You might be aware of the 98 or so commercial nuclear power reactors that produce about 20% of our electricity. But there are another hundred nuclear reactors that power 86 submarines and aircraft carriers, producing electricity, heat and propulsion.
We think of small modular nuclear reactors as something new that will take nuclear power to a new level, and even marvel at the rollout of new iterations, like Russia’s new floating nuclear power plant. But in truth, the U.S. Navy has been operating and perfecting SMRs for 75 years. Work on nuclear marine propulsion started in the 1940s. In 1955, the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, put to sea. This changed submarines from slow underwater cigar tubes to warships capable of sustaining 20-25 knots submerged for weeks or months on end. By 1962, the U.S. Navy had 26 operational nuclear-powered submarines with 30 more under construction.
More and different classes of nuclear submarines followed, along with nuclear aircraft carriers and other ships. The first nuclear-powered carriers, the USS Enterprise completed in 1960, was powered by eight Westinghouse reactors. The USS Long Beach followed in 1961 as the first nuclear-powered cruiser with two reactors.
The Enterprise continued in service to the end of 2012, even serving in the most recent Iraq War, a truly amazing record.