April 1954: The world’s first nuclear submarine

Spring of 1954 saw The Engineer reporting on USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, a pioneering piece of engineering.


Spring of 1954 saw The Engineer’s American Correspondent reporting on the work of the US Atomic Energy Commission. With the Atomic Age well and truly under way, there was no shortage of news to fill the column inches, including the progress of plants at Savannah River, Paducah and Oak Ridge. But, nearly 65 years on, it’s the report on the USS Nautilus that stands out.

Authorised by Congress three years previously, Nautilus was the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, a pioneering piece of engineering that heralded a new era of military strategy and geopolitics. Its reactor had been even longer in the planning, with Westinghouse Electric Corporation instructed to develop a nuclear power plant for a submarine as far back as 1947. The result was the Submarine Thermal Reactor (STR, later redesignated the S2W), a pressurised water reactor that delivered 13,400hp (10,000kW) of power.

“A number of early American reactors were water cooled,” The Engineer wrote, “and this technology was advanced considerably more by the recent work of Westinghouse on the Submarine Thermal Reactor and on the cancelled large ship reactor project at Bettis Field.”

When our predecessors were reporting on developments, details were still relatively thin on the ground. It was known that the STR had evolved from a prototype constructed and tested by the Argonne National Laboratory in 1953 at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho.

The design was also influenced by the Homogeneous Reactor Experiment at Oak Ridge, where potential advantages were thought to include the simple chemical processing of fuel, the simplicity of construction and the elimination of fuel fabrication.

“The experimental operation of the prototype Submarine Thermal Reactor at the National Reactor Testing Station was continued by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation as part of the programme of testing the reactor and its associated equipment,” it was reported by our predecessors. “The results obtained made it possible to improve the actual STR power plant being fabricated by Westinghouse for the first American atomic-powered submarine, which has been christened the USS ‘Nautilus’.”

Commissioned on 30 September 1954, Nautilus would go on to claim numerous records and world-firsts, its onboard nuclear plant delivering capabilities far exceeding what had gone before. Journeying south in 1955 from the port of Groton, Connecticut, she covered 1,100 continuous nautical miles submerged and clocked a total of 1,200 nautical miles in under 90 hours – both records at the time. This level of performance effectively rendered obsolete the anti-submarine warfare that had evolved during the war. An entirely new game of sub-surface cat and mouse was emerging, one that played out through the Cold War and continues to shape the global balance of power to this day. The paradigm shift is perhaps best illustrated by one of Nautilus’s greatest achievements: the first submarine transit of the North Pole. Labelled Operation Sunshine, the mission was precipitated by the Sputnik crisis, the Soviet satellite launch triggering something of an existential watershed in the US. Eisenhower needed something in the American locker to counteract the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat that Sputnik’s success had laid bare. The US was lagging behind in the Space Race, but Nautilus could provide a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capability that could keep the Russians in check. For the gambit to work, however, the sub had to be able to transit the pole.

An initial effort in June 1958 was thwarted by drift ice in the Chukchi Sea, but a second attempt that began in late July proved more fruitful. On 3 August, Nautilus became the first vessel to reach the geographic North Pole, and after 96 hours and 1,590 nautical miles under the ice, surfaced north-east of Greenland. A helicopter airlifted Commander William R Anderson from the deck of the sub, and he connected with a military transport plane which took him to Washington DC. At a White House ceremony on 8 August, Anderson was awarded the Legion of Merit and the crew received a Presidential Unit Citation – a mark of just how strategically important the polar transit had been.

Decommissioned in 1980, today Nautilus is a museum ship in Groton. She was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982.