Nuclear navy

A nuclear navy, or nuclear-powered navy, refers to the portion of a navy consisting of naval ships powered by nuclear marine propulsion. The concept was revolutionary for naval warfare when first proposed. Prior to nuclear power, submarines were powered by diesel engines and could only submerge through the use of batteries. In order for these submarines to run their diesel engines and charge their batteries they would have to surface or snorkel. The use of nuclear power allowed these submarines to become true submersibles and unlike their conventional counterparts, they became limited only by crew endurance and supplies.

Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers

Only France and the United States of America have nuclear-powered aircraft-carriers.

The United States Navy has by far the most nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, with ten Nimitz-class carriers and one Gerald R. Ford-class carrier in service. The last conventionally-powered aircraft carrier left the U.S. fleet as of 12 May 2009, when the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) was deactivated. France's latest aircraft carrier, the R91 Charles de Gaulle, is nuclear-powered. The United Kingdom rejected nuclear power early in the development of its Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers on cost grounds, as even several decades of fuel use costs less than a nuclear reactor.[1] Since 1949 the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has been one of the lead laboratories in the development of the nuclear navy. The planned Indigenous Chinese Carriers also feature Nuclear Propulsion.[2]

Nuclear-powered submarines

The United States Navy operates the largest fleet of nuclear submarines.[3] Only the United States Navy, the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, and France's Marine Nationale field an all-nuclear submarine force. By 1989, there were over 400 nuclear-powered submarines operational or being built.[4] Some 250 of these submarines have now been scrapped and some on order cancelled, due to weapons reduction programs. Russia and the United States had over one hundred each, with the United Kingdom and France fewer than twenty each and China six. The Indian Navy launched their first indigenous Arihant class nuclear-powered submarines on 26 July 2009.[5] India is also operating one nuclear attack submarine with talks of leasing one more nuclear submarine from Russia. India plans to build six nuclear attack submarines and follow on to the Arihant class of ballistic missile submarines.[6]

Nuclear-powered cruisers

The US had several nuclear cruisers. The cruisers were the USS Bainbridge, USS California, USS Long Beach, USS Truxtun, USS South Carolina, USS Virginia, USS Texas, USS Mississippi, and USS Arkansas. Long Beach was deemed too expensive and was decommissioned in 1995 instead of receiving her third nuclear refueling and proposed upgrade. She was sold for scrap in 2012 at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Currently the United States does not have any nuclear cruisers.

Russia has four Kirov-class battlecruisers, though only one is active, the other three being laid up. The command ship SSV-33 Ural, based on the Kirov class, is also laid up. Seven civilian nuclear icebreakers remain in service: four of six Arktika class icebreakers, the two Taymyr-class icebreakers Taymyr and Vaygach, and the LASH carrier and container ship Sevmorput.

United States Navy

By 2003 the U.S. Navy had accumulated over 5,400 "reactor years" of accident-free experience, and operated more than 80 nuclear-powered ships.[7]

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, (1900–1986), of the United States Navy, known as "father of the nuclear navy"[8][9][10] was an electrical engineer by training, and was the primary architect who implemented this daring concept, and believed that it was the natural next phase for the way military vessels could be propelled and powered. The challenge was to reduce the size of a nuclear reactor to fit on board a ship or submarine, as well as to encase it sufficiently so that radiation hazards would not be a safety concern.

Soon after World War II, Rickover was assigned to the Bureau of Ships in September 1947 and received training in nuclear power at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In February 1949 he received an assignment to the Division of Reactor Development, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and then assumed control of the United States Navy's effort as Director of the Naval Reactors Branch in the Bureau of Ships. This dual role allowed him to lead the efforts to develop the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN 571), which was launched in 1954. As Vice Admiral, from 1958, for three decades Rickover exercised tight control over the ships, technology, and personnel of the nuclear navy, even interviewing every prospective officer for new nuclear-powered navy vessels.

Philip Abelson

Leading nuclear physicist Philip Abelson (1913–2004) turned his attention under the guidance of Ross Gunn to applying nuclear power to naval propulsion. Their early efforts at Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) provided an early glimpse at what was to become the nuclear Navy.

United States Naval reactors

At the present time, many important vessels in the United States Navy are powered by nuclear reactors. All submarines and aircraft carriers are nuclear-powered. Several cruisers were nuclear-powered but these have all been retired.[11]

United States naval reactors are given three-character designations consisting of a letter representing the ship type the reactor is designed for, a consecutive generation number, and a letter indicating the reactor's designer. The ship types are "A" for aircraft carrier, "C" for cruiser, "D" for destroyer, and "S" for submarine. The designers are "W" for Westinghouse, "G" for General Electric, "C" for Combustion Engineering, and "B" for Bechtel. Examples are S5W, D1G, A4W, and D2W.

Most information concerning United States naval reactors is not secret—see Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information.

Accidents involving naval nuclear-powered vessels

United States

Both sank for reasons unrelated to their reactor plants and still lie on the Atlantic sea floor.

Russian or Soviet

While not all of these were reactor accidents, they have a major impact on nuclear marine propulsion and the global politics because they happened to nuclear vessels. Only four Soviet nuclear submarines accidentally sank with nuclear weapons on board and remain on the sea floor to this day.[12]

Operator Timeline

Country1st PWR fabricated1st PWR acquired1st vesselCommissionedNotes
United States1953-USS Nautilus (SSN-571)1955World's first nuclear submarine / vessel
USSR1958-K-3 Leninsky Komsomol1958
United Kingdom19651962HMS Dreadnought (S101)1963HMS Dreadnought utilised an imported US S5W reactor, with HMS Valiant (S102) carrying the first UK built Rolls-Royce PWR, in 1966.
Germany1968-Otto Hahn (ship)1968Commercial ship, scrapped in 2009
France1970-Redoutable (S611)1971
Japan1970-Mutsu (nuclear ship)1972Decommissioned 1992
China1973-Han (S401)1974
Russia19921992K-419 Kuzbass1992The Russian navy inherited approximately 250 nuclear powered vessels from the Soviet navy, in January 1992.
India20031988INS Chakra1998Soviet submarine K-43, leased in 1988, and Russian submarine Nerpa (K-152), leased in 2012, have both carried the INS Chakra name. INS Arihant is India's first indigenously constructed nuclear submarine, commissioned in 2016.

See also


  1. Morrocco, John. "U.K. Launches Future Aircraft Carrier Studies" Aviation. Week and Space Technology. The McGraw-Hill Companies, 1 February 1999. Retrieved on 28 July 2007.
  2. "China plans nuclear-powered aircraft carriers: US expert". Want China Times. 11 July 2014.
  3. Bellona Environmental Foundation web site, Nuclear Naval Vessels web page, accessed 22 October 2006.
  4. J. K. Shultis, R. E. Faw, Fundamentals of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Marcel Dekker, 2002, p. 340.
  5. "India launches nuclear submarine -". CNN. 26 July 2009. Retrieved 20 May 2010.
  6. Diplomat, Saurav Jha, The. "India's Undersea Deterrent". The Diplomat. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
  7. Statement of Admiral F. L. "Skip" Bowman, U.S. Navy Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program before the House Committee on Science 29 October 2003.
  8. Jeffries, John (2001). Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. Fordham University Press. ISBN 0-8232-2110-5. , p.162: 'Admiral Rickover', said Powell, '"father of the atomic submarine", is a great naval officer... It is not equally clear that he is a careful and thorough student of American education.'"
  9. "Submarine Range Called Unlimited; Rickover Says Atomic Craft Can Cruise Under Ice To North Pole and Beyond", The New York Times, 6 December 1957, p.33: "The admiral, who is often called the 'Father of the Atomic Submarine'..."
  10. Galantin, I. J. (1997). Submarine Admiral: From Battlewagons to Ballistic Missiles. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-06675-8. ,p. 217: "Chet Holifield... member of the JCAE... said 'Of all the men I dealt with in public service, at least one will go down in history: Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy.'
  11. Federation of American Scientists, Military Analysis web site, accessed 22 October 2006.
  12. Database of radiological incidents and related events
  • - 1994 paper highlighting limited, public-relations only value of all-nuclear task groups given continued dependence on conventionally fuelled escorts and continuous replenishment of supplies
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