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The Nuclear Navy

Engineer Department petty officer

An Engineer Department petty officer adjusts a valve in the propulsion plant of the U.S. Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) in the Mediterranean Sea, 1 April 1988. National Archives identifier, 6440718.

The Nuclear Navy is a term coined to describe vessels powered by nuclear reactors. Incorporating nuclear energy to naval vessels revolutionized naval warfare. The general idea of nuclear ships was that they would not have to make regular stops for fuel like conventional vessels, making them only limited by supplies and crew endurance. The Navy recognized the benefits of nuclear energy for propulsion purposes and began research. From its humble beginnings, the Navy has produced many of the world’s first nuclear propelled vessels, from aircraft carriers to submarines.

Shortly after World War II, the Navy sought to develop secondary uses for nuclear energy and reactors. Navy Captain Hyman Rickover, an electrical engineer and proponent of the research, sought to use nuclear reactors for the production of electricity. Rickover led the effort to pursue and manufacture the first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571). In June 1952, construction began on Nautilus and on 17 January 1955 Nautilus became the first submarine underway on nuclear power. Nautilus would later become the first to complete a fully submerged transit under the North Pole as part of “Operation Sunshine.”

After the success of Nautilus, research into nuclear powered surface vessels began. Construction began in 1954 on the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN-65), and the ship was commissioned 25 November 1961. Enterprise would go on to complete 25 deployments during its 51 years of service. Today, all submarines and aircraft carriers are powered by nuclear propulsion. The Naval Nuclear Power Training Command in Goose Creek, South Carolina, trains today’s nuclear operators.


Suggested Reading

75 Years of Powering Maritime Dominance

The deputy director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, Chuck Taylor, discusses his perspective on the significance of the 75th anniversary of naval reactors and the lasting impact of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover.

Selected Imagery

Launching of USS Nautilus (SSN-571)

Launching of USS Nautilus (SSN-571) at the Electric Boat Company, Groton, Connecticut, 21 January 1954. Naval History and Heritage Command photograph, UA 475.05.02.

USS Los Angeles Cruise, Control Room, 1977

Lieutenant Commander Robert J. Labrecque, executive officer, left, President Jimmy Carter, and Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, retired, Director, Division of Naval Reactors, U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration and Deputy Commander for Nuclear Propulsion, were in the control room on board the nuclear-powered submarine USS Los Angeles (SSN-688) during a cruise at Cape Canaveral, Florida, 27 May 1977. U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Journalist Archie N. Galloway.

USS Enterprise (CVN-65)

USS Enterprise (CVN-65) underway, circa 1990s. It was the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Naval History and Heritage Command photograph, NH 106551-KN.

USS Nautilus (SSN-571)

The nuclear powered submarine USS Nautilus (SSN-571) during sea trials off Groton, Connecticut. National Archives and Records Administration photograph, USN 1161144.

USS Long Beach (CGN-9)

Aerial starboard stern view of the first nuclear-powered cruiser and first large combatant ship, USS Long Beach (CGN-9), underway at sea, 21 June 1989. National Archives photograph, 6655686.

Naval Nuclear Power Training Command

Fireman Mackenzie F. Dalton, left, and Fireman Steven A. Caro, students at Naval Nuclear Power Training Command (NNPTC), calculate equations during a basic fluid theory laboratory at NNPTC, 10 April 2020. NNPTC's mission is to train officer and enlisted students in science and engineering fundamental to the design, operation, and maintenance of naval nuclear propulsion plants. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Darren M. Moore, 200410-N-ME988-2061.

Published: Tue Nov 28 08:44:02 EST 2023