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Nautilus Chronology
1949-02 Rickover given control of naval nuclear propulsion.
Still leaning to sodium.
1950-03 Decision to go PWR.
At the time, no PWR of any scale had ever been build.
Just a Weinberg patent and some sketches.
No one knew how to make control rods, cladding,
bearings that could handle PWR conditions.
1950-?? Decision to go straight to full scale prototype
No pilot plant. Nil sub-system testing.
Westinghouse, Bureau of Ships aghast.
1950-08 Construction of S1W starts. Delayed by bad winter.
1951-08 Electric Boat awarded Nautilus contract.
1953-03 S1W, the first PWR ever built, goes critical.
1954-01 Nautilus keel laid.
1954-09 Nautilus commissioned.
1955-01 “Underway under nuclear power”.

The Nautilus chronology — no such thing as a pressurized water reactor (PWR) to a fully functional, nuclear powered submarine in five years — is well known. But a couple of comments are in order.

  • Rickover was originally leaning toward a sodium cooled reactor. He was turned off by the high pressure and low efficiency of the pressurized water reactor (PWR). However, Alvin Weinberg, the inventor of the PWR, convinced him that the PWR could be shoe horned into the small space available on a submarine and that’s all that mattered to the Navy. Efficiency was not a criteria.
  • Weinburg never thought the PWR was the right concept for civilian power. Later as head of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he shepherded the development of the molten salt reactor, and became the foremost proponent of molten salt. But
    Weinberg did not have Rickover’s maniacal drive nor his political skills.
  • The decision to go pressurized water was not made until March, 1950. Shortly thereafter Rickover, against the advice of all, decided to go straight to a full scale prototype. At the time no such thing as a PWR existed at any scale. Rickover wasn’t scaling up. He was going from nothing to full scale.

After the Nautilus success, Rickover became convinced that the pressurized water reactor was the only concept worth building. He wrote a mocking parody extolling the benefits of non-PWR concepts one of which was “unavailable”. In fact, at the time, most of these concepts were far further along than the PWR was when he committed to a full-scale prototype.

A younger Rickover knew that paperwork was not the answer. In his words, “Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience.”