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From Verne to Rickover with the Nuclear Navy

USS-Nautilus Forbes’ takes on an interesting topic that flies under the radar of just about everyone, including many nuclear energy advocates: the Nuclear Navy.

The Nuclear Navy has logged over 5,400 reactor years of accident-free operations and travelled over 130 million miles on nuclear energy, enough to circle the earth 3,200 times. The nuclear reactors can run for many, many years without refueling. They operate all over the world, sometimes in hostile environments, with no maintenance support except their own crew. These reactors can ramp up from zero to full power in minutes, as fast as any natural gas-fired plant.

And a fair number of Nuclear Navy veterans find their way into the domestic industry (not to mention NEI). The Monticello (Minn.) Times features an interview with Thomas Shortell, training manager at Xcel Energy’s Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant.

“When you think about rites of passage and academics, you’ve done it in the military,” Shortell said. “If somebody has made it through the U.S. Navy’s program, I have confidence in their capabilities and their ability to make it through our programs. The service guy have been operating under stressful situations. We have the stress of business and the economics and the business plan of what we do, but when it comes down to it, the guys who have been in service have been operating under circumstances where lives are on the line. You can be 3 feet away from something really, really bad happening,” he added.

The Nuclear Navy has been in service about as long as the domestic industry has been. The Navy started looking into powering submarines with nuclear energy as early as 1947, as this bit about the father of the Nuclear Navy, Admiral Hyman Rickover, reveals:

Assigned to the Bureau of Ships in September 1947, Rickover received training in nuclear power at Oak Ridge Tennessee and worked with the bureau to explore the possibility of nuclear ship propulsion.

In February 1949 he received an assignment to the Division of Reactor Development, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and then assumed control of the Navy's effort as Director of the Naval Reactors Branch in the Bureau of Ships. This twin role enabled him to lead the effort to develop the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571). The latter joined the fleet in January 1955.

nautilus-jules-verne The Nautilus was, of course, Captain Nemo’s futuristic underwater craft in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870), so it seems an appropriate name for the first nuclear submarine. (If I remember rightly,the fictional Nautilus was powered by sodium-mercury batteries, but because the sodium was taken from salt water, the Nautilus rarely needed to be refueled, a parallel with the USS Nautilus.)

The United States operates 82 nuclear-powered ships (11 aircraft carriers, 71 submarines) with 103 reactors. Never an accident. Seems an appropriate note on which to end the week containing Veterans Day.

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