Fast becoming a reality is a powerful new nuclear-powered United States Navy—a navy backboned by atomic-bomb-carrying 85,000 ton super-carriers, fast striking guided-missile cruisers and destroyers, and specially designed submarines for high-speed attack, hunter-killer, radar-picket, guided-missile, and other new missions.
Already more than two billion dollars have been spent or programmed for research, development, and construction of such a Navy. The table on the following page sets out what is on hand and what is on order. Another $500,000,000-a-year for at least eight years ahead will be needed to bring it into full being.
It began in 1948 with a small but ambitious joint Navy-Atomic Energy Commission program aimed at submarine nuclear propulsion and later expanded to include design and development of a full spectrum of naval nuclear propulsion plants for new naval construction from small submarines to the largest aircraft earners.
By early 1954 the basic question of feasibility of naval nuclear propulsion was affirmatively answered by successful completion of all critical tests of the Nautilus land-based prototype plant. That answer made possible continuous cruising at top speeds, unlimited cruising radii, and practically absolute freedom from fuel logistics. It has re-vitalized the role of seapower in geopolitics.
At the beginning of naval reactor development ten years ago, even the most imaginative nuclear propulsion enthusiasts hardly foresaw such a future. Nor did even the most practical amongst them envisage the full scope of difficulties ahead. Neither the technical problems nor their solutions were well understood. In fact, many of the problems were not even known!
The task was to devise a safe, reliable plant within naval space and weight limitations. It began with an examination of various possible reactor cycles. Gas-cooled reactors were discarded as involving too much space and too many technical problems. Other types were in turn rejected for various reasons. Finally left as promising to meet naval requirements were but two: a reactor utilizing liquid sodium as its coolant, or one utilizing pressurized water.
Liquid sodium seemed to offer the best approach because it permitted high steam temperatures and pressures, with consequent greater efficiency. But the physics and chemistry of liquid sodium were little known and insurmountable development problems might be encountered. Although pressurized water involved lowering steam temperatures and pressures, more was known of the characteristics of water. That could mean fewer problems of basic research and faster development of the plant.
Decision was made to pursue both approaches and preliminary design began. So dissimilar are the physics and chemistry of water and sodium that in effect two simultaneous but essentially independent projects were involved. Both were carried successfully through land prototype and shipboard installation stages.
Liquid sodium leakage problems appeared in the Seawolf's land prototype plant which were not in themselves insurmountable. However, they were considered in combination with other factors in an eventual decision favoring the Nautilus' pressurized water type reactor system as the accepted approach to practical naval nuclear propulsion.
The men who carried on the work had no experience or rules of thumb to guide them. No power reactor had ever been designed before. They had no science of reactor technology to apply to the job. They created it as they went along.
From the beginning they applied a " can of worms" description to their work, for each component and function of a nuclear power plant, from the reactor vessel through the turbine and all auxiliaries, are wholly interrelated and interdependent.
For example, raising turbine exhaust temperature or back pressure in a conventional plant is felt primarily in fuel economy. Such a reduction in thermal efficiency in a nuclear plant affects each of its complex components. The necessary increase in heat output requires size, capacity, and weight increases in the condensate, feedwater, and heat-generating systems and equipment. Size of the reactor, steam generator, coolant system and auxiliaries is increased. Proportionate increases in radiation shielding must follow. These in turn affect the size, design, and characteristics of the hull into which the plant is to be placed, or, as a practical matter, thrust back upon the plant designer the necessity of selecting every characteristic of design in relation, not only to each function and component of his plant, but in relation to hull space and weight limitations as well.
Development of the two original naval, nuclear reactor plants, and to only a slightly lesser extent today's plants, involves creation not only of the total concept, but individually of each of its components. It demands tremendous and concurrent basic research into unexplored fields of the new science. Maximum assurance that all parts individually will work and that they will work as a unit when coupled together, and function with a high degree of safety, dictates what might otherwise be wasteful overdesign and over-testing.
Few, if any, "off-the-shelf" items exist which can be incorporated in nuclear plants. "Canned pumps" are but one entirely new concept brought into being to make nuclear power possible. Prolonged successful effort to develop as complex a component as this often has to be discarded when efforts fail to develop another which is interdependent. Fresh starts must be made on the problems of both.
Reactor design develops the need to know undiscovered properties of common substances under conditions of reactor chemistry and irradiation. Requirements are generated for rare metals and alloys concerning which the full spectrum of chemistry, physics, and metallurgy need be researched and industries found or formed to produce them in quantities required. For example, such diverse enterprises as the Carborundum Co., National Distillers Corp., Wah Chang Corp., and National Research Corp. had to be persuaded to engage in large-scale zirconium production.
Not only has the naval nuclear reactors program faced mountainous technical problems, but it has been burdened from the beginning with a continuing necessity to seek answers to a variety of non-technical questions affecting its ultimate success.
Wholly new and workable administrative and funding relationships, to be discussed later in detail, had to be evolved and must be continuously perfected between the Navy and the AEC, amongst naval personnel in and outside the reactors program, and between the government reactors group and industry.
As operations expand, new personnel must be brought in; techniques must be developed for their rapid specialized training; and new facilities established for the basic research, design, and engineering functions involved in the work. Progress from design to construction of plants involves large scale training of industry personnel. The design and construction of new ships for the new plants brings in a whole new group for specialized instruction; manning those ships brings in another.
During the process a basic philosophy on security of information had to be evolved, continuously adapted to an ever-increasing body of knowledge, and the mechanics of implementing it amongst public and private groups engaged in the program kept efficiently in motion. The approach has been to distinguish between specific design and dimensional characteristics which are classified, and technology as such which is unclassified. Communicating the latter has involved the writing of up-to-the-minute technical hand books by scientific personnel engaged in the work concurrently as they do it. Six such handbooks have been published and another eight are currently in preparation.
Another essential task of those engaged in the program has been to translate difficult scientific concepts into information meaningful to the layman. It is fundamental to obtaining policy decisions from legislative and executive leaders of government underlying financial support of the naval nuclear program. It is also vital to the public, which in a democracy ratifies those decisions at the polls.
The foregoing enumerations barely hint at the multiple technical and non-technical problems involved in the naval nuclear reactors program from the beginning and which will continue to plague it for years ahead. Yet they are ample testimony to the outstanding devotion and qualities of the officers and civilians who carry it forward. Within six years from the start they produced the basic pressurized water nuclear propulsion plant illustrated on the following page which is now standard for all new nuclear naval vessels.
The plant arrangement shown approximates that developed for submarine propulsion, and it will vary only in details for the super-carrier with four dual reactor power plants, and the cruiser Long Beach and submarine Triton, each with dual reactors.
The naval nuclear propulsion plant consists of a nuclear reactor core contained in a pressure vessel; a primary coolant system utilizing fast-flowing pressurized water to remove the heat generated by nuclear fission in the core and transfer it via a steam generator to the secondary, or steam system; a steam machinery plant for propulsion and auxiliary electric power generation; and radiation shielding.
The reactor consists of a pressure vessel housing a core of enriched uranium fuel encased in a protective metal, such as zirconium, which passes heat to the coolant; a "moderator," in this case the coolant itself, to slow down neutron emissions to efficient fission speeds; and rods of a neutron absorbing metal such as hafnium, together with machinery to insert and withdraw them from the core, to control rate of fission and thus amount of heat produced.
The primary coolant system consists of one or more loops, each having one or more coolant pumps; a steam generator (boiler); a pressurizing vessel; and connecting piping with appropriate valves.
Since the coolant water becomes radioactive in passing through the reactor core, shielding is required around the portion of the plant containing the coolant in order to protect personnel from radiation. A separate reactor shield surrounds the pressure vessel. It affords sufficient protection against radiation from the reactor core to allow access to the reactor compartment when the reactor is shut down. All shielding designs incorporate enough protection to meet civilian radiation exposure tolerances established by the AEC.
The steam produced in the separate secondary circuit by the steam generator is nonradioactive, and the steam propulsion machinery need not be shielded. This machinery and the necessary auxiliaries for electric power are arranged in a conventional way in the engine room. However, arrangements within the reactor compartment must of necessity be strongly influenced by considerations of accessibility in relation to radiation and the continuous necessity of removing heat even after the reactor has been shut down. The latter phenomenon, known as radioactive decay heat, results from the constant breakdown of radioactive materials even under normal conditions.
Penetrating to all parts of naval nuclear power plant design are intensified requirements for ruggedness, reliability, and easy maintainability dictated by safety, the extreme endurance of nuclear plants, and higher average sustained ship speeds.
These various special nuclear plans considerations also complicate the work of designers of hulls into which they will fit. Gone a re the days when minor weight allocation errors can be overcome by pumping fuel between tanks. Crew living and working spaces must be allocated with radiation hazard in mind. Stacks are eliminated, but vertical free spaces must be arranged for removal and renewal of reactor cores. Stowage space for consumable supplies and ammunition must be enlarged to take full advantage of the ship's longer range cruising capabilities. Many other specialized considerations are involved. A by-product of tackling them has been experimentation with novel hull configurations that may substantially increase speed/ power ratios of future ships.
Another by-product of naval nuclear propulsion has been the evolution of a unique, hybrid military-civilian research and development organization that may well set administrative patterns for successful missile research and development and any similar future large-scale government projects. Without it, there would probably be no nuclear powered naval ships in existence today.
Its antecedents are in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 assigning responsibility for " research and development in the theory and production of atomic energy, including processes, materials and devices related to such production," to the newly created Atomic Energy Commission.
Soon after passage of the Act, Navy communications to AEC began setting out potential nuclear propulsion requirements in connection with the submarine program as defined by a small, cross-sectional group within the Bureau of Ships. AEC's response, in part, was to turn back to the very BuShips' group that generated the requirements for manpower assistance in meeting them.
By 1949 the Commission's activities in this field were sufficient to justify inclusion of a Naval Reactors Branch in its Division of Reactor Development established that year. Also by that year it had become apparent in BuShips that the activities of the cross-sectional group were sufficiently unique and unconventional to warrant special treatment. A period of organizational experimentation began, culminating in formal establishment in 1955 of BuShips Code 1500 designated as the Nuclear Propulsion Division and headed by a new Assistant to the Chief of the Bureau for Nuclear Propulsion.
Code 1500, however, did not mean a separate Navy reactors program paralleling the AEC's program, because Code 1500 had by this time also developed into the Commission's Naval Reactors Branch, unofficially referred to as the "Headquarters Organization" by both Navy and AEC. Naval officers ordered to the program report to both AEC and BuShips. Navy and AEC civilian employees are utilized interchangeably. Rear Admiral H. G. Rickover, USN, is both Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Ships for Nuclear Propulsion and Chief of the Naval Reactors Branch, Division of Reactor Development, U. S. Atomic Energy Commission. So complete is the Navy-AEC integration in this "two-hat" organization that neither AEC nor naval personnel need switch headgear during the course of their work.
Possibly the only persons who can distinguish the military from the civilian characteristics of Headquarters Organization are the government accountants who must assess its cost of operations between the AEC and the Navy. Even here the line of demarcation is often blurred; but, in general, nuclear research and development costs, including construction of land prototype power plants, are paid for by AEC, while the Navy pays for research and development on steam parts of the plants and construction of nuclear ships. During the current fiscal year (1958) research and development money amounts to around $86,000,000 from the Commission and around $11,000,000 from the Navy. The prototype aircraft carrier propulsion plant has consumed the lion's share of these current funds.
Inherent in the Headquarters Organization set-up is a flexibility and freedom in both administrative and funding action essential to rapid progress in complex scientific operations. This has speeded civilian as well as naval reactor development. No new group had to be organized from scratch to develop the $110,000,000 civilian pressurized water reactor at Shippingport, Pennsylvania. Naval Reactors Branch, long experienced in that type of reactor, was assigned the job and went to work without delay. Additionally, the Organization's dual nature avoids duplication of effort and facilities, such as purchasing offices, inspection groups, and so on. For example, purchase of nuclear cores on competitive bidding for which the Navy pays is done through AEC purchasing offices.
The organization is unique in a number of other respects and bears substantially the image demanded by its strong-minded chief, and founder, Admiral Rickover.
In discussing the qualifications of some ninety officers and civilians assigned to Headquarters, Rickover told the Joint Atomic Energy Committee:
"By qualification I do not mean, necessarily, their technical ability, but their desire to work long hours and to be dedicated to the job as well. We adopted the procedure of getting only young people. If we get in people with more experience, it takes too long to have them unlearn the bad things they know. We haven't got time for that. We don't try to get top-flight scientists. A lot are top-flight scientists by reputation only. We can't afford to have people around who have reputations who don't work hard. We would rather have people who work hard and don't have reputations."
New recruits for Headquarters Organization come from a number of engineering and scientific schools which recommend their best graduates. After a series of five interviews, about one in four is accepted. A similar procedure applies to naval officers. Some forty Engineering Duty Officer applicants are screened annually and four or five finally accepted. Several naval reservists selected have stayed on in Headquarters as civilian employees on completion of their duty tours.
Once selected for Headquarters duty, officers as well as civilians are given at least six months' special training at schools and on projects, followed by assignments on the basis of ability, not rank, and irrespective of military or civilian status. "The best qualified man gets the job," Rickover states, "and in my opinion it is the only way you can run any kind of technical organization."
The Organization also operates on a principle of retaining major control rather than assigning substantial areas of responsibility to contractors. This in effect draws contractors into an integration with Headquarters which expands the naval nuclear propulsion program from the "two hat" Navy-AEC concept to a "three hat" Navy-AEC-Contractor concept. Headquarters control extends even as far as employment decisions on contractor personnel. " Anyone responsible for a reactor program," Rickover explains, "must take on the problem of seeing that his contractors hire the right sort of people and train them. Unless he does, he is in for trouble."
The centralized method of Headquarters operation eliminates considerable red tape and memorandum writing. It permits quick decisions. But it violates generally accepted sound management criteria by over burdening key personnel with a large volume of both technical and non-technical minor decisions. Justification for it is claimed not only from the inherently complex design interrelations within the power plant itself, but in another circumstance explained to the Joint Atomic Energy Committee by Commander R. V. Laney, USN:
"Each naval reactor project has a specific end in view. It is intended to be installed in a definite ship at some definite time. Because the building time for a ship and that for a reactor and the reactor plant components are different, the ship is partly built when the reactor and reactor equipment are still being designed. Its characteristics, its length, beam, its speed- all are determined, frozen. The task is very sharply defined, and there is a very high premium on success. The reactor designer must conceive, develop, design, and produce a reactor, which, when delivered to the ship, will fit into the reactor vessel which it has never seen before. That reactor vessel is resting in a ship which is a stranger, and the reactor, the vessel, the pumps, the heat exchangers, and the intricate control equipment must, the first time they operate in unison, operate correctly, so the ship will have the necessary amount of power to produce the speed for which she was designed."
Projects such as Laney describes, together with necessary basic research, are presently carried on under close Headquarters Organization control at three development centers, two (Bettis Plant and Knolls Laboratory) operated for AEC by contractors and one privately managed.
The Commission maintains Bettis Plant at Pittsburgh, operated by Westinghouse Electric, employing some 1,300 scientists and engineers, and Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory at Schenectady, operated by General Electric and employing another 500. Combustion Engineering, Incorporated, operates its own center near Windsor, Connecticut, employing approximately 200.
The centers, together with Headquarters personnel, and close to 1,000 scientists and engineers on contractor payrolls, total nearly 3,000 highly skilled technicians at work on naval nuclear propulsion. Another 250 to 300 BuShips personnel engage in closely interrelated work.
Today bringing a new reactor concept into being takes about half the six years needed to produce the original Nautilus and Seawolf plants. A year is consumed by preliminary analysis and design studies to fix the essential nature of the project; another year is needed for detailed design and analysis, including mock-up critical experiment in the physics, chemistry, and metallurgy of the reactor. During the third year engineering, construction and installation of the core, components, and machinery completes the work.
Throughout such a project weekly lists of critical items delayed, in trouble, or needing help is submitted by the development center to Headquarters for priority attention. Detailed monthly reports on each phase of the project assist overall coordination. All major design and technical decisions in a program are made by agreement among the principals, that is, AEC, the Navy, and the development center. If there is strong dissent from any party, it is talked through until essential agreement is reached. Lesser technical decisions which derive from major ones, extending even to the contractor level, are made in somewhat the same way by being referred back to Headquarters, the principal technical source of direction.
This pattern of vertical relationships between the development centers, contractors, and Headquarters in its capacity as the AEC's Naval Nuclear Reactors Branch, does not, however, pertain to its intra-Navy relationships as Code 1500. These are substantially horizontal, particularly with the Preliminary Design Branch and with the Hull and Machinery Design Branches of the Bureau of Ships, where discussions are informal and close.
In general, Code 1500 is responsible for research, development, engineering, and installation of an entire nuclear plant of a new type. Reactors for subsequent plants remain a Code 1500 responsibility, but repeat machinery now comes under cognizance of BuShips Machinery Branch, the same as machinery for conventional ships. This shift back to conventional from "task group" administrative procedures as the program progresses from its research and development to production is a wise one.
Just as the development of naval nuclear propulsion created demand for special ships to utilize it, so has it created demand for specially selected and trained men to man them. The intricacies involved inevitably drew BuShips into this field as a technical adviser to the Bureau of Naval Personnel. Large numbers of submariners have received the training and already some 200 men and twelve officers are being trained in anticipation of commissioning nuclear-powered surface ships.
Nuclear ship enlisted personnel are selected by forces afloat, but in accordance with strict standards of intelligence, ability, and conduct. So outstanding is this group that about 6% are further selected each year as officer candidates—twenty times the overall Navy rate. Officers submit to a series of comprehensive interviews by Admiral Rickover and others before "final acceptance" for training.
Following selection both officers and men undergo six months' intensive schooling in physics, mathematics, and various nuclear subjects, followed by another six months' further study and practical operation of prototype plants at the National Nuclear Reactor Test Station, Arco, Idaho.
Officers are more intensely trained than enlisted men. All officers must, and a number of enlisted ratings do, qualify as nuclear plant chief operators before completing the course. Qualification establishes proficiency in all phases of reactor operation, particularly in everything pertaining to safety. It requires at least 1,000 hours practical work on a prototype plant and is said to be several times as difficult as qualifying for submarine command.
In addition to regular training, prospective commanding officers are assigned several months' duty at Headquarters Organization and in the development centers. Each is placed in contract with the designers and developers of the power plant destined for his command and acquires the same intimate knowledge of its capabilities as the men who created it.
The policy of building a land prototype of each naval nuclear plant type pays dividends, not only during development, but during the careful and meticulous training program as well. Crews go aboard ship fully experienced in operating a plant identical to the one which they must safely control to protect the lives of themselves and their shipmates. These factors, as well as care in design, are responsible for the excellent safety records of presently operating nuclear submarines.
The advent of naval nuclear propulsion has, indeed, brought about as major a change in naval men, material, and methods as it has in concepts of naval tactics. It has placed on naval policy planners the difficult burden of allocating available naval funds to costly commitments for seapower in being to meet the crises of today and at the same time carrying forward the bold nuclear research, construction, and training programs needed to meet the crises of tomorrow.
But if Congress appropriates hoped-for funds, by 1966 the nation will have in being five or six super-flattops, half a dozen guided missile cruisers, the beginnings of a destroyer fleet, and some 45 submarines, all nuclear-powered.
The substantial shift over from steam to naval nuclear power will have been made during a brief eighteen years, compared to more than fifty years needed for the shift from sail to steam.