whether a liquid metal reactor design, that it was developing at the AEC's Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, could be applied to Naval propulsion.

Captain Rickover recruited a strong technical staff from those who studied at Oak Ridge, others from past service in the Navy, and top young nuclear engineers right out of college. This core of engineers and Naval officers oversaw every aspect of the development of nuclear propulsion. Under the leadership of Hyman Rickover, the Navy contracted the Westinghouse Electric Corporation to construct, test and operate a prototype submarine reactor plant. This first reactor plant was called the Submarine Thermal Reactor, or STR. On March 30, 1953, the STR was brought to power for the first time and the age of naval nuclear propulsion was born. One of the greatest revolutions in the history of naval warfare had begun.

To test and operate his reactor plant, Rickover put together an organization which has thrived to this day. Westinghouse's Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory was assigned responsibility for operating the reactor it had designed and built. The crew was increasingly augmented by naval personnel as the cadre of trained operators grew. Admiral Rickover ensured safe operation of the reactor plant through the enforcement of the strictest standards of technical and procedural compliance.

At the site and at the STR, two missions for the prototype quickly emerged. First was the research and development of advanced reactor plant designs and procedures for the fleet. Second was the mission of training and certifying operators for the fleet. And the fleet came quickly and in large numbers. STR was redesigned S1W, the prototype of the USS NAUTILUS. USS Nautilus, using the pressurized water design, and USS Seawolf, using the liquid metal design, were built, tested, commissioned, and put to sea in 1954 and 1957 respectively. While Seawolf operated at sea for about two years, experience demonstrated that pressurized water technology was preferable for Naval applications. It thus became the basis for all subsequent US nuclear-powered warship designs.

Within a few short years, a revolution in naval warfare had been born. Nautilus was followed in the middle to late '50s by A1W, the prototype of the aircraft carrier, USS ENTERPRISE. Also in the late '50s, the Expended Core Facility was built. It is used to this day to examine expended naval reactor fuel to aid in the improvement of future generations of naval reactors. Finally, in the middle 1960s, S5G, the prototype of the submarine, USS NARWHAL, and predecessor to the reactor plant used to propel the Trident Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines, was built and place in service.

As the Navy's presence expanded in eastern Idaho, slowly but surely the Navy support organization matured. By late 1954, the Nuclear Power Training Unit was established. In 1961, the Naval Administrative Unit set up shop in Blackfoot. In 1965, the unit moved to its present location in Idaho Falls, and over the next 30 years, continued to expand and improve its services. By 1979, a separate Personnel Support Detachment had arrived. 1982 saw a branch dental clinic established, and 1983 ushered in a branch medical clinic.

In the early 1950s work was initiated at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory to develop reactor prototypes for the US Navy. The Naval Reactors Facility, a part of the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, was established to support development of naval nuclear propulsion. The facility is operated by Westinghouse Electric Corporation under the direct supervision of the DOE's Office of Naval Reactors. The facility supports the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program by carrying out assigned testing, examination, and spent fuel management activities.

The facility consists of three naval nuclear reactor prototype plants, the Expended Core Facility, and various support buildings. The submarine thermal reactor prototype was constructed in 1951 and shut down in 1989; the large ship reactor prototype was constructed in 1958 and shut down in 1994; and the submarine reactor plant prototype was constructed in 1965 and shut down in 1995. The prototypes were used to train sailors for the nuclear navy and for research and development purposes. The Expended Core Facility, which receives, inspects, and conducts research on naval nuclear fuel, was constructed in 1958 and is still operational.

The initial power run of the prototype reactor (S1W) for the first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, was conducted at the INEEL in 1953. The A1W prototype facility consists of a dual-pressurized water reactor plant within a portion of the steel hull designed to replicate the aircraft carrier Enterprise. This facility began operations in 1958 and was the first designed to have two reactors providing power to the propeller shaft of one ship. The S5G reactor is a prototype pressurized water reactor that operates in either a forced or natural circulation flow mode. Coolant flow through the reactor is caused by thermal circulation rather than pumps. The S5G prototype plant was installed in an actual submarine hull section capable of simulating the rolling motions of a ship at sea. The unique contributions of these three reactor prototypes to the development of the United States Nuclear Navy make them potentially eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Test Reactor Area (TRA) occupies 102 acres in the southwest portion of the INEL. The TRA was established in the early 1950s with the development of the Materials Test Reactor. Two other major reactors were subsequently built at the TRA: the Engineering Test Reactor and the Advanced Test Reactor. The Engineering Test Reactor has been inactive since January 1982. The Materials Test Reactor was shut down in 1970, and the building is now used for offices, storage, and experimental test areas. The major program at the TRA is now the Advanced Test Reactor. Since the Advanced Test Reactor achieved criticality in 1967, it's been used almost exclusively by the Department of Energy's Naval Reactors Program. After almost 30 years of operation, this reactor is still considered a premier test facility. And it's projected to remain a major facility for research, radiation testing, and isotope production into the next century.

With the demise of the commercial nuclear industry in the 1970's, Naval nuclear suppliers have had virtually no other work to help absorb overhead and sustain a solid business base from which to compete for Naval nuclear work. The result has been reduced competition and higher costs. Requirements for naval nuclear propulsion plant components are far more stringent than needed for civilian products. Costly quality control and work production procedures to meet nuclear requirements generally prevent these firms from competing successfully with firms geared for less sophisticated civilian work. There is no civilian demand for quiet, compact, shock-resistent nuclear propulsion systems which would keep skilled designers and production workers current. This is a distinct difference from the aerospace, electronics, and ground vehicle industries from which DOD buys many of its weapon systems.

In the 1970's, Government restructuring moved the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program from the AEC (which was disestablished) to what became the Department of Energy. During this transition, the Program retained its dual agency responsibility. Although the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program has grown in size and scope over the years its basic organization, responsibilities, and technical discipline have remained much as when it was first established.

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