Hyman G. Rickover
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Naval reactors and the Atomic Energy Commission
Admiral Rickover looking over USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered vessel.
In 1946 a project was begun at the Manhattan Project's nuclear-power focused Clinton Laboratory (now the Oak Ridge National Laboratory) to develop a nuclear electric generating plant. The United States Navy decided to send eight men to this project, including three civilians and one senior and four junior naval officers. Realizing the potential that nuclear energy held for the Navy, Rickover applied.
Since December 1945 Rickover had been Inspector General of the 19th Fleet on the US West Coast. He had been assigned to work with General Electric at Schenectady, New York State, to develop a nuclear propulsion plant for destroyers, but in May 1946, through the efforts of his wartime boss, Rear Admiral Earle Mills, who became the head of the Navy's Bureau of Ships that same year, Rickover was finally sent to Oak Ridge as the deputy manager of the entire project, granting him access to all facilities, projects and reports. Following efforts by physicists Ross Gunn, Philip Abelson and others in the Manhattan Project, he became an early convert to the idea of nuclear marine propulsion.
Rickover's vision was not initially shared by his immediate superiors: he was recalled from Oak Ridge, and assigned "advisory duties" with an office in an abandoned ladies room in the Navy Building. He subsequently went around several layers of superior officers, and in 1947 went directly to the Chief of Naval Operations, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, by chance also a former submariner. Nimitz immediately understood the potential of nuclear propulsion and recommended the project to the Secretary of the Navy, John L. Sullivan, whose endorsement to build the world's first nuclear-powered vessel, USS Nautilus (SSN-571), later caused Rickover to state that Sullivan was "the true father of the Nuclear Navy."
Subsequently, Rickover became chief of a new section in the Bureau of Ships, the Nuclear Power Division, and began work with Alvin M. Weinberg, the Oak Ridge director of research, both to establish the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology and to begin the design of the pressurized water reactor for submarine propulsion.
In February 1949, he received an assignment to the Division of Reactor Development, Atomic Energy Commission, and then assumed control of the Navy's effort as Director of the Naval Reactors Branch in the Bureau of Ships, reporting to Mills. This twin role enabled him to both lead the effort to develop Nautilus, which was launched and commissioned in 1954, as well as oversee the development of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the first commercial pressurized water reactor nuclear power plant.
The decision for selecting Rickover to head the development of the nation's nuclear submarine program ultimately rested with Admiral Mills. According to Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, the primary military leader in charge of the Manhattan Project, Mills was anxious to have a very determined man involved, and – though he knew that Rickover was "not too easy to get along with" and "not too popular" – in his judgment Rickover was the man who the Navy could depend on "no matter what opposition he might encounter, once he was convinced of the potentialities of the atomic submarine."
Rickover did not disappoint. The imagination, drive, creativity and engineering expertise demonstrated by Rickover and his team during that era resulted in a highly reliable nuclear reactor in a form-factor that would fit into a submarine hull with no more than a 28-foot beam. These were substantial technical achievements:
In the early 1950s, a megawatt-scale nuclear reactor took up an area roughly the size of a city block.
The prototype for the USS Nautilus propulsion plant was the world's first high-temperature nuclear reactor.
The basic physics data needed for the reactor design were as yet unavailable.
The reactor design methods had yet to be developed.
There were no available engineering data on the performance of water-exposed metals that were simultaneously experiencing high temperatures, pressures and multi-spectral radiation levels.
No nuclear power plant of any kind had ever been designed to produce steam.
No steam propulsion plant had ever been designed for use in the widely varying sea temperatures and pressures experienced by the condenser during submarine operations.
Components from difficult, exotic materials, such as zirconium and hafnium, would have to be extracted and manufactured with precision via techniques that were as yet unknown.
Promoted to the rank of Vice Admiral in 1958, the same year he was awarded the first of two Congressional Gold Medals, for nearly the next three decades Rickover exercised tight control over the ships, technology, and personnel of the nuclear Navy, interviewing and approving or denying every prospective officer being considered for a nuclear ship. Over the course of Rickover's record-length career, these personal interviews amounted to tens of thousands of highly impressionable events; over 14,000 interviews were with recent college-graduates alone. These legendary interviews loomed large in the minds of midshipmen from both the U.S. Naval Academy and Naval ROTC. Varying from arcane to combative to humorous, and ranging from midshipmen to very senior naval aviators who sought command of aircraft carriers (which sometimes lapsed into ego battles), the content of most of these interviews has been lost to history, though some were later chronicled in the several books on Rickover's career, as well as in a rare personal interview with Diane Sawyer in 1984.
Rickover's stringent standards and powerful focus on personal integrity are largely credited with being responsible for the United States Navy's continuing record of zero reactor accidents. During the mid-late 1950s, Rickover revealed the source of his obsession with safety in a personal conversation with a fellow Navy captain:
"I have a son. I love my son. I want everything that I do to be so safe that I would be happy to have my son operating it. That's my fundamental rule." (p. 55, Power at Sea: A Violent Peace, 1946-2006 (2006))
He also made it a point to be aboard during the initial sea trial of almost every nuclear submarine completing its new-construction period, and by his presence both set his stamp of personal integrity that the ship was ready for the rigors of the open seas, and ensured adequate testing to either prove as much or to establish issues requiring resolution.
As head of Naval Reactors, Rickover's focus and responsibilities were dedicated to reactor safety rather than tactical or strategic submarine warfare training. It could be argued that because of Rickover's singular focus on reactor operations, and direct line of communications with each nuclear submarine's captain, that this acted against the captains' war-fighting abilities.
The accident-free record of United States Navy reactor operations stands in stark contrast to those of America's primary competitor during the Cold War, the Soviet Union, which lost several submarines to reactor accidents in both its haste and chosen priorities for competing with superior U.S. technology.
As stated in a retrospective analysis in October 2007:
"U.S. submarines far outperformed the Soviet ones in the crucial area of stealth, and Rickover's obsessive fixation on safety and quality control gave the U.S. nuclear Navy a vastly superior safety record to the Soviet one. This was especially crucial as in a democratic society, particularly after the Three Mile Island nuclear power station crisis in March 1979, a host of nuclear accidents or well-publicized near misses could have shut down the nuclear fleet completely."
However, the extreme focus on nuclear propulsion plant operation and maintenance was well known during Rickover's era as a potential hindrance to balancing operational priorities. One way by which this was addressed after the Admiral retired was that only the very strongest, former at-sea submarine commanders have held Rickover's now uniquely eight-year position as NAVSEA-08, the longest chartered tenure in the U.S. military. From Rickover's first replacement, Kinnaird R. McKee, to today's head of Naval Reactors, John M. Richardson, all have held command of nuclear submarines, their squadrons and ocean fleets; not one has been a long-term Engineering Duty Officer such as Rickover.