The World's First Nuclear-Powered Ships: A Historical Overview

The development of nuclear-powered ships has been a major milestone in the history of naval engineering. From the world's first nuclear-powered surface vessel, the Lenin icebreaker, to the USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear submarine, and the N. S. Savannah, one of four nuclear-powered cargo ships ever built, these vessels have revolutionized the way ships are powered and operated.

The Lenin icebreaker was put into service in 1959 and remained in service for 30 years until 1989. With an aerodynamic appearance that made it look more like a luxury yacht than a cargo ship, the N. Savannah was in service between 1962 and 1972. Nuclear power promised to make cargo and cruise ships more economical, reliable and faster by harnessing the power of nuclear energy, which would also allow ships to travel for years without refueling, increasing their flexibility and operational duration. The USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear submarine, was commissioned by the United States in 1954. Much larger than the diesel-electric submarines that preceded it, the Nautilus extended 319 feet and displaced 3,180 tons. It could remain submerged for almost unlimited periods because its atomic engine needed no air and only needed a very small amount of nuclear fuel.

The uranium-powered nuclear reactor produced steam that powered the propulsion turbines, allowing the Nautilus to travel underwater at speeds greater than 20 knots. Currently, worldwide there are 437 nuclear power reactors in operation, 25 reactors under construction and 79 reactors ordered or planned worldwide. In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower proposed building a nuclear-powered merchant ship as a showcase for his Atoms for Peace initiative. Russia built 248 nuclear submarines and five surface naval vessels powered by 468 reactors between 1950 and 2003. Regarded as a fanatic by his detractors, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover managed to develop and deliver the world's first nuclear submarine years ahead of schedule.

The dismantling of nuclear-powered submarines has become an important task for both the United States and Russia. Naval Nuclear Energy Training Command in Goose Creek, South Carolina trains current nuclear operators. The development of nuclear propulsion marked the transition of submarines from slow underwater vessels to warships capable of withstanding between 20 and 25 knots submerged for months. The largest Russian icebreakers use two KLT-40 nuclear reactors each with 241 or 274 fuel assemblies with 30% to 40% enriched fuel and a refueling interval of 3 to 4 years. The general idea of nuclear ships was that they would not have to make regular stops to get fuel like conventional ships, so they were only limited by the supplies and strength of the crew. This involved a change to a non-union crew, which became a persistent problem in the staffing of the proposed future nuclear ships.

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