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Hyman G. Rickover
Hyman G. Rickover

The Naval Reactors History Database is a long-term project with the goal of organizing publicly-available digital content on the joint United States Navy/Department of Energy nuclear propulsion program.

Hyman Rickover, who served as the first Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion from the late 1940s until 1982, was instrumental in creating the structure and values of the Naval Reactors program. These include a conservative approach to reactor and propulsion plant design; ensuring that manufacturers and shipyards fully meet specification requirements through in-depth inspection processes; and, an emphasis on training, including training operators on actual operating reactors. These design and engineering principles continue to be emphasized by the Naval Reactors program.

The Mark I
The S1W (Mark I) reactor plant

Rickover's Naval Reactors organization worked with private industry (including Westinghouse and Electric Boat) in the design and construction of the world's first naval nuclear reactor, the Mark I (later designated S1W) prototype reactor plant at the Idaho National Laboratory. The successful operation of the Mark I plant and the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, made clear the revolutionary impact that nuclear propulsion would have upon submarine operations. In part because of the success of the S1W plant, Naval Reactors (again, working with Westinghouse as the primary contractor) led the design and construction of the first nuclear power plant that generated commercial power on a large scale, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. In-depth technical information about the Shippingport reactor and power plant has been published, including the volume The Shippingport pressurized water reactor; there is extensive coverage on the Shippingport plant and related projects like the Light Water Breeder Reactor (LWBR) in this database.

In the decade following the commissioning of the Nautilus, nuclear propulsion was extended beyond attack submarines to include ballistic missile submarines, guided missile cruisers, and aircraft carriers with the commissioning of the USS Enterprise in 1961. (Today, aircraft carriers are the only nuclear-powered vessels in the United State Navy's surface fleet.)

USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in 1964
USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in 1964

The program's work has been quite diverse over the years. From 2003 to 2005, Naval Reactors and its primary contractor laboratories (the Bettis and Knolls atomic power laboratories) worked with NASA on the study of space reactor systems as part of Project Prometheus. Naval Reactors also led the design and development of NR-1, a research submarine that was in operation from 1969 through 2008. NR-1 performed geographic survey work, oceanographic research, and deep sea recovery missions.

Today, the Naval Reactors program continues its cradle-to-grave support for naval nuclear propulsion, including reactor plant and core design and development; plant construction and operation; and, reactor plant disposal. The organization is currently responsible for the operation of nearly 100 reactor plants in United States Navy submarines, aircraft carriers, and training prototypes. Its current major priorities include core and reactor development for the Gerald Ford-class of next-generation nuclear-powered carriers and the replacement class for Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, and developing a lower-cost core for Virginia-class fast attack submarines. With the ongoing deactivation and defueling of nuclear-powered vessels (including the eight reactor USS Enterprise beginning in December 2012), environmental issues related to plant disposal will continue to be an important facet of the program's responsibilities.

The two foundational studies describing the program's early years are fully indexed, including Rickover and the nuclear navy: The discipline of technology and Nuclear navy, 1946-1962.

Thank you for visiting the site. To learn more about the Naval Reactors History Database effort, please follow @nrhdb on Twitter.

  Al Cornish
  Orbis Cascade Alliance