Hyman Rickover and the Nuclear Navy

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Podcast Transcript

At the end of the second world war, a Captain in the United States Navy had a radical idea about the future of the American fleet. 

He felt that the largest American naval vessels, especially submarines, could be powered by the newly discovered energy from nuclear fission.

His ideas, and his personality, radically changed the United States Navy and how it operates.

Learn more about Hyman Rickover and the nuclear navy on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Given the early life of Hyman Rickover, you’d never have guessed he would achieve what he did. 

He was born Chaim Godalia Rickover in 1900 in what is today eastern Poland, but what was then part of the Russian Empire. He was born to a poor Jewish family. His father was a tailor and migrated to the United States before his family followed him in 1906. 

They were fleeing both the poverty of the region and the Jewish pogroms which followed in the wake of the 1905 Russian Revolution. 

The family settled on the east side of Manhattan, where his father worked as a tailor, but moved to Chicago in 1908. 

Hyman, whose parents Americanized and changed his name, began working at the age of 9.

He graduated from high school with honors, and after he graduated, he got a job delivering telegrams for Western Union. While he had that job, he got to know a United States Congressman, Adolph Sabath. 

Sabath, like Rickover, was a Jewish immigrant from Central Europe. As Rickover’s family couldn’t afford to send him to college, Sabath nominated Rickover for an appointment to the US Naval Academy. 

Rickover became a midshipman at the Naval Academy in 1918, which is of note because at the time, the United States was in World War I, so all of the midshipmen were considered to be on active duty. Normally, active duty doesn’t begin until after they graduate, but Rickover got a four-year head start. A small detail that will become important later on. 

Rickover encountered a great deal of anti-Semitism at the Academy as he was one of only a few Jewish midshipmen. Nonetheless, he persevered and graduated in the top quarter of his class. 

His naval career was solid. In 1922 he served on the destroyer La Vallette and was promoted to engineer. 

He was then transferred to the battleship USS Nevada where he made an impact on the ship’s captain. 

He then took a turn that would set him in a direction for the rest of his life. While still in the navy in 1930, he attended Columbia University and got a master’s degree in electrical engineering.

After Columbia, he served on several submarines, earned commendations for heroism, and translated the German book Das Unterseeboot, which was the handbook for German submariners during World War I. 

In 1937 he received his only actual command of a ship, a mine sweeper which patrolled off the coast of China. 

During World War II, he was assigned to be the assistant chief of the Electrical section of the Bureau of Engineering of the Navy. His assignment took him to Pearl Harbor after the attack, to figure out problems in a Naval supply facility in Pennsylvania and to repair a ship repair facility in Okinawa.

During the war, he gained a reputation as being a guy who got stuff done. He was masterful at motivating people under him, organizing large projects, and cutting through red tape, which held his projects back. 

After the war, now at the rank of captain, he was assigned to Oak Ridge National Labs to explore the possibility of using a nuclear reactor to power a ship.

The atom had only recently been split, and nuclear power was still a very young field. 

Rickover quickly grasped the potential of a nuclear-powered ship. Moreover, he realized that the best use of such an engine wasn’t in a destroyer as the navy originally assumed, but rather in a submarine. 

To understand why a nuclear reactor worked so well in a submarine, you need to know how they were powered beforehand. 

During WWII, submarines were diesel-powered  Because they used combustion, a submarine’s diesel engine only worked when a submarine was at or near the surface. 

A submarine would surface, or use a snorkel, then run its engines to operate a generator that would charge a bank of batteries. Once the batteries were charged, they could dive and operate on battery power. 

The problem was that the batteries were limited in how much power they could provide before the submarine had to surface. 

A nuclear reactor doesn’t need air to operate. It can stay submerged in theory indefinitely and still operate. Moreover, a nuclear reactor doesn’t need to be refueled for years or even decades. The electricity produced on board could create oxygen from water, so the only thing that limited the time a nuclear submarine could be submerged was food for the crew. 

Rickover had a very clear vision of what a nuclear navy could be, but his immediate superiors just didn’t see it. Quite frankly, they found Rickover annoying. 

So, Rickover, in true Rickover fashion, went over the heads of his superior directly to Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. Nimitz was a former submariner, and he understood the implications immediately. 

Nimitz took the idea to the Secretary of the Navy, John Sullivan, who managed to push through a project for the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus.

In 1949, Rickover was assigned to head up a new nuclear division in the navy’s Bureau of Ships and was also assigned to the Atomic Energy Commission to head up the development of naval reactors. 

Rickover personally recruited all the officers under his command. He ran a unit that was very out of place in the navy. For starters, he didn’t wear a uniform. If you met him, you’d never guess that he was a naval officer. He also had his offices in a civilian office building, not at a naval base. 

One of the officers he interviewed and recruited in 1952 was a young lieutenant by the name of Jimmy Carter. 

Carter wrote in his autobiography about his interview with Rickover. He said:

‘I had applied for the nuclear submarine program, and Admiral Rickover was interviewing me for the job. It was the first time I met Admiral Rickover and we sat in a large room by ourselves for more than two hours, and he let me choose any subjects I wished to discuss.

‘Very carefully, I chose those about which I knew most at the time – current events, seamanship, music, literature, naval tactics, electronics, gunnery — and he began to ask me a series of questions of increasing difficulty. In each instance, he soon proved that I knew relatively little about the subject I had chosen.

‘He always looked right into my eyes, and he never smiled. I was saturated with a cold sweat.’

Carter considered Rickover the greatest influences on his life behind his parents. 

The result of his team’s effort was a new type of nuclear reactor known pressurized water reactor. The pressurized water reactor used water as both the coolant and the moderator for the nuclear reaction. 

The benefit of this system is that it is what is known as passively safe. Because the water both cools and moderates, if the water gets too hot, the reaction slows down, reducing the heat. 

The first reactor they developed was the S1W in 1953. The acronym stood for submarine, first generation, Westinghouse, the company that built it. 

It was in 1953 that Rickover was promoted to the rank of rear admiral. This was not conducted through normal channels. Rickover annoyed so many people in the navy that he was constantly overlooked for promotion. Most senior officers just wanted him to go away.

Pressure from the United States Senate actually forced the navy to promote him. 

The Nautilus, a submarine that was the first nuclear power sea vessel of any kind, was eventually commissioned in 1954 with an updated S2W reactor and finally set sail for the first time on ?January 17, 1955.

On May 10, she began her shakedown cruise. She traveled from New London, Connecticut, to San Juan, Puerto Rico. A trip of 2,200 kilometers or 1,400 miles was conducted totally underwater in 90 hours. It set the record for the longest and fastest submersible trip in history. 

The Nautilus completely changed everything about submarine warfare. The entire book on anti-submarine warfare written during the first and second world wars was now obsolete.  A submarine that could travel this fast, and stay submerged for this long, couldn’t easily be defeated by planes dropping depth charges. 

In 1958, President Eisenhower ordered the Nautilus to sail under the north pole as a demonstration of the power of the soon-to-be-deployed sea-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs.

The navy initiated Operation Sunshine, where on August 3rd, the Nautilus became the first nautical vessel to reach the north pole, and they did it underwater. 

Rickover was promoted yet again in 1958 to the rank of vice-admiral, which is a three-star rank. He now had full control over the United States Navy’s nuclear fleet. He was also awarded the first of his two Congressional Gold Medals, becoming the first person in history to be so honored twice. 

Rickover literally interviewed every single officer who served on every single nuclear vessel, not just the engineers who operated the reactor but everyone down to the lowest ranking officers. He literally conducted tens of thousands of interviews during the years he was in control of the nuclear fleet. 

In 1961, the United States launched the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, as well as the first nuclear-powered cruiser, the USS Long Beach. 

The 1960s saw the deployment of many more nuclear submarines, and the 70s saw the commissioning of Nimitz class nuclear aircraft carriers. 

In 1973, Rickover was promoted once again to the rank of Admiral, which is a four-star rank in the US Navy. At this point, he was 73 years old and still in charge of all US Naval nuclear operations. He was only the second person to reach this rank who was not in actual charge of combat units. 

Technically, he was listed as a retired four-star admiral because of laws that restricted the number of active duty four star officers. However, Rickover still went about his job as he always did. 

He outlived all of his opponents in the navy, and his vision for the US nuclear fleet eventually became the reality. His power based laid with his support in Congress, not within the military itself. 

When his former protege was elected president in 1976, it put off his eventual retirement. 

What became known as the “Rickover problem” hung over the military with the new Regan administration. The new Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, felt that his powerbase and control of the nuclear fleet was now hurting the navy more than helping.

They eventually used a minor error during a sea trial for the USS La Jolla as the excuse to force his retirement. 

His last day in the military was January 31, 1982, four days after he turned 82 years old. He was notified of his forced retirement when his wife heard about it on the radio.

He had served under thirteen US presidents, from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan, and to date, his 63-year tenure is the longest of anyone in the US naval history.

Admiral Hyman Rickover passed away on July 8, 1986, at the age of 86. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetary. 

Today, the United States navy operates 88 nuclear power vessels, including every submarine and aircraft carrier. 

The legacy of Hyman Rickover isn’t the number of nuclear-powered ships in the navy; it is their incredible safety record. Since the naval nuclear reactor program began  in 1949 by Hyman Rickover, there hasn’t been a single accident aboard any nuclear ship which has exposed radiological material to the environment. 

Rickover’s commitment to safety was his overriding concern, even to the detriment of other military objectives, which was one of the reasons he had so many enemies within the navy. Both the reactor designs used by the navy and the total commitment to recruiting the best people and adopting the best procedures have all contributed to the safety record.

There never was and almost certainly never will be another naval officer like Hyman Rickover. The length of his service, the vision he set forth for the navy, and the amount of power he wielded are something that we almost certainly will never see again.