Midwives to the birth of the “Nuclear Navy”

At the Atlantic Magazine, their technical editor Robinson Meyer has up a fascinating account of the initial development of the submarine USS Nautilus, the first nuclear powered American Navy vessel.  Meyer’s account is drawn from a 1959 article, also published in the Atlantic, that was written by Commander E. E. Kintner, a subordinate to Hyman Rickover, the man now known as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy”.

I urge everyone to read the full account for themselves, HERE, but this excerpt will give some idea of what to expect:

At the 60th hour, however, difficulties began.  Carbon dust from the brushes depositing in the windings caused difficulty in the vital electrical generating sets.  Nuclear instrumentation, operating perfectly at the beginning of the run, became erratic, and the crews could not be sure what was happening within the reactor core.  One of the large pumps which kept the reactor cool by circulating water through it began making a worrisome, intermittent whining sound.  We had not had any check on “crud” build-up; we feared that heat transfer would be so reduced by this point that the core would burn up.  The most pressing problem, however, was caused by the failure at the sixty-fifth hour of a tube in the main condenser into which exhausted turbine steam was being discharged.  Steam pressure fell off rapidly.  The Westinghouse manager responsible for the operation of the plant strongly recommended discontinuing the run.  In Washington, the technical directors of the Naval Reactors Branch was so concerned that he called a meeting of all its senior personnel, who urged Rickover to terminate the test at once.  But the Captain was adamant that it should continue …

In this year, the sixtieth since the USS Nautilus, the United States Navy has an inventory of eighty nuclear powered vessels.  The crews of those ships owe a lot to Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s dogged insistence that, unlike those to be built by the Soviets in ensuing years, American ship-borne nuclear powerplants be designed to be as near to indestructible as was humanly possible.