This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy
This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy

This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy

Larry Holzwarth - March 31, 2022

This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy
The Navy first considered nuclear power for destroyers, partly to avoid the need for hazardous underway refueling. US Navy

8. Rickover became an early supporter of nuclear power applied to submarines

When Rickover was assigned to the Army’s Oak Ridge laboratory to learn the science behind atomic power, he was skeptical regarding its use by the Navy. Navy research at the time focused on applying nuclear power to destroyers. In the post-war years, as the military reduced in size, the Navy forecast its future task forces centered around aircraft carriers, protected by destroyers. Atomic-powered destroyers would relieve the Navy of the burden of refueling them on extended missions, an activity which had proven difficult during operations in World War II. As Rickover learned more about the perceived benefits of nuclear power for marine uses, he grew to advocate its application in submarines. The United States had acquired several German U-boats as war prizes, and several of their innovations combined with nuclear power would give the United States Navy the world’s first true submarine.

A ship powered by a nuclear reactor could remain submerged almost indefinitely. A reactor did nothing more than create heat. It required no air intake for combustion, nor an exhaust system to remove gases. It produced heat, used to create steam. The steam could drive turbines to generate electricity, powering the ship’s engines and equipment. It also provided the life support systems for the crew, electricity for refrigeration, cooking, air conditioning, lighting. Oxygen generators could create air for the crew to breathe, while scrubbers and burners could remove the toxic gases caused by human respiration. A submarine designed to remain submerged indefinitely, its prime area of operations beneath the waves, could be designed with that mission in mind, rather than as a compromise between the surface and the depths, as had been all submarines to that time.

This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy
Rickover’s advocating for nuclear power in submarines gained the support of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz in the 1940s. US Navy

9. Rickover violated the chain of command to advocate for atomic propulsion in submarines

In the United States Navy, the chain of command was (and is) sacrosanct. When one had a request, one went to his direct supervisor. If necessary, that request was sent up the chain for consideration, assuming it was not rejected out of hand. Rejected requests were dead issues. Going around one’s immediate boss was one of the worst infractions of military courtesy and discipline. Rickover encountered resistance to his views regarding reactor-powered submarines and was recalled to the Bureau of Ships, assigned an advisory role in an ill-defined office. Rather than attempting to persuade his immediate supervisors of the benefits of nuclear submarines Rickover simply side-stepped around them. His violation of the sacred chain of command enraged some of his superiors. It also drew the attention of the Chief of Naval Operations, Chester Nimitz.

Nimitz, a submariner himself, agreed with Rickover. So did several influential members of Congress, carefully groomed by Captain Rickover. Nimitz convinced the Secretary of the Navy, John L. Sullivan, to authorize the development of a submarine powered by a nuclear reactor, and Captain Rickover was assigned as the director of the Nuclear Power Division, within the Bureau of Ships. In 1949, Rickover was assigned to the Atomic Energy Commission as the Director of the Naval Reactors Branch, a role he held concurrently with his position in the Bureau of Ships. Through both positions, Rickover led the Navy’s effort to develop a nuclear reactor suitable for marine use, and a submarine capable of carrying it and utilizing the power it produced. By 1950, work on an entirely new submarine was well underway, with Rickover the driving force behind the project.

This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy
USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered ship, departing New London CT in 1977. US Navy

10. Rickover made further enemies as he developed the first nuclear submarine

To create the most innovative seagoing vessel in history, Rickover avoided unproven technology, preferring what was known to be reliable and effective. He applied this philosophy to both the reactor and the submarine from the very beginning of the project. Westinghouse Electric Corporation, a company with which Rickover had long experience, developed and built the pressurized water reactor to be used, with the first prototype becoming operational for testing purposes in 1953. By that time, an entirely new submarine to house a similar reactor was nearing completion at the Electric Boat Corporation in Groton, Connecticut. Rickover had selected the name Nautilus for the submarine, after the fictional submarine of that name in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Walt Disney Studios, who had made the film version of Verne’s novel, was hired to design the patch for the new submarine.

While Nautilus was under construction, Rickover’s lack of popularity within the Navy created a problem which caused him to once again go around his supervisors. In 1953 Captain Rickover was passed over for promotion to Rear Admiral. In ordinary circumstances, such an event would lead to mandatory retirement. Rickover alerted friends in Congress, who intervened to pressure the Navy’s Selection Board to include Rickover in that year’s list of Captain promoted to Admirals. Rickover’s disdain for Naval ceremonials and traditions was well known, but circumventing the Selection Board to gain promotion was virtually unheard of, and added to Rickover’s list of enemies within the Naval command structure. But he succeeded. Rickover was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1953 after Congress persuaded the Secretary of the Navy to convene a special Board of Selection for the purpose.

This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy
Radioactive waste storage building at Shippingport Power Station near Pittsburgh. National Archives.

11. Rickover became involved with nuclear power for commercial use while still building Nautilus

The Navy’s experiment with nuclear-powered ships was still under development when the Duquesne Light Company authorized the use of a similar reactor to provide power at Shippingport. The new power plant was built by the company to house a pressurized water reactor (PWR) on a site west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Rickover oversaw the development and construction of the Shippingport Power Station, while Westinghouse built the reactor. He was assigned responsibility for the project because the Atomic Energy Commission recognized the organization he had built within the Navy and through contractors as being “the best choice…to demonstrate the production of electricity”. Rickover’s personal involvement began in 1954, the same year Nautilus was launched into the Thames River at Groton, Connecticut. The twin programs demonstrate Rickover’s seemingly inexhaustible passion for work.

The Shippingport Power Station became operational in December, 1957. It was the first nuclear reactor used to generate electricity for peaceful purposes anywhere in the world. The reactor remained operational until 1982, except for routine shutdowns to replace its core. After it was shut down, the Shippingport reactor became one of the first to be dismantled and transported to a facility for ultimate disposal. The site upon which the facility stood was cleaned up and released as unrestricted land in the late 1980s. Rickover’s involvement with the Shippingport Nuclear Power Station made him, in addition to being the “father” of the nuclear Navy, one of the fathers of commercial use of nuclear power stations for the creation of electricity throughout the world.

This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy
USS Seawolf served as a test bed for a different type of reactor, later rejected by Rickover. US Navy

12. Rickover experimented with another type of reactor design before rejecting its use

While Nautilus was still under construction, the keel was laid for the second nuclear submarine, Seawolf. Though the hull design was basically the same as Nautilus, the reactor selected for use in the submarine was an altogether different design. Built by General Electric, the reactor plant, designated the Submarine Intermediate Reactor (SIR), was technologically more complex than the pressurized water plant built by Westinghouse. It used liquid sodium as its coolant. In Seawolf the reactor plant proved problematic. Steam leaks and other failures haunted the design. By the time Seawolf was ready to become fully operational Rickover had decided the reactor was unsuitable for use in one of his submarines. Rickover cited the reactor’s cost as one factor in his decision as well as saying of the design they were “…susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair”.

The experiment with the liquid sodium reactor in Seawolf demonstrated Rickover’s preference for proven reliability over experimental technology. In 1958 Rickover ordered the faulty reactor replaced with pressurized water reactor of a design similar to Nautilus’. The replacement took all of 1959 and most of 1960. One officer who interviewed for assignment to Seawolf was a lieutenant qualified in submarines, Jimmy Carter. Assignment to the engineering department was to have been his, but Carter resigned his commission in 1953, after the death of his father. Though Carter had attended nuclear power school and was slated to work under Rickover, it was not to be. Many years later, Rickover served under Carter when the latter became President of the United States.

This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy
President Jimmy Carter was one of thousands of applicants to the nuclear power program personally interviewed by Rickover. US Navy

13. Rickover’s interviews of officers applying for the nuclear power program became legendary in the fleet

From its inception throughout his tenure as the head of the Navy’s nuclear power program, Hyman Rickover personally interviewed every officer attempting to enter it. Midshipmen applying from Annapolis and Naval ROTC schools, experienced submarine officers, and eventually senior aviators desirous of carrier commands, all faced the experience of a Rickover interview. Jimmy Carter recalled his interview lasted more than two hours, concluding with the question “Did you do your best?” in reference to his class standing at Annapolis. Carter, who graduated 59th in a class of 820 men, hesitated before admitting there had been times when he had not. Rickover’s response was a curt “Why not?” which was left unanswered. Carter, sure he had failed, was surprised when he was admitted to the program.

Rickover took steps to throw the interviewee off balance and uncomfortable. He positioned the chair before his desk so that sunlight would stream through a window directly into some of the interviewee’s eyes. The chair itself had the front legs shorter than the rear, causing the applicant to slide forward if he didn’t keep his legs firmly braced to hold him in place. Some applicants were forced to wait in a broom closet if their responses did not please him. He said later that he wanted to give them time to think. For others, the interview consisted of a single question. He was brash, cantankerous, and often cranky, and many of the officers accepted in the program later expressed surprise, having left his office certain of their failure. It was just one of several details over which Rickover maintained total control.

This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy
Lord Mountbatten worked with Rickover to build the first British nuclear submarine. Wikimedia

14. Rickover supported the British effort to obtain nuclear submarines after first resisting it

In 1955 USS Nautilus displayed features which immediately rendered most of the world’s navies’ antisubmarine warfare techniques obsolete. Nautilus was simply too fast, could dive too deeply, and most of all, could operate too quietly. Joint operations with the British and American navies made it apparent to the Royal Navy it needed nuclear submarines to remain relevant. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Mountbatten, requested an opportunity to inspect Nautilus in 1955. Rickover refused. He opposed the transfer of American technology, even to the British, notwithstanding the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain. He also held the highborn Mountbatten, an uncle to Prince Philip and the second cousin of Queen Elizabeth in the disdain held by the son of poor Polish immigrants.

In 1956 Rickover toured Britain and concluded the British were many years from achieving nuclear-powered submarines for their fleet. He requested a private meeting with Mountbatten in which he offered his support for the British obtaining American nuclear technology. In a blunt assessment of the British program, Rickover asked Mountbatten, “Do you want a working reactor plant now, or would you rather preserve British pride?” HMS Dreadnought, the first British nuclear submarine was commissioned in 1963. It carried the entire propulsion system of the American Skipjack class submarines, including a fifth-generation nuclear reactor built by Westinghouse to Rickover’s standards. For subsequent British nuclear submarines a reactor plant developed by Vickers and Rolls-Royce, adopting much of the American design and technology, were selected for use.

This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy
Newly launched USS Enterprise being moved to a fitting-out dock in 1960. US Navy

15. Battling contractors became a major issue for Rickover in the early 1960s

By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the autumn of 1962, the US Navy had 26 nuclear submarines in commission, another 30 under construction, two nuclear-powered surface ships, the carrier Enterprise and the cruiser Long Beach, and a third surface ship readying for commissioning. Rickover’s branch included representatives at all the laboratories, shipyards, contractors, major subcontractors, and fleet commands. At least one representative at every location was required to complete a written report on observations, problems, and solutions to Admiral Rickover weekly. They were called Rickover’s “spies”. It was the Admiral’s practice to personally take part in certifying each ship’s engineering plant before it became operational, and with exceptions only for illness Rickover rode each boat on its initial sea trials. Needless to say, the Admiral was a busy man.

He refused to relax his standards screening men for acceptance into his nuclear program, despite pressures from seniors complaining of a shortage of qualified crewmen. He also resisted the pressures of builders and contractors to relax equipment standards, or provide waivers when the equipment was not perfect but was close enough. To Rickover, close enough meant substandard, which was wholly unacceptable. He also felt many of the standards applied to submarine construction were in fact not strict enough, particularly in areas of pipe joints, Many of these were brazed rather than welded. Rickover insisted that all joints in the reactor compartment, the only area of the submarine in which he held total control, were to be welded. He dealt with recalcitrant contractors by refusing to pay them, and by demanding outside inspections of welds and pipe fittings. This caused delays and adversely affected operational demands. Rickover refused to yield.

This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy
Rudder of the sunken USS Thresher, photographed in over 8,400 feet of water. US Navy

16. The loss of Thresher vindicated many of Rickover’s views

In April, 1963, during a controlled test dive, USS Thresher was lost with all hands and several civilian contractors aboard. Though the exact cause of the vessel’s sinking remains unknown, it was widely believed to have begun when a brazed pipe fitting failed, causing water to spray on electrical equipment, shorting it out, and beginning an accident chain which doomed the ship. The hull imploded after it passed crush depth. Subsequent surveys of the wreck site, in the 1960s and again in the 1980s, revealed no leakage of radiation from the submarine’s reactor plant. Rickover’s exacting standards, which applied only to the reactor and its immediate support equipment, maintained reactor safety even in the catastrophic loss of the ship. In 1968 the United States lost a second nuclear submarine, USS Scorpion. Surveys of its wreckage likewise revealed no radiation leakage, even after two decades.

The loss of Thresher vindicated Rickover’s long-held views that the standards he applied to the reactor plant should be adopted throughout the submarine which is propelled. Contractors balked, as the more rigid standards ate into profits, caused cost overruns, and delayed delivery dates. Retrofitting existing submarines took longer, and operational commanders found they had not enough ships to meet commitments. Rickover continued to fight for more rigid standards, earning more enemies, but for the most part, getting his way. He stressed reactor safety, crew safety, and equipment safety, in that order, as paramount over all other considerations. He made equipment standards higher, rather than allowing them to ease, despite the insistence of ship builders and contractors the standards were unreasonably restrictive. Rickover’s strict adherence to standards and budgets earned him the support of Congress and made it difficult for his superiors to retire him.

This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy
Admiral Rickover in civilian clothes inspecting USS Nautilus in 1954. US Navy

17. Rickover personally directed all aspects of the Navy’s nuclear program

Rickover did not believe in delegating responsibility. In his mind, he was personally responsible, the ultimate authority, for all aspects of the nuclear Navy. His schedule reflected that belief. On any given day he could be inspecting a reactor under construction, or an operating prototype, or reviewing a budget, or visiting a contractor’s facilities, or testifying before Congress, or meeting with the President. He inspected ships and submarines, quizzed the crew from the Captain to the lowliest enlisted man in the engineering spaces. His conversations with crew and his interviews with applicants to the program led him to believe the American education system was failing in its task. He was particularly critical of Annapolis, which he believed focused too much on military rigidity and tradition, and not enough on teaching students to think for themselves.

As early as 1959 Rickover published a collection of essays which discussed the failures of the American education system, writing, “It is my considered opinion that there is no problem that faces the Congress or the country that is as important”. In 1962 the Admiral, evidently finding too much spare time on his hands, undertook a comparison study of American education to that of Switzerland. America’s system did not fare well in his estimation. He published his findings in a 1962 book, Swiss Schools and Ours: Why Theirs Are Better, in which he argued for higher standards, especially in mathematics and sciences, and a longer school year and day for American schools. To Rickover, lax education standards in the United States presented a national security problem. His arguments, presented over three decades, largely fell on deaf ears.

This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy
Rickover meeting with President Kennedy at the White House, February 11, 1963. JFK Presidential Library

18. Rickover became known throughout the Navy as “the kindly old gentleman”

In the 1970s Rickover’s power throughout the Navy and in Congress peaked. Stories of his interviews of applicants for nuclear power training were told in shipyards, in contractor’s hallways, on board his ships, and, after the inauguration of Jimmy Carter, in the White House. As with all sea stories, many were true, many more were embellished in the retelling. One such story told of Rickover telling a midshipman during his interview to call his fiancé and cancel their planned wedding. He was to tell her that he needed to concentrate on his studies and complete training before he considered marriage. The midshipman complied, using the Admiral’s phone. After completing the call, the young man was informed he would not be accepted in the program. Rickover cited the lack of commitment to his fiancé as a character flaw.

Such stories led to Rickover being called, sarcastically and behind his back, the “kindly old gentleman” among those participating in the nuclear power program. It was one of the milder terms used to describe the Admiral. By then well past retirement age, Rickover managed to continue to hang on. By the time of the Carter Administration, his strict management of the program led to repeated clashes with defense contractors, in particular with Electric Boat. The Admiral often criticized the submarine builder for shoddy work, cost overruns, incomplete tests and evaluations, and openly fraudulent practices. With Jimmy Carter, a former protégé, in office there was little that could be done. Electric Boat and other defense contractors began to pressure Congress to have Rickover retired. There was growing obsession with what his opponents called “the Rickover Problem”.

This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy
Rickover with President Ford in the Oval Office, January, 1977. National Archives

19. A cost overrun scandal with Electric Boat helped trigger Rickover’s downfall

In 1981, Rickover testified before a Congressional committee that the only two shipyards building submarines for the US Navy were defrauding the taxpayers. Rickover accused Electric Boat and Newport News Naval Shipyard of submitting fraudulently low bids to build submarines, after which they submitted claims for reimbursement for cost overruns. According to the Admiral, “Both yards have a battery of lawyers whose sole job is to file claims”. Rickover told Congress that though overruns occurred at both yards, Electric Boat, a division of General Dynamics, was considerably and measurably worse. He testified, “Apparently, Electric Boat’s bidding tactics were aimed at trying to force Newport News out of business”. Rickover asked Congress for legislation to reform the bidding and awards process. Electric Boat called foul and claimed the cost overruns occurred as a result of demands for greater testing and evaluation of their work, which inaccurately labeled some as substandard.

As the controversy flared and Rickover demanded the Navy not pay for fraudulent overruns, he continued his practice to ride each new submarine on its initial sea trials. He was aboard USS La Jolla for its trials in the summer of 1981. He oversaw a maneuver known as a “crashback”, a test of the ship’s braking ability when the engines are thrown into reverse. The ship temporarily lost control, and contractor personnel aboard for the test quickly blamed Rickover. There were no injuries and little damage. Following the incident came claims that over the years Rickover had accepted gifts from Electric Boat and other contractors, which in later interviews Rickover freely admitted. He gave many of them away to members of Congress. The combination of the near-accident, the gifts scandal, and his opposition to the Navy paying for fraudulent overruns finally gave the Navy the opportunity to retire him.

This Cantankerous Engineer Built the United States Nuclear Navy
President Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy John Lehman forcibly retired Rickover in 1982. National Archives

20. Rickover was forcibly retired in January, 1982

On January 31, 1982, Rickover was retired from the Navy, after 63 years of continual service, spanning the administrations of 13 Presidents, from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan. According to Rickover, he learned of the fact from his wife, who heard a radio report on the subject. Rickover refused an offer to serve as a special adviser on nuclear matters in typically salty terms when Reagan told him of it in the Oval Office. Shortly after removing Rickover the Navy closed its investigation into Electric Boat and General Dynamics and paid most of the overrun claims, $634 million. In February 1983, a private retirement party was held in Rickover’s honor, with former Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter all in attendance. President Reagan did not attend. Nor did representatives from Electric Boat, with whom he had often clashed late in his career.

During his career, his Nuclear Power Program created a record of reliability and safety second to none. The US Navy, with well over 100 reactors built and operated under Rickover’s guidance, has never had an accident or incident which led to radiation leakage. The pressurized water reactor developed for his program, and in large part to his design, currently powers all US Navy nuclear submarines and surface ships. US Navy ships and submarines have steamed almost 200 million miles, underway on nuclear power. Admiral Rickover died in 1986, and after funeral services held at the National Cathedral in Washington was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Two years before his death he attended the commissioning of the USS Hyman G. Rickover, a Los Angeles class attack submarine. One of Rickover’s maxims, regarding good ideas, is displayed at the US Navy Museum. “They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience”.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Hyman G. Rickover”. Biography, Atomic Heritage Foundation. Online

“Recollections of Margaret Lurie”. Margaret Lurie, USS Hyman G. Rickover Commissioning Committee. Online

“Admiral Hyman Rickover”. Interview, Diane Sawyer (transcript) 1984

“Salvage and Repair of USS California”. Article, Naval History and Heritage Command. Online

“Rickover: Controversy and Genius”. Norman Polmar, Thomas B. Allen. 1982

“Nuclear Navy 1946 – 1962”. Richard G. Hewlett, Francis Duncan. Online

“Powering the Navy”. Article, National Nuclear Security Administration, Department of Energy. Online

“History of USS Nautilus”. Article, Submarine Force Library and Museum. Online

“Hyman George Rickover”. Biography, Online

“Past, Present, and Future”. Nuclear Engineering International. April 30, 2001

“Shippingport Light Water Breeder Reactor Remarks”. Jimmy Carter, Hyman Rickover, American Presidency Project. December 2, 1977. Online

“Why did the US abandon a lead in reactor design?” Cheryl Rofer, Physics Today. August 7, 2015

“Carter extols old Navy boss Rickover”. Article, UPI. July 9, 1986. Online

“This Legendary Admiral Had A Ruthless Approach To Job Interviews”. Gus Lubin, Business Insider. April 13, 2014. Online

“Any Other Name: The Origination of HMS Dreadnought”. Article, Airspace Historian. November 28, 2014 Online

“Public Policy: Rickover’s Attack on Defense Contractors”. Article, TIME Magazine. November 9, 1962

“Atomic Submarine USS Thresher Sinks in the Atlantic, Killing All on Board”. Article, Online

“Doing a Job”. Speech, Admiral Hyman Rickover at Columbia University. Online

“Overrun Silent, Overrun Deep”. Evan Thomas, TIME Magazine. December 24, 1984

“Rickover Linked By House Panel To Gifts From Shipbuilders”. Wayne Biddle, The New York Times. July 19, 1984

“Rickover Is Forced To Retire”. George C. Wilson, The Washington Post. November 14, 1981

“Admiral Hyman Rickover Dead at 86”. Article, Jewish Telegraphic Agency. July 9, 1986