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September 30, 1954 - Commissioning of the First Nuclear Submarine

Posted September 30, 2018 12:00 AM by RSBenner
Pathfinder Tags: Nautilus nuclear submarine

The birth of the United States Submarine Force is considered to be April 11, 1900, the day the US Navy purchased the Holland VI Submersible (renamed the USS Holland, SS-1) from John Philip Holland's Holland Torpedo Boat Company. Since then, submarines have been an important component of the US Naval force. In fact, during World War II, US submarines sank over 30 percent of Japanese naval ships, including eight aircraft carriers, despite being only 2 percent of the Navy. Although effective, there were drawbacks to their design. Submarines used during World War II were diesel-electric; powered by diesel engines while traveling on the surface of the water and by battery operated electric motors while submerged. As a result, these submarines traveled much slower while submerged compared to their surface speed. Additionally, the boats could only remain submerged up to 48 hours before surfacing and recharging their batteries via their air-breathing diesel engines. These facts hindered attempts to hide or escape from enemy ships. New designs had to be developed.

On December 31, 1947, the task to design a nuclear power plant for a submarine was given to Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory. This design would solve the issues that plagued the diesel-electric submarines since nuclear power produces zero emissions and consumes no air. Overseen in every detail by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” the result was a pressurized water reactor, the S2W, which would be the basis for future US nuclear-powered submarines. The keel of the ship to house this power plant was laid on June 14, 1952 at General Dynamic, Electric Boat Division. Designated the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) after Captain Nemo's submarine in Jules Verne's novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, she was christened and launched on January 21, 1954 by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. The USS Nautilus (SSN-571) was commissioned as the first nuclear submarine on September 30, 1954.

It is interesting to note that today, after a newly built ship is christened and launched, the sea trial phase of the boat’s development begins. During sea trials, the ship’s systems are tested “at sea” and any problems resolved. Once completed, the ship is deemed ready for service and commissioned into the US Navy. However, in the case of the Nautilus, she remained docked after commissioning for more construction and testing. She was finally sent to sea on January 17, 1955 with the transmission of the historic message by the first Commanding Officer, Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson, “Underway on nuclear power.” Extensive system testing continued until May 11, 1956, almost two years after commissioning, when the USS Nautilus was accepted for unrestricted service by the US Navy.

The USS Nautilus was a great success and began setting new records almost immediately. During her first shakedown cruise from New London to San Juan, Puerto Rico, she traveled 1,381 miles in less than 90 hours. She set speed and distance records during this trip and also achieved a record for the longest period of complete submergence. The Nautilus broke her own record in May of 1957, by cruising completely submerged from the Panama Canal to San Diego, a distance of 3,049 miles. On August 3, 1958, she became the first ship to travel to the North Pole, sailing 96 hours and 1,830 miles under the ice from the Barrow Sea to the Greenland Sea. She again broke her own record on August 18, 1958 when she traveled from Portland, England to New York City, traveling over 3,100 miles submerged in six days, 11 hours and 55 minutes, at an average speed of more than 20 knots.

After a distinguished career spanning 25 years, the USS Nautilus was decommissioned on March 3, 1980. She was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982 and, after extensive work, was returned to her birthplace, Groton CT, in 1985. On April 11, 1986, on the eighty-sixth birthday of the Submarine Force, the Historic Ship Nautilus opened to the public as part of the Submarine Force Museum. It is a wonderful museum and I highly recommend a visit. You can read about CR4’s visit to the museum here: https://cr4.globalspec.com/blogentry/10112/The-Submarine-Force-Museum-The-USS-Nautilus-Part-1

The USS Nautilus was an amazing piece of engineering. Being the first nuclear submarine, she was a critical test platform for the newly designed power plant and its systems, helping to shape future submarine design and technology. She ushered in a new era of submarines and the US Navy would never be the same.

References:

http://www.subguru.com/nautilus571.htm

http://www.ussnautilus.org/nautilus/

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#1

Re: September 30, 1954 - Commissioning of the First Nuclear Submarine

09/30/2018 6:07 PM

An interesting feature of the Nautilus construction is that it was built 3 times. The first was in wood mockup in a model building at EB Groton. The second was the prototype reactor in the Idaho desert west of Idaho Falls and the third was the ship itself at EB Groton. The prototype was built just ahead of the ship and in its final form, the power plant looked like someone took a bunch of pipe and equipment and compressed it into a brick in a trash masher. The original system had so many safety systems, triple redundant that the system couldn't be started without a safety system trip. The second stage was to remove enough redundant safety systems that the plant could be started. Important safety systems remained in triple redundant with two of three system coincidence required to maintain safe operation.

The original crew trained at the prototype before going to the ship.

Follow on ship classes were a whole lot easier to work on. I remember working up procedures for maintenance for some valves where it was necessary to cut machine foundations to get to valve packing glands. Still a really remarkable ship.

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Re: September 30, 1954 - Commissioning of the First Nuclear Submarine

09/30/2018 6:36 PM

I find it amazing the fairly short amount of time between the first atomic pile and a nuclear submarine propulsion unit.

Notable early nuclear reactors
*Power output is thermal except where noted as megawatts (e), signifying electrical.

https://www.britannica.com/technology/nuclear-reactor/History-of-reactor-development

namelocationpower output*distinctionstart-up
CP-1 (Chicago Pile No. 1)Chicago, Ill.lowfirst reactor1942
ORNL Graphite, or Oak Ridge Graphite Reactor (X = 10)Oak Ridge, Tenn.3.8 megawattsfirst megawatt-range reactor1943
Y-Boiler (LOPO)Los Alamos, N.M.lowfirst enriched-fuel reactor1944
CP-3 (Chicago Pile No. 3)Chicago, Ill.300 kilowattsfirst heavy-water reactor1944
ZEEP (Zero-Energy Experimental Pile)Chalk River, Ont.lowfirst Canadian reactor1945
HanfordRichland, Wash.>100 megawattsfirst high-power reactor1945
ClementineLos Alamos, N.M.25 kilowattsfirst fast-neutron spectrum reactor1946
NRXChalk River, Ont.42 megawattsfirst high-flux research reactor1947
GLEEPHarwell, Eng.lowfirst British reactor1947
ZOE (EL-1)Châtillon, Fr.150 kilowattsfirst French reactor1948
LITR (Low-Intensity Test Reactor)Oak Ridge, Tenn.3 megawattsfirst plate-fuel reactor1950
EBR-1 (Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1)Idaho Falls, Idaho1.4 megawattsfirst breeder and first reactor system to produce electricity1951
JEEP-1Kjeller, Nor.350 kilowattsfirst international reactor (Norway-Netherlands)1951
STR (Submarine Thermal Reactor)Idaho Falls, Idahosubmarine reactor prototype1953
BORAX-IIIIdaho Falls, Idaho3.5 megawatts (e)first U.S. reactor capable of significant electric power generation1955
Calder Hall ACalder Hall, Eng.20 megawatts (e)world's first reactor for large-scale commercial power production
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Re: September 30, 1954 - Commissioning of the First Nuclear Submarine

09/30/2018 7:53 PM

Maybe the Navy should consider "selling" their worn-out old nukes as mobile, water-born, electrical power plants? With all the super-secret gear and weaponry removed, of course.

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Re: September 30, 1954 - Commissioning of the First Nuclear Submarine

10/01/2018 3:35 AM

I remember as a kid when she visited the UK in 1958, I was going on holiday with my family and we were on the ferry from Weymouth to Jersey (Island in the English Channel close to France!).

Just after we left harbour, we went by her, just a few miles from Portland, UK, her destination.

Very exciting for an 11 year old!!

Bravo Nautilus! Welcome To Britain. 1958!

We had a very rough trip later, just about everyone lost their lunch, and I mean EVERYONE. The trip took over 12 hours instead of the planned 6!!

It had to be taken out of service for two days just to get cleaned up!!

Thinking back, its a wonder that I joined the Royal Navy only a short 6 years later......

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Re: September 30, 1954 - Commissioning of the First Nuclear Submarine

10/01/2018 11:58 AM

Good story, although a diesel engine couldn't be considered a " drawback ", when it was the technology of the day and a nuclear reactor hadn't been invented yet.

" zero emissions " spent fuel rods are a nuclear reactors emissions and highly dangerous at that

The use of the name " nautilus " is odd. The nautilus of julius verne spent most of the time unsubmerged, especially when attacking and only submerged to plunder those sunk ships and to collect foodstuffs.

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Re: September 30, 1954 - Commissioning of the First Nuclear Submarine

10/01/2018 1:09 PM

The nuclear propulsion cores were highly enriched metallic uranium to get the best power to weight ratio and always got reprocessed (except for Thresher and Scorpion).

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