UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


SSN-571 Nautilus - Early History

Vice Adm. Charles Lockwood, who commanded submarines during the war, remembered Abelson and Gunn's briefing on the report:" If I live to be a hundred, I shall never forget that meeting on March 28, 1946, in a large Bureau of Ships conference room, its walls lined with blackboards which, in turn, were covered by diagrams, blueprints, figures, and equations which Phil (Abelson) used to illustrate various points as he read ' from his document, the first ever submitted anywhere on nuclear powered subs. It sounded like something out of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea."

By the middle of 1946, thanks to officers like Mills, Cooley, and Bowen and scientist such as Gunn and Abelson, the idea to build a nuclear propelled submarine had been revived. As Richard Hewlett and Francis Duncan point out in their history of the nuclear propulsion project, Nuclear Navy, the challenge was gaining the necessary knowledge and authorization to realize the idea.

In 1946, the Navy set out to cultivate the necessary technical knowledge to build nuclear reactors. In June, the Bureau of Ships, the Navy organization responsible for ship construction, organized two groups of naval personnel, both officers and civilians, one to study nuclear reactor technology at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the other assigned to the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Schenectady, New York. The former team was to work on the so-called Daniel's nuclear reactor project, while the later was to study General Electric's effort to build a nuclear reactor to power a destroyer.

The senior officer assigned to Oak Ridge was one Capt. Hyman G. Rickover, a 46-year-old Engineering Duty Officer (EDO) who had spent the war in the Electric Division of the Bureau of Ships and whose most recent duty had been mothballing ships on the Pacific coast. Throughout 1946 and 1947, these men, who would form the core of the nuclear propulsion project, enthusiastically mastered the literature of the then primitive "state of the art" in nuclear reactor technology. They met with distinguished physicists, and visited various Manhattan Project laboratories around the country. When the time came to begin the project, they would be ready.

Also during 1946 and 1947, and into 1948 the Navy sought authorization to proceed with a nuclear propulsion program. Authorization for the program came from two sources, the Department of Defense and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the civilian successor to the Manhattan Project.

Within the Department of Defense it was necessary to convince the Navy's high command, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Secretary of Defense that the project was necessary and feasible. The highest ranking Navy officer, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), was at the time fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, the hero the Campaigns in the Pacific.

Stimulated by memoranda and by officers in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Nimitz, in the fall of 1946, had asked the Submarine Officers' Conference, a group of experienced submariners who advised the CNO on matters pertaining to submarines. In January 1947, the submarine officers reported:

"Present anti-submarine techniques and new developments in submarine design have rendered our present fleet submarines obsolete; offensively and defensively, to a greater degree than any other type (of warship). The development of a true submarine capable of operating submerged for unlimited periods, appears to be probable within the next ten years, provided nuclear power is made available for submarine propulsion."

Although Nimitz endorsed this report, it was not until the following December that he sent a memorandum to the Secretary of the Navy for transmittal to the Secretary of Defense. According to Nimitz's biographer, the memorandum was almost the final act of his watch as Chief of Naval Operations. The second paragraph of the secret memorandum stated:

"The most secure means of carrying out an offensive submarine mission against an enemy is by the use of a true submarine, that is one that can operate submerged for very long periods of time and is able to make high submerged speeds... it is important that the Navy initiate action with view to prompt development, design, and construction of a nuclear powered submarine."

In their biography of Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, naval historians Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allan call this memorandum the genesis of the nuclear submarine program. Secretary of the Navy, John L. Sullivan, immediately endorsed Nimitz's memorandum and forwarded it to Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal. Forrestal also endorsed the proposal, which constituted Department of Defense authorization to seek funds to build the submarine.

At the beginning of 1948, the proposal that the Navy initiate the construction of a nuclear propelled submarine enjoyed the support of the Nation's military. It was still, however, necessary to gain authorization for the project from the Atomic Energy Commission. In the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, Congress granted to the AEC, jurisdiction over all matters pertaining to nuclear development. This meant that the Commission was responsible for nuclear reactor development. The Navy's Bureau of Ships could build all the submarines it wanted, but without the AEC it would have no reactors to put in them.

To the frustration of Admiral Mills and Captain Rickover, the AEC procrastinated in authorizing a naval reactor program. During 1947, the first year of its existence, the AEC experienced difficulties in organizing itself and in selecting and setting priorities for the projects it would support. Nuclear weapons production enjoyed the Commission's highest priority, but after that many commissioners desired to move slowly and develop a balanced nuclear research program divided between pure science research and applied technology. Further complicating the Navy's desire to begin a ship reactor immediately was a proposal to develop a nuclear-powered airplane.

The Navy's primary interest rested not in unraveling the secrets of the atom, but rather in applying the existing physical knowledge of the fission process in creating the "hard" technology of nuclear propulsion. In short, the Navy wanted nuclear engineering, not theoretical nuclear physics. The Navy had little or no interest in a nuclear powered airplane.

In January 1948, the Bureau of Ships attempted to work out an agreement with the AEC. Under the agreement the AEC would establish a formal nuclear propulsion project. The Commission's Argonne Laboratory near Chicago would work on reactor design, while the Navy's Bureau of Ships would take the lead in the design, engineering, and construction of the submarine. Throughout much of 1948 the Navy and AEC went back and forth working out the details of this agreement.

In April, Admiral Mills delivered a hard-hitting speech at a meeting of the Undersea Warfare Symposium. With several hundred officers and civilians, including members of the AEC, listening, Mills complained publicly about the Commission's foot dragging on nuclear propulsion. In June, Mills arranged a formal meeting with the Commission. Citing the advances the Soviet Union was making in submarine development, and emphasizing the threat a large Soviet submarine force could pose to America's command of the sea.

Mills all but demanded that the AEC establish the necessary organizational framework for developing nuclear propulsion. Impressed, the Commission committed itself to the project. To assure that the AEC followed up on its commitment, Mills made a decision in July that would have effects far beyond the actual construction of Nautilus. He appointed Captain Rickover to be the Bureau of Ships liaison with the AEC. The assignment effectively placed Rickover in charge of nuclear propulsion in the Navy, a position he would hold for the next 31 years.

In assessing Mills' reasons for making the assignment, AEC historians Hewlett and Duncan observed:" The decision was not an easy one for Mills. Some of the qualities which Rickover would bring to the job troubled Mills and many of his fellow officers in the Bureau. Rickover flouted Navy tradition and ridiculed a system that seemed to him to give more weight to an officer's social accomplishments and willingness to conform than to his practical ability and industry.

Mills could guess that once he gave Rickover a free hand, he would outwork, outmaneuver and outfight the Commission, its laboratories and the Navy. He would threaten, cajole, and even insult those who stood in his way. In the process he would no doubt embarrass Mills and the Navy, but Mills was ready to do what the situation demanded.

What the situation demanded in July 1948 was for someone to take charge and accept responsibility for organizing and directing nothing less than a technological revolution in ship propulsion. In August, Mills established a Nuclear Power Branch (Code 390) within the Bureau of Ships with Rickover in command. Finally possessing an organizational indentity and a delegation of authority that gave him a great deal of freedom, Rickover quickly reassembled his colleagues from the Oak Ridge group to staff the branch.

Coincidentally, Rickover initiated contacts with Westinghouse and General Electric to discuss the participation of the two companies in the project. In January 1949, the AEC gave organizational reality to the Navy project by establishing a Division of Reactor Development and within that division a Naval Reactors Branch (NRB).

Instead of attempting to organize and staff the branch from scratch, which would have caused further delay, the AEC accepted Rickover's Bureau of Ships Nuclear Power Branch as its own NRB. By this action the AEC formally recognized that the initiative for the direction of the nuclear propulsion project had passed to the Navy. Indeed, some within the Commission, who wanted the AEC to pursue pure research in nuclear physics, were probably relieved. On organizational charts, Rickover, now headed a branch in two organizations, the AEC and the Navy. He had become effectively "two-hatted" arid in a position to exploit the authorities, procedures, and resources of both the AEC and the Navy to accomplish his objective, the design, engineering, and construction of Nautilus.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 07-02-2016 19:42:03 ZULU