Underway on Nuclear Power
For the first time ever, the newest addition to my collection is not a coin, but a medal. This medal was designed by the Medallic Art Company and issued by the General Dynamics Electric Boat Division to commemorate the launching of the USS Nautilus. The Nautilus is famous for being the very first nuclear powered vessel of any kind, and represented the first significant development with nuclear power since the atomic bomb. The obverse shows the Nautilus superimposed on a uranium atom, and the reverse shows a nautilus shell superimposed on the Nautilus and the General Dynamics logo. This particular medal was given out to Electric Boat employees who helped to design and build the Nautilus. This medal was issued for an “H. Ford.”
Decades before the advent of nuclear power, submarines had diesel-electric propulsion systems that required oxygen to function. Submarines would use their diesel engines to charge their batteries while on the surface (where oxygen was available to be burned), and once the batteries were charged, the submarine could submerge and run its propellers on the batteries. Unfortunately, the batteries would run out eventually, forcing the submarine to surface. All in all, a diesel-electric submarine could only stay submerged for a few hours and travel a couple dozen miles underwater before needing to surface. Some quipped that these were best described as surface ships that could periodically submerge rather than true submarines.
Nuclear power represented an alternative to traditional combustion engines. The basis of nuclear power involves the splitting of the atom. Usually this is achieved by firing a neutron at a uranium atom, causing the uranium atom to become unstable and subsequently split. When the uranium atom splits, it releases smaller atoms, neutrons, and energy. The neutrons will go on to strike other uranium atoms, causing them to split, and so on. If enough uranium atoms are present, a sustained chain reaction can take place. Without any control, this chain reaction can release huge amounts of energy very quickly. This was the basis of the atomic bomb. If the chain reaction is moderated, however, the heat from the reaction can be used to boil water, which can in turn be used to spin a turbine and generate electricity. Unlike traditional combustion reactions, a nuclear reaction requires no oxygen, and a nuclear powered submarine would therefore never need to surface.
Since a submarine powered by a nuclear reactor would never have to surface to recharge batteries, such a vessel could stay submerged as long as food supplies held out. Since the Cold War was beginning to ramp up in the early 1950s, the US Navy was particularly interested in a submarine that never had to surface. To achieve this goal, two companies were commissioned to come up with two different reactor designs: Westinghouse and General Electric. Westinghouse developed a pressurized water reactor called the “Submarine Thermal Reactor,” which used pressurized water to cool the nuclear fuel. General Electric developed a liquid metal fast reactor called the “Submarine Intermediate Reactor,” which used liquid sodium to cool the nuclear fuel. The water-cooled reactor was used to power the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) and the sodium-cooled reactor was used to power the USS Seawolf (SSN-575). The Nautilus was launched first on January 21, 1954 and came under her own power on January 17, 1955. On that day, Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson, the commanding officer of the Nautilus, signaled the historic message, “UNDERWAY ON NUCLEAR POWER...”
Nautilus (right) and Seawolf (left).
Early on in development, it became apparent that the water-cooled reactor was preferable to the sodium-cooled reactor. While the Seawolf’s sodium-cooled reactor was more efficient, the Nautilus’s water-cooled reactor was safer, more forgiving, and more easily fixed if the reactor started to go haywire. The Seawolf’s reactor was replaced with the Nautilus’s spare reactor a couple of years after the Seawolf was launched, and the Seawolf’s sodium-cooled reactor was dumped off the coast of Maryland. All future nuclear powered US Navy vessels would have water-cooled reactors based on the plant installed in the Nautilus.
One of the most significant missions the Nautilus took part in was traveling to the North Pole. Completing this mission would serve two purposes: bringing a sense of national pride after the Soviets launched Sputnik, and the possibility of opening a new Northern front on the doorstep of the Soviet Union that was previously unreachable by conventional methods. Since the Nautilus did not need to surface, it could travel beneath the ice the entire way, making the mission possible. Since the Arctic Ocean was mostly uncharted at the time, the crew of the Nautilus ran into some difficulties navigating through the ice pack, but were eventually successful on August 3, 1958. After successfully traversing the North Pole, the Nautilus continued on to New York City, where the crew was greeted with a ticker tape parade.
USS Nautilus triumphantly approaching New York City after traveling beneath the ice at the North Pole.
Lessons learned with the Nautilus were quickly incorporated into new classes of nuclear powered submarines. Today, the US Navy fields nuclear powered attack submarines (intended to eliminate smaller targets like ships or military installations) and ballistic missile submarines (intended to eliminate larger targets like cities or countries). All modern nuclear submarines “descend” from the Nautilus, so there is quite a lot of history packed into this medal. I find this medal particularly satisfying to own because the company I work for actually advertises that it made some parts for the Nautilus, so I guess it gives this piece extra meaning for me!
The Nautilus is currently a museum ship at the Submarine Force Museum near Groton, Connecticut, close to where she was constructed and launched by Electric Boat.
Ex-USS Nautilus being towed home after conversion to a museum ship.
If you want to learn more about the Nautilus and have 45 minutes to kill, I recommend this documentary: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=bbhUsJEIyTg&feature=emb_title