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Nuclear Propulsion - History

On March 17, 1939, at a meeting at the Naval Research Laboratory attended by Dr. George Peagram of Columbia University, Dr. Ross Gunn, Capt. Hollis Cooley, R. Adm. Harold Bowen, Fermi revealed his assumptions. If certain technical problems could be solved, he reported, it should be possible to initiate a chain reaction that could be used in an explosive or that could be controlled. In either case energy would be released. Three days after this meeting, Captain Cooley and Dr. Gunn outlined a plan to Admiral Bowen to build a "fission chamber" that would generate steam to drive turbines to power a submarine. The idea that would eventually lead to USS Nautilus had been conceived.

The construction of a nuclear powered submarine was one of the first possibilities envisioned for applying the new knowledge of fission.

There was, however, little follow-up on the idea. Dr. Gunn did continue to study the problems involved in developing a fission chamber, but the absence of government support for research, the Navy's lack of interest in such a novel project, and government regulations governing outside contracting limited the Naval Research Laboratory's efforts.

Above all, beginning in 1939, when Albert Einstein wrote his famous letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the attention of the Nation's physicists was directed to the possibility of building the bomb. In 1942, the Manhattan Project began. The Navy, the first of the services, with the exception of a few ordnance people, to show interest in nuclear power, was excluded from the project that was placed under the direction of the United States Army.

Although the Navy was excluded from the Manhattan Project, Dr. Ross Gunn was not idle. He hired a promising young physicist named Philip H. Abelson to work in the Naval Research Laboratory on the problem of separating uranium 235 from uranium 238 by means of a thermal diffusion process. Abelson's work made a contribution to the Manhattan Project. In 1944, a thermal diffusion plant based on his design was constructed at Oak Ridge. The success of the plant advanced by a week the delivery of fissionable material to the Trinity test site in New Mexico. In general, however, during World War II, the Navy was isolated from the mainstream of nuclear power development with the result that the idea to build a nuclear propelled submarine was deferred.

During the war no attempts were made to initiate a nuclear reactor project that could lead to the development of a propulsion plant for use in ships. In August 1944, however, Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves, the officer commanding the Manhattan Project, appointed a committee under Dr. Richard C. Tolman of the California Institute of Technology to look into the peaceful or non-destructive uses of nuclear power.

The idea to apply nuclear power to propel a submarine originated in 1939. In January of that year, Dr. Ross Gunn, a physicist employed at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., together with colleagues from academia, attended a session of the Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics. Also present were Nils Bohr, the distinguished Danish physicist, and Enrico Fermi, a young Italian Nobel Prize winner in physics.

Bohr and Fermi had exciting news. Through Lise Meitner, a German-born Jewish physicist who had worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, before Nazi racial policies forced her to emigrate to Denmark, Bohr had learned that the great German physicist Otto Hahn and his colleague Fritz Strassman had succeeded in splitting the uranium atom and creating a fission process that released energy.

Bohr and Fermi's announcement immediately set off a flurry of activity throughout the United States as physicists hurried to confirm the German experiment. What Fermi did not tell his audience in Washington was that he and others suspected that the fission process released high energy neutrons that might be used to start additional fissions. The result would be a chain reaction that released vast amounts of energy.

Naval Officers, R. Adm. Earle W. Mills and Capt. Thorwald A. Solberg, served on the committee. In its December 1944 report, the Tolman Committee proposed that, "The government should initiate and push, as an urgent project, research and development studies to provide power from nuclear sources for propulsion of naval vessels." A year later, when the war was over and the public was beginning to learn about nuclear reactors and their potential, Dr. Gunn appeared before a Special Committee on Atomic Energy of the United States Congress. In his testimony, Dr. Gunn stated that a future function of atomic energy would be "turning the world's wheels and driving its ships."

To demonstrate that nuclear power could drive ships, Philip Abelson prepared a report on the feasibility of building a nuclear powered submarine. Completed in March 1946, the report outlined how a nuclear pile could be fitted to a German type-26 U-Boat design, the most advanced submarine of the period. The submarine could be built in two years, Abelson contended, could operate at 25 to 30 knots submerged, and could, in theory, be used as a missile platform. Although Abelson's report proved be technically inaccurate and vague, partly becuase it contained no information on the reactor itself, the report was read by many within the Navy and it served the function of educating naval personnel to the possibility of a nuclear powered submarine.

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.

At the request of then-Captain H.G. Rickover, USN, the first study of the application of a high-pressure, water-cooled reactor for a submarine was undertaken at Oak Ridge, Tenn., in September 1947. In January 1948 the Department of Defense requsted Atomic Energy Commission to design, develop and build a nuclear reactor which would propel a submarine.

Captain Rickover 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. In August 1949 the Chief of Naval Operations established an operational requirement to develop a submarine nuclear propulsion plant with a ready-for-sea date of January 1955. CNO Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, recommended to Congress the construction of a nuclear submarine on 25 April 1950, and the following August, the President signed Public Law 674. That same month saw the start of construction of the Nautilus land-based protoype (submarine thermal reactor, Mark I) at the AEC's National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho.

By 1949, Captain Rickover had forged an arrangement between the AEC and the Navy under which he would proceed with both pressurized water cooled reactor and a liquid metal cooled reactor 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.

Rickover did not have a free hand in quieting propulsion plants. He was responsible for the entire propulsion system of a ship that was the first to use a particular reactor. For later ships he had cognizance only over the reactor and its associated systems; other parts of the bureau had responsibility for the remaining portion. Here they could make changes that Rickover might question and argue against, but which he had to accept as long as they did not affect the operation of the reactor. The division of responsibility allowed the introduction of some methods of quieting he accepted only reluctantly, but once they had proved their effectiveness, he became a strong advocate.

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.

Design and development of new reactor plants was the domain of Rickover, Naval Reactors, and the Atomic Energy Commission. The organization he had created his headquarters, the laboratories, the shipyards, and the contractors had a magnificent record of success and was anxious to exploit the new technology, sometimes at a rate that conflicted with the positions of the Navy Department and the office of the secretary of defense. The prestige of the program and its chief stood high among the members of Congress who authorized and appropriated funds for the navy. They listened to Rickover, not only on developing nuclear propulsion plants but upon other subjects, among them the strength of a possible aggressor and the size of the undersea fleet needed to counter it.

Rickover was conservative, and his engineering philosophy drew fire from some elements in the Bureau of Ships, some officers in the navy as well as the Department of Defense, and in private companies. They were convinced that it had to be possible to develop reactors that were more compact and weighed less and did not cost as much as the pressurized water type. From this perspective, pressurized-water reactor technology, even with its striking success, was only a stage in the development of nuclear propulsion, roughly analogous to the position of aircraft-engine technology before the introduction of the jet. The argument ran that if Rickover could not proceed beyond pressurized-water reactors, perhaps others could.

A report of a panel on naval vehicles to the committee on undersea warfare of the National Academy of Sciences stated the issue. Forwarded in July 1962 to Admiral George W. Anderson, Jr., chief of naval operations, the report gave high priority to the development of lighter-weight propulsion plants. Bluntly, the panel declared its reservations about the part of Naval Reactors in the effort.

"[It] represents a larger body of practical experience in supervising the design and construction of reliable nuclear power plants, whether for propulsion or for energy generation, than any other comparable group in the nation. Their judgment has often been vindicated by experience when the weight of expert technical judgment was on the other side. Nevertheless, we must also recognize that a group which has pioneered and grown up with a new and successful technology is not usually the group best qualified to take the next major step forward, once this technology has come to maturity."

Nothing came of this or other attempts to break the hold of Naval Reactors on the development of nuclear propulsion. A document drawn up in 1961 and kept in the Naval Reactors historical files gave Rickover's position. Design criteria for naval nuclear propulsion plants rested heavily upon operational experience. Submarines propelled by pressurizedwater reactors had voyaged beneath Arctic ice and tropic seas as well as taking part in naval exercises and undertaking lengthy patrols. Even the shock of combat had been simulated by tests in which explosives were set off near ships underway. Lessons from operational submarines and land prototypes were factored into new designs and, if possible, into modifications of existing plants.

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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Page last modified: 21-02-2016 20:17:01 ZULU