The first nuclear powered submarine was the USS Nautilus, which launched in 1954. The first nuclear powered surface ship was the Soviet ice breaker Lenin, which launched in 1957.
In the rest of the article, we are going to learn more about these two vessels and three others that are significant as early milestones in nuclear marine propulsion, as well as explore why nuclear power was significant for their operation.
Which Was the First Nuclear Powered Ship?
Which the first nuclear powered ship was is dependent on whether you consider submarines to be ships, but in either case, both the submarine USS Nautilus and the surface ship Lenin launched in the 1950s.
The United States Navy had been working on the technology since a decade prior in the 1940s, and the first reactor that would be fit for a naval vessel was tested at a United States Department of Energy site in Idaho in 1953.
An adaptation of this reactor would go into the USS Nautilus, but the laboratory continued to work on new designs for the US Navy up through to the 1990s.
Let’s look at some of the milestone vessels that used those reactors as well as one from the Soviet Union.
The USS Nautilus began construction before the first suitable nuclear reactor was ready, so when the first prototype was successfully tested in 1953, incorporation into the final craft could be done swiftly.
The USS Nautilus made its first nuclear powered journey on January 17, 1955, making it the first ever marine vessel to do so. Its proud service continued for about two and a half decades before it was decommissioned in 1980. It currently sits on the Thames River in Groton, Connecticut as part of the US Navy’s Submarine Force Library and Museum.
Bringing nuclear power to submarines was a complete game changer for them. Not only did it allow them to move significantly faster and for longer periods of time, but it also made it possible to go deeper because nuclear propulsion is independent of air, therefore frequent surfacing is not necessary.
Nuclear fuel is significantly more energy dense than, for example, diesel, which is a prominent fuel source in conventional submarines. This means that nuclear powered submarines have a range that is effectively unlimited where energy is the only factor.
A lot of people may not think of submarines when they think about ships, so calling the USS Nautilus the first nuclear powered ship might seem unusual. If you are looking for the first nuclear powered vessel that looks more like a conventional ship – namely, a surface vessel – then the earliest one is the Soviet ship Lenin.
Curiously, Lenin was not a military ship, so in addition to being the first nuclear powered surface vessel, it is also the first nuclear powered civilian ship.
The ship was launched in 1957, only two years after the USS Nautilus, but for very different reasons. Lenin was an icebreaker, a ship designed for the purpose of successfully navigating through the frozen waterways of the Arctic.
Nuclear powered icebreakers have a number of advantages over conventional diesel powered ones. The most obvious advantage is that they are a lot more powerful, giving them a far greater edge when moving through thick, heavy ice.
Other subtler advantages include the fuel being lighter due to its higher energy density as well as the ships not being so dependent on refueling, which is considerably more difficult in the Arctic than in most of the world’s waterways.
Another important milestone in the world of nuclear powered maritime vessels came with the 1959 launch and 1962 maiden voyage of NS Savannah. By year of launch, the ship shares the spot with USS Long Beach as one of the first two American nuclear powered surface vessels as well as holding the distinction of being the world’s first nuclear powered merchant ship.
NS Savannah was deactivated in 1971 and put out of service a year later. She currently sits in Baltimore, and while at one point visitors could go aboard to see the ship, it is no longer accessible to the public.
The USS Enterprise was launched in 1960, after the NS Savannah, but its maiden voyage preceded Savannah’s by more than half a year in 1961, so depending on how you choose to measure which is first, the Enterprise is a candidate for the first American nuclear powered surface ship.
USS Enterprise also has the honor of being the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier. Bringing nuclear power to this type of vessel was an essential milestone, setting the stage for the situation now wherein all aircraft carriers in the United States Navy are nuclear powered.
Although the practice has not spread as universally overseas, nuclear power is beneficial to aircraft carriers, allowing them to get larger in step with the increase in the sizes of aircraft since the Second World War while still maintaining good speeds.
USS Long Beach
USS Long Beach is another candidate for the first American nuclear powered surface ship. Although she only began operating late in 1961, after NS Savannah and USS Enterprise, USS Long Beach had the earliest launch of the three ships. She was launched on July 14, 1959, exactly a week before the Savannah and more than a year before the Enterprise.
USS Long Beach is unusual in this list in that it is a cruiser, which is a type of ship not often associated with nuclear power and, indeed, one which is not often nuclear powered. The ship’s own end came when she was decommissioned in the 1990s precisely because the design was more costly to run than a conventional cruiser and with not enough benefits to justify it.
We have learned today about the USS Nautilus and the Lenin, which are the first nuclear powered submarine and surface ship, respectively, but we have also looked at three other ships that are contenders for the title of the first nuclear powered ship in America.