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History of Nuclear Submarines

Sourabh Gupta Aug 28, 2020
Submarines are deadly warships that are capable of combat operation under water. Moreover, nuclear submarines are those which are powered by nuclear technology and can remain underwater for years if needed. Read on to know more about their history and development...
A nuclear submarine works on nuclear technology rather than conventional air-breathing diesel engines. Nuclear submarines operate on nuclear reactor technology―the same technology that is used to produce electricity in nuclear power plants. In conventional submarines, diesel engines were used to charge batteries for underwater running.
Nuclear submarines have numerous advantages over conventional diesel submarines. Unlike conventional submarines, the power generated by nuclear reactors is huge, and hence nuclear submarines can run at higher speeds for prolonged periods. They don't need refueling intervals anywhere as frequently as diesel-powered submarines, and they can operate underwater throughout their lifetime (generally 25 years).


The idea of making a nuclear submarine first emerged around 1950 when the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union (USSR) was at its zenith. Both the countries were trying more and more advanced technologies to build nuclear-powered submarines, to overcome the drawbacks of the conventional ones.
Both the countries knew what a lethal weapon nuclear submarines could be. The US was successful in drawing first blood, by launching the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine in the world, on January 21, 1952. It could encircle the world for 4 months without resurfacing.
It was American Admiral Rickover who first came up with the idea of making a nuclear submarine. In July 1951, the US Congress gave a green signal to Captain Rickover to proceed with the development of his brainchild, at the Naval Reactors Branch of Atomic Energy Commission. The task of building the reactor was given to the Westinghouse Corporation, which is now a leader in nuclear technology.
The Soviet Union started its nuclear submarine program in the 1950s too. Its research work was done at Institute of Physics and Power Engineering at Obninsk. They began testing their models in 1956, and finally, after overcoming many obstacles, their first nuclear-powered submarine entered service in the Soviet Navy in 1958.

A Brief Timeline

1954: 1st nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus was launched.
1961: Soviets claim to have fastest and largest fleet of nuclear submarines.
1963: In one of the worsts nuclear disasters, USS Thresher is lost with 129 men on board.
1986: Soviet Yankee-class submarine sinks in Atlantic Ocean with nuclear missiles on board.
1989: A Mike-class Soviet nuclear submarines sinks 500 kilometers from Norway.
2000: Russian nuclear submarine Kursk sinks.
2009: China becomes the fifth country in the world to launch rockets from a nuclear submarine.
An interesting fact is that although Russia is the country to suffer most number of nuclear submarine accidents, it produced approximately 4 to 5 nuclear submarines from each of its 4 submarine yards during the Cold War. Indeed amazing! They made about 245 nuclear submarines between the 1950s and 1997. If one adds all the nuclear submarines of world, the resulting figure still won't be able to break the Soviet figure of 425 nuclear submarines!
Since the cost of building the nuclear submarines is very high, only a few countries have been able to make and maintain these. Countries like the US, Russia, France, the UK, and China have operational units at present. However, countries like India, Brazil, and Argentina have been working on similar projects and seem close to a breakthrough.