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The influence of NAUTILUS and naval nuclear power on civilian nuclear power, both in this country and abroad, has been very large. But this influence has not been achieved easily. On the contrary, adoption of naval reactors methods has encountered opposition of formidable proportions as programs of both types went forward. My purpose is to describe the nature of naval reactors influence and how it has been advanced. There are important lessons to be learned about the process of managing complex, high technology programs from doing so.

When NAUTILUS was commissioned in 1954, the organizational environment for nuclear power development had the form I shall now describe. The Atomic Energy Commission was charged by law with development and application of nuclear energy for both peaceful and military purposes. By a big change in the Jaw that year, however, private industry was empowered to own and operate nuclear power plants.

The AEC’s own large civilian nuclear power research and development program was carried out by a major division under the general manager. Because the AEC was highly decentralized, the work was, in fact, carried out by its large organizations in the field. Reactor development was centered at two locations, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory. Under AEC oversight these laboratories designed, built, and operated prototype reactor plants, using industrial contractors as needed. The laboratories themselves had a large degree of autonomy.

Naval Reactors was also under this same overall arrangement, formally speaking. But it was carried out under then Captain Rickover in a radically different manner. In the first place, it was carried forward as a joint AEC/Navy activity. Even more important, technical guidance and direction was provided by a highly qualified technical management organization. There was not a comparably qualified AEC organization for civilian reactors programs, either in headquarters or field. In that major difference lay the source of many problems ahead.

Initially, the design and development of NAUTILUS prototype was done by the Argonne National Laboratory. It was called Submarine Thennal Reactor, Mark I. In technical concept the job was done well. But two major problems arose. Argonne did not have the engineering and industrial capability and experience for a project of this complexity and magnitude. Also, Argonne was unwilling to accept Naval Reactors’ technical direction and authority. So Rickover established what became the Bettis plant under Westing-house management and progressively transferred Argonne’s STR responsibilities to it.

By the mid-nineteen fifties Westinghouse and General Electric had begun to undertake full-scale commercial nuclear power plants in collaboration with major utility companies and their suppliers. In 1953, however, a major development took place in the naval reactors program, a development that was to have an important effect on the civilian nuclear power effort. The Eisenhower administration abruptly cancelled the military requirement for the AEC’s carrier reactor project, CVR. However, AEC commissioner Murray, a strong Navy supporter, working with Rickover, induced the commissioners to transform CVR into a civilian nuclear power plant. Against powerful opposition from Congress and industry, Murray saw to it that Rickover was put in charge.

The commission then approved establishing a large ship reactor project (LSR). Within a year or so the political climate had changed and LSR became a carrier reactor project. Now, Rickover had two major projects for reactors of substantial size: one became the shipping port nuclear power plant; the other the prototype for the ENTERPRISE reactors. Both were closely related in technology; both were pressurized water.

The late 1950’s and thereafter were a heady era, saleswise at least, in civilian nuclear power history. With strong AEC endorsement, many utility companies invested heavily in nuclear power plants. However, all too many had not acquired the needed technical knowledge of nuclear power to be responsible customers for such plants. Neither had the architect-engineers, construction managers, and component vendors been up-graded to perform effectively in the domain of nuclear power. As a result, by the early 1960’s problems of major proportions were becoming evident throughout the industry. They became manifest in severe construction delays, massive cost overruns, and unacceptably poor performance in plant reliability and efficiency. Also, the AEC’s own reactor development program was mired in mismanagement. Meanwhile, nuclear powered ships were going from success to ever larger success.

These problems had become so widespread and so evident publicly that Congress forced the AEC to act. Milton Shaw, one of Rickover’s most outstanding managers and formerly project manager for ENTERPRISE was made director of AEC’s Division of Reactor Development and Technology. His principal responsibilities were to foster the growth and development of civilian nuclear power and to revamp the AEC’s own research and development programs in furtherance of this objective.

To do this he established a close analog of the Naval Reactors organization and management approach, drawing on former NR personnel to do so. But he did not have regulatory authority; that remained with the regulatory arm. Shaw systematically eliminated a plethora of ill-conceived and poorly managed projects and programs and focused resources on the development of the liquid metal fast breeder reactor. Paralleling NR practice he instituted a disciplined engineering approach to all activities.

A key aspect of that approach is the development and use of proven engineering standards. By stark contrast, no comparably strong body of such standards had been developed for civilian nuclear power. So Shaw obtained standards used for the Shippingport plant from Rickover and made them widely available to all standards-making activities. He also obtained the splendid set of quality assurance documents used for the eight reactor plants of the ENTERPRISE and put them to similar good use.

One might have expected that the regulatory ann of the AEC would be a strong ally in this effort; but they were not. An AEC commissioner had to insist that the QA standard be issued for compliance, rather than guidance. Also, they delimited applicability to systems described as important to safety, broader applicability was strongly resisted by the industry. I should add here that the regulatory arm to which I refer is not the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which was established as an independent agency at a later date. But it is important to note that emphasis on standards and quality assurance encountered more resistance than might have been expected given its importance to the success of naval Reactors.

Part of the standards problem was that Naval Reactors and industry had different views as to their purpose and use. Naval Reactors saw them as a means of embodying and applying the results of advancing technology; industry tended to view them as means by which the government could exercise control of industry activities.

Turning from the organizational environment, I should now like to focus on those domains in which I believe the influence of Naval Reactors has been most pronounced. They are: Technology, Selection and Training of Personnel, and Management Methods.


The principal legacy of Naval Reactors has been the pressurized water reactor and its fuel cycle. This was not preordained. In fact, NR studied coolants as varied as sodium, carbon dioxide, lead, helium, and heavy water. There was no aspect of power reactor development on which NR efforts did not have a major impact. To cite but a few examples, NR developed the following:

  • Zirconium as a fuel element material and Hafnium for control rods
  • Components such as control rod drives and pumps which operate with hot water as the only lubricant and radio-active coolant is sealed from leakage
  • Basic safety principles such as containment, negative temperature coefficient of reactivity, radioactive dis-charge controls, and methods of decay heat removal

NR vigorously advanced the development of fuels of long core life and the extraordinary potential of burnable poisons. And by vigorously I mean carrying out very extensive and costly programs in test reactors before applying the results to ships at sea. The fuels so developed permit naval reactors to operate many years without refueling.

While these and other contributions will be recognized as having had a large influence, they have not been used to their full potential. For one example, a group of the world’s top reactor experts carried out a comprehensive study of advanced light water reactor design, sponsored by the Electric Power Research Institute. The membership of the group was drawn from countries having major nuclear electric generating capacity. It was chaired by Captain Ed Kintner, NR’s project officer for NAUTILUS and a leading nuclear power executive.

The design studies were based on the application of Naval Reactors principles, which included the following:

  • Simplicity, so as to reduce the number of components by half
  • Increased thermal margins
  • Decay heat removal by natural circulation
  • Separation of safety systems from those used in normal operation
  • Larger, more robust containment

The resulting designs offer safety improvements of the order from ten to a hundred as measured by probablistic assessments.

Essentially no use is being made of these designs in the United States. Yet they are being used in Western Europe and Japan. For example, Japan and Germany are working together on a 1500 megawatt (electrical) design using many of the principles referred to.

Even so, today there are some four hundred and twenty nuclear electric power reactors; of these, some four hundred are descendants of NAUTILUS and naval reactors.

Selection and Training of Personnel

It is my strong conviction that no attribute of the naval reactors program has contributed more to its success than its extraordinary emphasis on the selection and training of personnel. But what constitutes excellence as regards personnel varies widely, so let me give a couple of examples that will suggest what the term means in Naval Reactors. In the early years, fifty of the first hundred engineers in NR itself were Naval Academy graduates who, almost without exception, had two advanced degrees from MIT and the practical experience to go with it. The officers who operated the ships, mostly submariners, were carefully chosen from among the best who had already been selected into that dedicated, engineering oriented organization, the Submarine Force.

These carefully selected personnel had to be trained in nuclear power. To this end, Rickover established schools to provide rigorous academic instruction and then operational training in land-based prototypes of the nuclear plants installed in ships. More on this subject can be found in an article in the Naval Institute Proceedings of August 1987, “Get em young and train em right.

The kind of capability to which I am referring was simply not to be found in the breadth and depth needed among civilian nuclear power organizations of the earlier years. With time, however, utility industry leaders recognized that those with naval nuclear power experience provided a resource which they could tap to advantage. And those who have followed the large improvement in the performance of civilian nuclear power plants over the years will also know of the contributions of those with Naval Reactors experience, both individually and collectively.

There were other influences in effecting this transfer of talent and experience. Impetus was given by the accident at three mile island. Both the Kemeny commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s independent study emphasized the need for improved training. Also important has been the work of the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations. Its first leader was Admiral Dennis Wilkinson, widely known as first Commanding Officer of NAUTILUS.

Management Methods
Much has been written on this subject, especially by Admiral Rickover himself. Some of the best material can be found in his testimony before committees of Congress. Here I would mention especially that of May 24, 1979 before the House Subcommittee on Energy, Research, and Production of the Committee on Science and Technology.

The principles given in such testimony cannot be compressed into a brief talk like this. But there is one concept which, I believe, subsumes many of them-that of the demanding customer-by this is meant an organization with strong technical management and other capability to provide guidance and direction to its ensemble of contractors, to elicit from them performance in full compliance with the terms of the contract, and to know when it has done so. This is what NR knows to do. It does not delude itself, as all too many government organizations do, with merely providing oversight.

Further, the demanding customer does not dissipate the use of its capabilities by doing the contractor’s work for him, thus compensating for his weakness. It makes the contractor correct those weaknesses.

I am not close enough to the world of civilian nuclear power today to know how well this principle is being applied. But when it is fully applied, the management legacy of Naval Reactors will have begun to reach its full management potential.

Organizations have had a large influence on the development and application of civilian nuclear power. Beyond those mentioned, they include the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, American National Standards Institute, American Nuclear Society, the national laboratories, and many others. The whole story is a larger one than mine has been.

In closing, I should like to express my own conviction that this nation will be forced to return to widespread use of civilian nuclear power-the earlier, the better. As it does, the strong legacy of NAUTILUS and naval nuclear power will become more widely understood and appreciated.

Naval Submarine League

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