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Reactors designed by Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne's Nuclear Science and Technology Legacy

Historical News Releases

Argonne Historical News Release About the Historical News Releases
This is an archived Argonne News Release Item about the lab's nuclear energy legacy.
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Lab's early submarine reactor program paved the way for modern nuclear power plants

ARGONNE, Ill. (Jan. 21, 1996) -- Forty-two years ago, on Jan. 21, 1954, the culmination of one of Argonne National Laboratory's most important early research projects slid down a ramp into the icy waters off Groton, Conn. -- the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world's first atomic-powered submarine. Today, descendants of the revolutionary nuclear reactor aboard the Nautilus provide electricity to homes and businesses around the world.1

Argonne scientists and engineers performed much of the early materials research and design and feasibility studies for the Nautilus reactor. Some of that reactor's basic concepts are used in today's commercial nuclear power plants.

Atomic submarine Nautilus

EARLY TRIUMPH — Conceptual design of the power plant of the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered ship, was performed at Argonne National Laboratory. Launched Jan. 21, 1954, the submarine made the first trek under the polar ice cap in 1958. Argonne celebrates its 50th anniversary in 1996. Photo courtesy U.S. Navy photo.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Argonne is a direct descendant of the University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory, where Enrico Fermi oversaw the construction and testing of the world's first reactor, Chicago Pile 1. By the late 1940s, Argonne was already one of the world's premier centers of nuclear power research and development.

Nuclear power was still in its infancy when the decision was made to use an atomic reactor to power a submarine. Chicago Pile 1 had been built only six years before Argonne's Naval Reactor Division was formed in 1948. Over the next six years, the division helped turn the atomic ship engine from a concept into a reality.

Researchers faced many difficult problems in trying to design a high-efficiency nuclear reactor that would fit into the tight confines of a submarine hull and still produce enough energy to drive the ship.

They settled on using high-pressure water to cool the reactor core, a scheme very different from previous reactors.

Argonne metallurgists had to combat the corrosive nature of high-temperature water, which was aggravated by high radiation inside the reactor. Their extensive tests of metals and alloys improved the general understanding of water corrosion. To monitor the reactor's condition, Argonne created and tested many new instruments, including neutron, hydrogen and leak detectors.

The first prototype, Submarine Thermal Reactor Mark I, was completed in 1953 by Westinghouse Corp. at what is now the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. STR Mark II was installed in the Nautilus, launched the following year.

A marvel of its day, the Nautilus was the world's first true submarine, capable of operating underwater almost indefinitely. Previous submarines were really "diving boats," dependent on air-breathing diesel engines for long-distance travel and short-lived battery power for slow underwater mobility.

Nuclear reactors do not need air, so they operate just as efficiently underwater as on the surface. Nautilus could travel 50,000 miles without refueling or overhauling and could stay submerged for many days while traveling at up to 20 knots. It was 323 feet (98.4 meters) long and carried a crew of 105.

In August 1958, under the direction of Commander William R. Anderson, Nautilus made the first polar transit from Point Barrow, Alaska, to the Greenland Sea, traveling 1,830 miles under the polar ice cap and demonstrating the potential of nuclear-powered submarines.

Nautilus was decommissioned in 1980. It is now on public display at the shipyards where it was built.

The ship's reactor and its operating procedures became the prototype for most of world's commercial nuclear power plants. These plants now supply more than 20 percent of the United States' electricity. The Naval Reactor Program also inspired efficient safety and control methods -- essential with the limited crew in a submarine. Former U.S. Navy "nucs" operate many of the nation's nuclear power plants today.

Related Information


  1. Nuclear Reactors Built, Being Built, or Planned in the United States as of June 30, 1970, TID-8200 (22nd Rev.), USAEC Division of Technical Information, (1970) [2MB].

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