History of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program (NNPP)

The following has been excerpted and adapted from "The United States Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, March 2006," published by the Department of Energy and the Department of the Navy.

In 1946, at the conclusion of World War II, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act, which established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to succeed the wartime Manhattan Project, and gave it sole responsibility for developing atomic energy. Captain Hyman G. Rickover, at that time assigned to the Navy Bureau of Ships, recognized the military implications of successfully harnessing atomic power for submarine propulsion and that it would be necessary for the Navy to work with the AEC to develop such a program.

He and several officers and civilians were sent to the AEC laboratory at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to learn the fundamentals of nuclear reactor technology. The team soon realized that to build a Naval nuclear propulsion plant would require substantial commitment of resources and a new level of government and industry commitment.

Captain Rickover returned to Washington and used every opportunity from his post at the Bureau of Ships to argue the need to establish a Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. On August 4, 1948, the Navy created the new Nuclear Power Branch (Code 390) with Rickover as its head within the Bureau’s Research Division.

By 1949, Captain Rickover had forged an arrangement between the AEC and the Navy, under which he would proceed with two parallel reactor development projects—USS NAUTILUS, using a pressurized water design, and USS SEAWOLF, using a liquid metal design. While SEAWOLF successfully operated at sea until her first refueling, experience demonstrated that pressurized water technology was preferable for Naval applications. It thus became the basis for all subsequent U.S. nuclear-powered warship designs.

In the 1970s, Government restructuring moved the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program from the AEC (which was disestablished) to what became the Department of Energy (DOE). In 2000, the Program became a part of the newly formed National Nuclear Security Administration within the DOE. During this transition, the Program retained its dual agency responsibility. Although the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program has matured over the years, its basic organization, responsibilities, and technical discipline have remained much as when it was first established.

For more information on the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, see Executive Order 12344, the presidential order that officially recognized and preserved the Program and its structure.

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