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Nuclear submarine

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British Astute-class submarine

A nuclear submarine is a submarine powered by a nuclear reactor, but not necessarily nuclear-armed. Nuclear submarines have considerable performance advantages over "conventional" (typically diesel-electric) submarines. Nuclear propulsion, being completely independent of air, frees the submarine from the need to surface frequently, as is necessary for conventional submarines. The large amount of power generated by a nuclear reactor allows nuclear submarines to operate at high speed for long periods, and the long interval between refuelings grants a range virtually unlimited, making the only limits on voyage times being imposed by such factors as the need to restock food or other consumables.[1]

The limited energy stored in electric batteries means that even the most advanced conventional submarine can only remain submerged for a few days at slow speed, and only a few hours at top speed, though recent advances in air-independent propulsion have somewhat ameliorated this disadvantage. The high cost of nuclear technology means that relatively few of the world's military powers have fielded nuclear submarines. Radiation incidents have occurred within the Soviet submarines including serious nuclear and radiation accidents, but American naval reactors starting with the S1W and iterations of designs have operated without incidents since USS Nautilus (SSN-571) launched in 1954.[2][3]


USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine.
The smallest nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S. Navy's NR-1.

The idea for a nuclear-powered submarine was first proposed in the United States Navy by the Naval Research Laboratory's physicist Ross Gunn in 1939.[4] The Royal Navy began researching designs for nuclear propulsion plants in 1946.[5]

Construction of the world's first nuclear-powered submarine was made possible by the successful development of a nuclear propulsion plant by a group of scientists and engineers in the United States at the Naval Reactors Branch of the Bureau of Ships and the Atomic Energy Commission. In July 1951, the U.S. Congress authorized construction of the first nuclear-powered submarine, Nautilus, under the leadership of Captain Hyman G. Rickover, USN (sharing a name with Captain Nemo's fictional submarine Nautilus in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the first demonstrably practical submarine Nautilus, and another USS Nautilus (SS-168) that served with distinction in World War II).[6]

The Westinghouse Corporation was assigned to build its reactor. After the submarine was completed at the Electric Boat Company, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower broke the traditional bottle of champagne on Nautilus' bow, and the submarine was commissioned USS Nautilus (SSN-571), on 30 September 1954.[7] On 17 January 1955, she departed Groton, Connecticut, to begin sea trials. The submarine was 320 feet (98 m) long and cost about $55 million. Recognizing the utility of such vessels, the British Admiralty formed plans to build nuclear-powered submarines.[8]

The Soviet Union soon followed the United States in developing nuclear-powered submarines in the 1950s. Stimulated by the U.S. development of Nautilus, Soviets began work on nuclear propulsion reactors in the early 1950s at the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering, in Obninsk, under Anatoliy P. Alexandrov, later to become head of the Kurchatov Institute. In 1956, the first Soviet propulsion reactor designed by his team began operational testing. Meanwhile, a design team under Vladimir N. Peregudov worked on the vessel that would house the reactor. After overcoming many obstacles, including steam generation problems, radiation leaks, and other difficulties, the first nuclear submarine based on these combined efforts, K-3 Leninskiy Komsomol of the Project 627 Kit class, called a November-class submarine by NATO, entered service in the Soviet Navy in 1958.[9]

The United Kingdom's first nuclear-powered submarine HMS Dreadnought was fitted with an American S5W reactor, provided to Britain under the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement. The hull and combat systems of Dreadnought were of British design and construction, although the hull form and construction practices were influenced by access to American designs.[5] During Dreadnought's construction, Rolls-Royce, in collaboration with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at the Admiralty Research Station, HMS Vulcan, at Dounreay, developed a completely new British nuclear propulsion system. In 1960, the UK's second nuclear-powered submarine was ordered from Vickers Armstrong and, fitted with Rolls-Royce's PWR1 nuclear plant, HMS Valiant was the first all-British nuclear submarine.[10] Further technology transfers from the United States made Rolls-Royce entirely self-sufficient in reactor design in exchange for a "considerable amount" of information regarding submarine design and quietening techniques transferred from the United Kingdom to the United States.[11][12] The rafting system for the Valiant class provided the Royal Navy with an advantage in submarine silencing that the United States Navy did not introduce until considerably later.[13]

Nuclear power proved ideal for the propulsion of strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSB), greatly improving their ability to remain submerged and undetected. The world's first operational nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) was USS George Washington with 16 Polaris A-1 missiles, which conducted the first SSBN deterrent patrol November 1960 – January 1961. The Soviets already had several SSBs of the Project 629 (Golf class) and were only a year behind the US with their first SSBN, ill-fated K-19 of Project 658 (Hotel class), commissioned in November 1960. However, this class carried the same three-missile armament as the Golfs. The first Soviet SSBN with 16 missiles was the Project 667A (Yankee class), the first of which entered service in 1967, by which time the US had commissioned 41 SSBNs, nicknamed the "41 for Freedom".[14][15]

The nuclear-powered VMF Typhoon-class submarines were the world's largest-displacement submarines.[16]

At the height of the Cold War, approximately five to ten nuclear submarines were being commissioned from each of the four Soviet submarine yards (Sevmash in Severodvinsk, Admiralteyskiye Verfi in St.Petersburg, Krasnoye Sormovo in Nizhny Novgorod, and Amurskiy Zavod in Komsomolsk-on-Amur). From the late 1950s through the end of 1997, the Soviet Union, and later Russia, built a total of 245 nuclear submarines, more than all other nations combined.[17]

Today, six countries deploy some form of nuclear-powered strategic submarines: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, and India.[18] Several other countries including Brazil and Australia[19][20] have ongoing projects in various phases to build nuclear-powered submarines.

In the United Kingdom, all former and current nuclear submarines of the British Royal Navy (with the exception of three: HMS Conqueror, HMS Renown and HMS Revenge) have been constructed in Barrow-in-Furness (at BAE Systems Submarine Solutions or its predecessor VSEL) where construction of nuclear submarines continues. Conqueror is the only nuclear-powered submarine in the world ever to have engaged an enemy ship with torpedoes, sinking the cruiser ARA General Belgrano with two Mark 8 torpedoes during the 1982 Falklands War.


The main difference between conventional submarines and nuclear submarines is the power generation system. Nuclear submarines employ nuclear reactors for this task. They either generate electricity that powers electric motors connected to the propeller shaft or rely on the reactor heat to produce steam that drives steam turbines (cf. nuclear marine propulsion). Reactors used in submarines typically use highly enriched fuel (often greater than 20%) to enable them to deliver a large amount of power from a smaller reactor and operate longer between refuelings – which are difficult due to the reactor's position within the submarine's pressure hull.

The nuclear reactor also supplies power to the submarine's other subsystems, such as for maintenance of air quality, fresh water production by distilling salt water from the ocean, temperature regulation, etc. All naval nuclear reactors currently in use are operated with diesel generators as a backup power system. These engines are able to provide emergency electrical power for reactor decay heat removal, as well as enough electric power to supply an emergency propulsion mechanism. Submarines may carry nuclear fuel for up to 30 years of operation. The only resource that limits the time underwater is the food supply for the crew and maintenance of the vessel.

The stealth technology weakness of nuclear submarines is the need to cool the reactor even when the submarine is not moving; about 70% of the reactor output heat is dissipated into the sea water. This leaves a "thermal wake", a plume of warm water of lower density which ascends to the sea surface and creates a "thermal scar" that is observable by thermal imaging systems, e.g., FLIR.[21] Another problem is that the reactor is always running, creating steam noise, which can be heard on sonar, and the reactor pump (used to circulate reactor coolant), also creates noise, as opposed to a conventional submarine, which can move about on almost silent electric motors.[citation needed]


The useful lifetime of a nuclear submarine is estimated to be approximately 25 to 30 years, after this period the submarine will face fatigue and corrosion of components, obsolescence and escalating operating costs.[22][23] The decommissioning of these submarines is a long process; some are held in reserve or mothballed for some time and eventually scrapped, others are disposed of immediately.[24][23] Countries operating nuclear submarines have different strategies when it comes to decommissioning nuclear submarines.[25] Nonetheless, the effective disposal of nuclear submarines is costly, in 2004 it was estimated to cost around 4 billion dollars.[26][27]


Generally there are two options when it comes to decommissioning nuclear submarines. The first option is to defuel the nuclear reactor and remove the material and components that contain radioactivity, after which the hull section containing the nuclear reactor will then be cut out of the submarine and transported to a disposal site for low-level radioactive waste and get buried according to waste procedures.[23] The second option is to defuel the nuclear reactor, disassemble the submarine propulsion plant, install vents in the nonreactor compartments and fill the reactor compartment.[22][23] After sealing the submarine it can then be towed to a designated deep-sea disposal site, be flooded and settle intact on the sea floor.[23] This last option has been considered by some navies and countries in the past.[28] However, while sea disposal is cheaper than land disposal the uncertainty regarding regulations and international law, such as the London Dumping Convention and the Law of the Sea Convention, has stopped them from proceeding with this option.[28]


Submarines equipped with ballistic missiles are operated by six countries.


United States Navy[edit]

A Virginia-class submarine.

Under development

Soviet/Russian Navy[edit]

An Akula-class submarine.

Under development

Royal Navy (United Kingdom)[edit]

A Trafalgar-class submarine.

Under development

French Navy[edit]

A Triomphant-class submarine.

Under development

Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy[edit]

A Type 094 submarine.

Under development

Indian Navy[edit]

INS Arihant, the indigenous nuclear submarine of the Indian navy.

Under development

Brazilian Navy[edit]

Under development

Royal Australian Navy[edit]

Plans to purchase

Under development


United States Navy[edit]

Soviet/Russian Navy[edit]

Royal Navy (United Kingdom)[edit]

French Navy[edit]

Indian Navy[edit]


Reactor accidents[edit]

Some of the most serious nuclear and radiation accidents by death toll in the world have involved nuclear submarine mishaps. To date, all of these were units of the former Soviet Union.[2][3][38] Reactor accidents that resulted in core damage and release of radioactivity from nuclear-powered submarines include:[2][39]

  • K-8, 1960: suffered a loss-of-coolant accident; substantial radioactivity released.[40]
  • K-14, 1961: the reactor compartment was replaced due to unspecified "breakdown of reactor protection systems".
  • K-19, 1961: suffered a loss-of-coolant accident resulting in 8 deaths and more than 30 other people being over-exposed to radiation.[41] The events on board the submarine are dramatized by the film K-19: The Widowmaker.
  • K-11, 1965: both reactors were damaged during refueling while lifting the reactor vessel heads; reactor compartments scuttled off the east coast of Novaya Zemlya in the Kara Sea in 1966.
  • K-27, 1968: experienced reactor core damage to one of its liquid metal (lead-bismuth) cooled VT-1 reactors, resulting in 9 fatalities and 83 other injuries; scuttled in the Kara Sea in 1982.[2]
  • K-140, 1968: the reactor was damaged following an uncontrolled, automatic increase in power during shipyard work.[42]
  • K-429, 1970: an uncontrolled start-up of the ship's reactor led to a fire and the release of radioactivity[42]
  • K-116, 1970: suffered a loss-of-coolant accident in the port reactor; substantial radioactivity released.
  • K-64, 1972: the first Alfa-class liquid-metal cooled reactor failed; reactor compartment scrapped.
  • K-222, 1980: the Papa-class submarine had a reactor accident during maintenance in the shipyard while the ship's naval crew had left for lunch.[42]
  • K-123, 1982: the Alfa-class submarine reactor core damaged by liquid-metal coolant leak; the sub was forced out of commission for eight years.[42][43]
  • K-431, 1985: a reactor accident while refueling resulted in 10 fatalities and 49 other people suffered radiation injuries.[3]
  • K-219, 1986: suffered an explosion and fire in a missile tube, eventually leading to a reactor accident; a 20-year-old enlisted seaman, Sergei Preminin, sacrificed his life to secure one of the onboard reactors. The submarine sank three days later.
  • K-192, 1989 (reclassified from K-131): suffered a loss-of-coolant accident due to a break in the starboard reactor loop.

Other major accidents and sinkings[edit]

  • USS Thresher (SSN-593), 1963: was lost during deep diving tests with 129 crew and shipyard personnel on board; later investigation concluded that failure of a brazed pipe joint and ice formation in the ballast blow valves prevented surfacing. The accident motivated a number of safety changes to the U.S. fleet. Thresher was the first of only two submarines to exceed 100 onboard deaths, joined by the Russian Kursk's 118 lost in 2000.
  • K-3, 1967: the first Soviet nuclear submarine experienced a fire associated with the hydraulic system, killing 39 sailors.
  • USS Scorpion (SSN-589), 1968: was lost at sea, evidently due to implosion upon sinking. What caused Scorpion to descend to her crush depth is unknown.
  • USS Guitarro (SSN-665), 1969: sank while pier-side in shipyard due to improper ballasting. The submarine was eventually completed and commissioned.
  • K-8, 1970: a fire and a towing accident resulted in the sub sinking and the loss of all 52 crewmen remaining aboard.
  • K-56, 1973: a collision with another Soviet vessel led to flooding of the battery well and many crew deaths due to chlorine gas.
  • K-429, 1983: the sub sank to the ocean bottom due to flooding from improper rig-for-dive and shipyard errors but was later recovered; 16 crewmen were killed.
  • K-278 Komsomolets, 1989: the Soviet submarine sank in Barents Sea due to a fire.
  • K-141 Kursk, 2000: lost at sea with all 118 crewmen on board; the generally accepted theory is that a leak of hydrogen peroxide in the forward torpedo room led to the detonation of a torpedo warhead, which in turn triggered the explosion of half a dozen other warheads about two minutes later.
  • Ehime Maru and USS Greeneville, 2001: the American submarine surfaced underneath the Japanese training vessel. Nine Japanese crewmembers, students, and teachers were killed when their ship sank as a result of the collision.[44]
  • K-159, 2003: sank in the Barents Sea while being towed to be scrapped, killing nine crewmen.
  • USS San Francisco (SSN-711), 2005: collided with a seamount in the Pacific Ocean. A crew member was killed and 23 others were injured.
  • USS Miami (SSN-755), 2012: the submarine's forward compartment was destroyed by an arsonist-set fire while in shipyard, causing damage with an estimated $700 million in repair costs. While repairs were initially planned upon, due to budget cuts the boat was subsequently scrapped.[45]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Trakimavičius, Lukas. "The Future Role of Nuclear Propulsion in the Military" (PDF). NATO Energy Security Centre of Excellence. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d Johnston, Robert (23 September 2007). "Deadliest radiation accidents and other events causing radiation casualties". Database of Radiological Incidents and Related Events.
  3. ^ a b c "The Worst Nuclear Disasters". Time. 25 March 2009. Archived from the original on 28 March 2009. Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  4. ^ "Little Book" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 May 2013. Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  5. ^ a b Vanguard to Trident; British Naval Policy since World War II, Eric J. Grove, The Bodley Head, 1987, ISBN 0-370-31021-7
  6. ^ Nuclear Propulsion
  7. ^ "USS Nautilus (SSN-571)". americanhistory.si.edu.
  8. ^ Warships of the Royal Navy, Captain John E. Moore RN, Jane's Publishing, 1979, ISBN 0-531-03730-4
  9. ^ "Submarine History 1945–2000: A Timeline of Development". Archived from the original on 30 January 2009. Retrieved 24 February 2008.
  10. ^ James Jinks; Peter Hennessy (29 October 2015). The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service Since 1945. Penguin UK. p. 195. ISBN 978-0-14-197370-8.
  11. ^ p.529, Conway's All The World's Fighting Ships, US Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1996, ISBN 1-55750-132-7
  12. ^ "Nuclear-Powered Submarines". US Naval Institute. November 2021. the British made important contributions to U.S. submarine design, such as the concept of rafting for silencing and initial types of pump-jets
  13. ^ Daniels, R.J (2004). The End Of An Era: The Memoirs Of a Naval Constructor. Periscope Publishing. p. 134. ISBN 1-904381-18-9. Retrieved 25 April 2017.
  14. ^ Gardiner & Chumbley, p. 403
  15. ^ "Nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines – Project 667A". Retrieved 26 July 2015.
  16. ^ "Submarine Milestones – Largest Subs; 1981: Typhoon Class (Soviet and Russian)]". National Geographic. Archived from the original on 8 July 2002.
  17. ^ "Resources on Russian Nuclear Submarines". Archived from the original on 15 November 2001. Retrieved 1 November 2017.
  18. ^ "Submarine Proliferation". Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Archived from the original on 13 February 2006. Retrieved 1 November 2017.
  19. ^ Sarah Diehl & Eduardo Fujii (March 2008). Brazil's Pursuit of a Nuclear Submarine Raises Proliferation Concerns. WMD Insights. Archived from the original on 16 March 2008. Retrieved 27 March 2008.
  20. ^ "Australia to acquire nuclear submarines as part of historic deal with US and UK to counter China's influence". www.abc.net.au. 15 September 2021. Retrieved 16 September 2021.
  21. ^ Samuel Upton Newtan Nuclear War I and Other Major Nuclear Disasters of the 20th century p.291, AuthorHouse, 2007 ISBN 978-1-4259-8511-0
  22. ^ a b Jackson Davis and Van Dyke (1990) p. 467.
  23. ^ a b c d e Ross Heath et al. (1984), p. 189.
  24. ^ Tsypin et al. (1993), p. 736.
  25. ^ Sarkisov and Tournyol du Clos (1999), pp. 3-5.
  26. ^ Mitenkov et al. (1997), p. 145.
  27. ^ Antipov and Koroleva (2004), p. 796.
  28. ^ a b Jackson Davis and Van Dyke (1990), pp. 467-469.
  29. ^ Mélennec, Olivier (26 October 2018). "Économie de la mer. SNLE 3G : la mise en chantier prévue pour 2023". Ouest-France.fr (in French). Retrieved 12 September 2019.
  30. ^ "Big News : India quietly launches S4 SSBN, prepares it for sea trials, S4-star to follow soon". IgMp. Retrieved 31 December 2021.
  31. ^ "WATCH: Latest Satellite Image Reveals Arihant-class S3 & S4 SSBN boats". IgMp. Retrieved 20 August 2022.
  32. ^ "Russia may delay handover of the new leased Akula class SSN (Chakra-III) to India". IgMp. Retrieved 19 March 2023.
  33. ^ "Much improved & bigger 3rd Generation S5 SSBN of the Indian Navy to enter production in 2027". IgMp. Retrieved 5 December 2022.
  34. ^ "Brazil take first step in program to join nuclear-powered sub club". Reuters. 14 December 2018.
  35. ^ "Brazilian Navy - Marinha do Brasil - Modernization". GlobalSecurity.org. Retrieved 7 May 2019.
  36. ^ "Launch prediction". Brazilian Navy (in Portuguese). Retrieved 25 January 2022.
  37. ^ "AUKUS: US, UK Australia announce nuclear powered submarine project". IgMp. Retrieved 15 March 2023.
  38. ^ "STATEMENT OF ADMIRAL F. L. "SKIP" BOWMAN, U.S. NAVY". United States Navy. Archived from the original on 12 March 2018. Retrieved 1 November 2017.
  39. ^ Kristin Shrader-Frechette (October 2011). "Fukushima, Flawed Epistemology, and Black-Swan Events" (PDF). Ethics, Policy and Environment, Vol. 14, No. 3.
  40. ^ "K-8 submarine reactor accident, 1960". Retrieved 26 July 2015.
  41. ^ Strengthening the Safety of Radiation Sources Archived 2009-03-26 at the Wayback Machine p. 14.
  42. ^ a b c d "Chap. 8: Nuclear submarine accidents – The Russian Northern Fleet". Retrieved 26 July 2015.
  43. ^ "K-19 and other Subs in Peril". National Geographic Society. Archived from the original on 10 July 2002. Retrieved 26 July 2015.
  44. ^ Ehime Maru and USS Greeneville collision
  45. ^ "How the fire-damaged USS Miami will be scrapped". The Washington Times. Retrieved 26 July 2015.


  • Antipov, S.V.; Koroleva, N.S. (2004). "International collaboration on salvaging nuclear-powered submarines". Atomic Energy. 97 (5): 796–801.
  • Friedman, Norman (1984). Submarine design and development. Conway Maritime. ISBN 0-87021-954-5.
  • Friedman, Norman (1994). U.S. submarines since 1945: an illustrated design history. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-260-9.
  • Jackson Davis, W.; Van Dyke, Jon M. (1990). "Dumping of decommissioned nuclear submarines at sea: A technical and legal analysis". Marine Policy. 14 (6): 467–476.
  • Mitenkov, F.M.; Aksenov, E.I.; Vavilkin, V.N.; Sandler, N.G. (1997). "Decommissioning atomic submarines". Atomic Energy. 82 (2): 145–147.
  • Ross Heath, G.; Rea, David K.; Ness, Gordon; Dale Pillsbury, R.; Beasley, Thomas M.; Lopez, Carlos; Talbert, Daniel M. (1984). "Oceanographic studies supporting the assessment of deep-sea disposal of defueled decommissioned nuclear submarines". Environmental Geology. 6 (4): 189–199.
  • Sarkisov, Ashot A.; Tournyol du Clos, Alain, eds. (1999). Analysis of Risks Associated with Nuclear Submarine Decommissioning, Dismantling and Disposal. NATO Science Partnership Subseries 1: Disarmament Technologies. Vol. 24. Dordrecht: Springer. ISBN 978-0-7923-5598-4.
  • Tsypin, S.G.; Lysenko, V.V.; Orlov, Yu. V.; Koryakin, O.A. (1993). "Radiation inspection of the decommissioning of atomic submarines". Atomic Energy. 75 (3): 736–737.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]