Tap to Read ➤

How Do Nuclear Submarines Work?

Scholasticus K Aug 28, 2020
Nuclear submarines are one of the most advanced weapons of navies across the world. Many nations started building and integrating these fearsome machines in their arsenals during the era of the Cold War.
A submarine is a marine vessel capable of traveling underwater for a specified period of time. Today, they can be classified into two types, namely military or research submarines. Military submarines are extensively used for naval operations while research submarines are used for deep-sea studies.
Military submarines prior to the Cold War era used a combination of diesel engines and electric batteries for propulsion. They faced many problems, like emission of diesel engines or not being able to stay underwater for a very long time, etc.
The United States of America built the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, to overcome the shortcomings of conventional submarines.

Working of a Nuclear Submarine

Nuclear submarines are powered by nuclear reactors. Inside these reactors, a neutron is deployed in order to split uranium atoms.
The atomic structure of uranium, once split, forms a huge amount of heat and gamma radiation. This heat emitted is used to heat water.
The reactor is surrounded by a hollow coil. Water is circulated in the hollow coil, at an extremely high pressure, which prevents it from converting to steam. The hot water is then let out into another hollow coil that contains water at normal temperature. This is then converted into huge amounts of steam.
The steam is transferred to steam turbines and electricity is generated. This electricity is stored in batteries and is used to propel the submarine, as well as supply power for equipment on board.
In case of an emergency, steam turbines can be used directly to gain accelerated propulsion. The advantage of using a nuclear reactor as a source of energy is that the submarine does not need to surface to refill its air tanks. The other principles of diving and surfacing with the help of ballast and trim tanks are same as that of conventional submarines.
Many modern nuclear submarines have been facilitated with more and more sophisticated facilities and equipment, as enormous power generation is possible due to nuclear reactors. Some modern submarines use specialized equipment to extract air from sea water, dissolved during the process of oxygenation.

Risk and Precautions

Though sophisticated and advanced, today's submarines are very dangerous. The primary reason is the huge amounts of fuel in the reactor. If a reactor is damaged in action or during naval operations, it can contaminate vast areas of the ocean.
Manufacturers and developers are deploying many different alloys and protective casings to protect nuclear reactors, however, it can never be made damage proof.
Some submarines are also capable of launching sea-to-surface nuclear weapons. This advancement has further increased levels of damage that are possible in a nuclear war.
A submarine capable of launching nuclear warheads is even more dangerous to the environment because, if hit by a torpedo or any other weapon, the damaged submarine can cause unimaginable levels of contamination.
Many nations have made enormous advancement in nuclear submarines, enabling them to even become the habitat of crews for extended periods of time, much like the fictitious Nautilus which was home to the crew in the popular story 'Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea'.