Nuclear powered submarines were a major leap from the conventional submarines in terms of speed, refueling intervals, air dependence and underwater endurance ratings.
Current generations of nuclear-powered submarines never need to refuel throughout their lifespan of 25 years.
The first nuclear-powered submarine sprang from the ideas of Ross Gunn, a physicist from America’s Naval Research Laboratory. He made the proposal for a nuclear-powered submarine in 1939, which was approved by the U.S Congress, and with the successful development of a nuclear propulsion plant, the first nuclear-powered submarine, in 1959, under the leadership of Captain Hyman G. Rickover, was made. It was known as Nautilus.
Production of Nautilus’ nuclear reactor was assigned to The Westinghouse Corporation, and the completion of the submarine was made at the Electric Boat Company, a subsidiary of General Dynamics Corporation. By the time it was completed, it was 320 feet long, and the U.S had spent about 55 million U.S Dollars on the project.
On January 17th, 1955 the Nautilus embarked on its first sea trial.
In the 1950s, the Soviet Union were keen on following up on the U.S. success and began developing their own nuclear propulsion reactors at the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering, Obninsk. This action among others was a part of the arms race between the Soviets and the U.S.
The Soviet project was led by Anatoliy P. Alexandrov. In 1956, they began testing their propulsion reactor. During the project, another team led by Vladimir N. Peregudov worked on the vessel that would contain the reactor.
The production of the Soviet’s first nuclear submarines was not without problems, as they were forced to deal with challenges such as radiation leaks, steam generation problems, etc. But by 1958, the first submarine based on their collective efforts was introduced into the Soviet Navy. They called it K-3 Leninskiy Komsomol.
With the new features that accompanied nuclear propulsion technology, ballistic missile submarines (SSBs) saw development. These submarines provided security for both the U.S. and the Soviet Union as counter balancing threats while being able to maintain submersion for long periods of time.
The world’s first functioning nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) was the USS George Washington, armed with 16 Polaris A-1 missiles. The Soviets, although having several SSBs, followed suit as part of the arms race, in developing a Soviet SSBN.
After one year, they introduced the K-19. The production processes had several fatal incidents, with 10 civilian workers and a sailor dying in accidents and fires.
During its commission in November 1960, it suffered a number of breakdowns and accidents which threatened to sink the submarine, and on its initial voyage, the K-19 came close to a nuclear meltdown. Twenty-two crew members died from radiation sickness after improvising the coolant system to prevent the meltdown. This ill-fate associated with the K-19 propelled crew members to call it Hiroshima.
During the Cold War, the Soviets were able to commission several nuclear submarines from each of their submarine yards. And by 1997, The Soviet Union had built up to 245 nuclear submarines, a number that beat all other countries combined.
The U.S also developed two species of nuclear submarines during the Cold War. The first and larger one was the Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine, which could launch missiles into other countries. The second one was the Attack Submarine, popularly known as Fast Attack Subs.
Although the nuclear submarines were not produced especially for the Cold War, they found their first real use in this period. During the Cold War, the SSBNs played crucial roles such as strategic deterrence patrols, hunting other submarines, and special operations.
To hunt submarines, and possibly destroy them, the Navy’s Attack Submarines were armed with anti-submarine mines and torpedoes. The incredible speed and ability of the SSBNs to go undetected made them ideal in transporting Special Operations crews such as the Navy SEALs into and out of enemy territory. They were also ideal in conducting espionage activities on enemy territory.
The development of nuclear-powered submarines is quite expensive, running into hundreds of millions, hence, not all countries have queued into the technology yet.
Currently, at least six nations operate a nuclear powered submarine fleet. They include the United States of America, Russia, The United Kingdom, China, France, and India.
Several other countries seek to begin production or purchase nuclear-powered submarines. They include Argentina, Brazil, Pakistan, etc. Possession of a nuclear-powered submarine does not only offer prestige to a nation, but escalates its offensive and defensive capabilities.
With the technology getting acquired by more countries, Navies continue to research on developing more unique fleets.
In British military history, the nuclear submarine, “Conqueror” is the only SSBN to have ever exchanged real hostilities with an enemy ship. Using two Mark 8 torpedoes, it sank the cruiser ARA General Belgrano in the Falkland Islands War.