First Nuclear-Powered U.S. Submarine Is Launched Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The launching of the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, marked the beginning of the conversion of the U.S. Navy submarine fleet from diesel power to nuclear power, allowing submarines to operate underwater for extended periods of time and avoid repeated refueling at sea. The Nautilus was also the first sea vessel to travel submerged across the North Pole region.

Summary of Event

U.S. Navy submarines played a major role in World War II World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles . Although submarines made up less than 2 percent of the Navy’s vessels in the Pacific, they destroyed more than half the Japanese ships sunk during this war. The submarines were primarily surface vessels that could operate underwater, but for short periods of time only. On the surface they were powered by diesel engines, which require a supply of oxygen to mix with the diesel fuel used for propulsion. Excess power from the diesel engines charged electric batteries. When the submarines operated underwater, the batteries powered an electric motor that propelled the vessel. The submarines had to surface frequently to recharge their batteries. Submarines;nuclear Nautilus (nuclear submarine) Nuclear energy;submarines [kw]First Nuclear-Powered U.S. Submarine Is Launched (Jan. 21, 1954)[First Nuclear Powered U.S. Submarine Is Launched] [kw]Nuclear-Powered U.S. Submarine Is Launched, First (Jan. 21, 1954)[Nuclear Powered U.S. Submarine Is Launched, First] [kw]U.S. Submarine Is Launched, First Nuclear-Powered (Jan. 21, 1954) [kw]Submarine Is Launched, First Nuclear-Powered U.S. (Jan. 21, 1954) Submarines;nuclear Nautilus (nuclear submarine) Nuclear energy;submarines [g]North America;Jan. 21, 1954: First Nuclear-Powered U.S. Submarine Is Launched[04330] [g]United States;Jan. 21, 1954: First Nuclear-Powered U.S. Submarine Is Launched[04330] [c]Engineering;Jan. 21, 1954: First Nuclear-Powered U.S. Submarine Is Launched[04330] [c]Science and technology;Jan. 21, 1954: First Nuclear-Powered U.S. Submarine Is Launched[04330] [c]Military history;Jan. 21, 1954: First Nuclear-Powered U.S. Submarine Is Launched[04330] [c]Energy;Jan. 21, 1954: First Nuclear-Powered U.S. Submarine Is Launched[04330] Rickover, Hyman G. Sherman, Forrest P. Wilkinson, Eugene P.

The introduction of nuclear power, a new source of energy developed during World War II, would allow submarines to operate underwater for virtually unlimited periods of time; they could therefore “hide” more effectively, greatly increasing their capabilities. Recognizing the nuclear-powered submarine’s value, U.S. Navy captain Hyman G. Rickover requested a study in September, 1947, to research the feasibility of nuclear-powered submarines. The study, conducted by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, showed it indeed was feasible to power a submarine using a nuclear reactor. A nuclear reactor would allow the vessel to operate underwater for months at a time, if necessary, without having to resurface.

On April 25, 1950, Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, the chief of naval operations, recommended to the U.S. Congress that a nuclear-powered submarine be built. In August, President Harry S. Truman Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;nuclear technology signed the bill that authorized the construction of what would be the first submarine powered by nuclear energy. The Navy moved quickly in response. Construction of a land-based prototype of the submarine power plant, called the Mark I, began at the Atomic Energy Commission’s Atomic Energy Commission, U.S.;experimental reactors National Reactor Testing Station National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho in August.

The Navy required that the Mark I prototype reactor simulate submarine conditions, so the Mark I was built inside a hull, surrounded by a tank of water. The Mark I went “critical,” producing its first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, on March 30, 1953, marking the first time any nuclear reactor produced a significant quantity of useful nuclear power. The Mark I preceded the prototypes designed to demonstrate similar technology for civilian nuclear power plants. On June 25, the Mark I began ninety-six hours of continuous full-power operation, a test that simulated the submerged crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

Fission reactions generate an enormous amount of heat. In the case of the nuclear-powered submarine, its power system circulates pressurized water through a reactor core, heating the water. This hot water then flows through a heat-exchange system located outside the reactor, producing steam in a secondary water-circulating system. The water in the first system returns to the reactor, where it is heated again. The water in the secondary system is never inside the reactor, minimizing its radioactivity. This steam drives a turbine generator, producing power that runs the electric motor that propels the submarine. None of the steps in the operation of a nuclear propulsion system requires oxygen, so the underwater speed and range of a submarine using nuclear power would not be limited by batteries but by the amount of food and oxygen it carries for its crew.

When operating, a nuclear reactor produces a high level of radiation. To minimize radiation exposure, a submarine’s crew cannot enter the isolated reactor compartment while it is operating, and thick shields protect the crew from radiation in other parts of the submarine.

The first vessel to use nuclear power was being constructed as its reactor was being developed. In August, 1951, General Dynamics General Dynamics received the contract from the Navy Bureau of Ships to build the first nuclear-powered submarine. In December, the Navy announced this new submarine would be named Nautilus, a name held by six previous Navy vessels, including two submarines. The keel of the Nautilus was laid by President Truman at the Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton, Connecticut, on June 14, 1952, and construction proceeded rapidly. Eighteen months later, on January 21, 1954, the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel was launched in front of a crowd of twenty thousand shipyard workers, naval personnel, and dignitaries. They cheered as First Lady Mamie Eisenhower broke a bottle of champagne across the bow of the Nautilus as it slid into Connecticut’s Thames River. The Nautilus, commissioned on September 30, measured 323.8 feet in length and could travel at a speed of 25 knots when submerged. It carried a crew of thirteen officers and ninety-two enlisted men, and it was armed with six torpedo tubes.

The power source of the Nautilus operated for the first time on December 20 and developed full power on January 3, 1955. It had a test run on January 17 under the command of Eugene P. Wilkinson, who had worked on the project to determine the size, configuration, and uranium loading of the Mark I prototype reactor in 1948. As the Nautilus left the dock, Commander Wilkinson sent a historic message that signaled the beginning of the nuclear Navy: “Underway on nuclear power.”

During its first sea trials, the Nautilus successfully completed high-speed test runs and more than fifty dives. The Navy officially accepted delivery of the submarine on April 22 and in May began its “shakedown cruise,” the first voyage of a vessel designed to test its performance and to familiarize the crew with its operation. On the shakedown cruise, the Nautilus traveled submerged from New London, Connecticut, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, in just under ninety hours, averaging about 16 knots over the 1,381-mile trip. This cruise was more than ten times the distance any submarine had traveled underwater. The Nautilus was first refueled two years later, in April, 1957, when the core of its nuclear reactor was replaced. Before refueling, it had logged 62,562 miles. A diesel-powered submarine the size of the Nautilus would have required more than two million gallons of diesel fuel to sail the same distance.

By the time the Nautilus was decommissioned on March 3, 1980, the submarine had completed 2,507 dives and traveled 513,550 nautical miles on nuclear power. The reliability of a nuclear power generator on the Nautilus was attributed in large part to the experience gained from the construction and the operation of the Mark I land prototype.


The introduction of nuclear power freed submarines from having to surface frequently to recharge their batteries. This marked the beginning of the end for almost two hundred diesel-powered submarines in the Navy fleet. Within six years the Navy had commissioned fourteen nuclear-powered submarines. By 1977, the Navy fleet of 118 submarines included 115 nuclear-powered submarines and only 3 diesel-powered submarines, the last of which, the USS Blueback, Blueback (ship) was decommissioned in 1990.

In 1956 the Mark I demonstration reactor completed a sixty-six-day full-power run, sufficient to power the Nautilus around the world twice without refueling. This reactor run demonstrated the virtually unlimited range of nuclear-powered vessels. The USS Triton, Triton (ship) a larger nuclear-powered submarine, completed the first submerged circumnavigation of the earth in 1960, covering more than 41,000 miles in just eighty-four days.

Nuclear power led to a new mission for submarines: to serve as one leg of the air, land, and sea delivery systems for nuclear weapons. The USS George Washington, George Washington (ship) the first of a class of ballistic missile submarines, was commissioned in 1959 and successfully launched the first Polaris ballistic missile Polaris ballistic missile Missiles;ballistic to be fired from a submerged submarine on July 20, 1960. Its 130-foot-long missile section carried sixteen Polaris missiles with a range of more than 1,100 miles; each carried a 600-kiloton nuclear warhead. Because these missiles were virtually undetectable until launch, they provided an effectively unchecked retaliatory capability to deter enemy strikes on the United States.

Nuclear power was quickly introduced to the Navy’s surface fleet as well, freeing vessels from having to refuel at sea. Wilkinson, the first commander of the Nautilus, went on to command the Navy’s first nuclear-powered surface ship, the guided-missile cruiser USS Long Beach. Long Beach (ship) Rickover went on to lead the construction of the first civilian nuclear power plant, at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, which demonstrated that it was possible to provide electric energy to the world’s population without burning fossil fuels. Submarines;nuclear Nautilus (nuclear submarine) Nuclear energy;submarines

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, William R., with Clay Blair, Jr.“Nautilus” 90 North. Cleveland, Ohio: World, 1959. A 251-page description of the first voyage from the Pacific to the Atlantic beneath the polar icecap, written by the second commanding officer of the USS Nautilus. Anderson describes the design and construction of the Nautilus as well.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oldham, Charles, editorial director. Underway on Nuclear Power: Fiftieth Anniversary of USS “Nautilus.” Tampa, Fla.: Faircount, 2004. An illustrated history of the fiftieth anniversary of the Nautilus. Chapters look at events leading up to the submarine’s development as well as the submarine’s officers and crew and the significance of nuclear submarines in the context of the Cold War and naval operations in general.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parrish, Thomas. The Submarine: A History. New York: Viking Press, 2004. A 592-page history of submarines, from the first visionaries who imagined the concept to the development of the nuclear submarine fleet. The author traces the role of submarines in World Wars I and II and their peacekeeping role in the Cold War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Polmar, Norman, and Thomas B. Allen. Rickover. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. A 744-page account of the career and achievements of Admiral Rickover, focusing on his efforts to develop the nuclear submarine, nuclear-powered surface ships, and commercial nuclear power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum: Home of the USS Nautilus. The official Web site of the Navy’s submarine museum, the only one of its kind, and the final “home” of the Nautilus.

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