Happy(?) Birthday to the Father of the Nuclear Navy

Hyman G. Rickover pushed to nuclearize the Navy’s submarines, but admitted he’d rather ‘sink them all’ to protect humanity

Hyman G. Rickover created the U.S. Navy's nuclear program, but remained ambivalent about it throughout his life Courtesy US Naval Institute

Nuclear power creates submarines that are, in the words of Paul Marks writing for the BBC, “awesome instruments of geopolitical power gliding quietly through the gloomy deep.”

Any accident would have the potential to be a disaster: nuclear contamination spreading through the ocean, touching everything in its path, impossible to contain. And even if nothing goes wrong, as Marks writes, the nuclear navy isn’t without cost: what to do with spent, radioactive fuel is an ongoing question that’s being resolved in different, sometimes destructive ways across the globe.

Still, that’s how submarines in the U.S. Navy work. Without this innovation, submarines would be limited in ways they just aren’t now. And it’s thanks to the vision of Admiral Hyman George Rickover, who fought for and started the Naval Reactors Program at a time when most nuclear reactors were still the size of a city block. He was born on this day in 1900.

Among other things, Rickover, a nuclear engineer by training, is largely credited with the fact that the nuclear navy has never had a nuclear accident at sea, although two American nuclear subs did sink in the 1960s and remain at the sea floor today, the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion.

Nuclear power allowed submarines to have range far beyond what diesel and battery power could give them. The USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, was launched in 1951. It quickly shattered all submerged speed and distance records, according to the museum that holds the submarine now. In 1958, the Nautilus even travelled under the North Pole.

“Throughout his career Rickover became a controversial figure because of his outspoken and even abrasive demeanor and his single-minded insistence on the development of nuclear power,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Although Rickover fought for the Nuclear Navy, he was ambivalent at best about the fact of nuclear power and weaponry. At a statement to a Senate committee at the end of his career, aged 82, he admitted his concerns with the work he and others who worked with nuclear technology had done:

There are, of course, many other things mankind is doing which, in the broadest sense, are having an adverse impact, such as using up scarce resources. I think the human race is ultimately going to wreck itself. It is important that we control these forces and eliminate them.

In this broad philosophical sense, I do not believe that nuclear power is worth the present benefits since it creates radiation. You might ask why do I design nuclear-powered ships? That is because it is a necessary evil. I would sink them all.

In the same statement, he said he was proud of his work but he knew it had come at a cost. He also called for political leaders to come together and focus on disarmament.

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