Key point: The Nautilus proved that nuclear propulsion was safe and that the pace of technological change was rapid.
In 1948, the U.S. Navy established a Nuclear Power Branch, kicking off a revolution in ship propulsion. The department, headed by legendary naval officer Adm. Hyman Rickover, would oversee the construction of a unique ship, the first to take advantage of the benefits of nuclear propulsion. That ship was the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus.
The U.S. Navy, used to traveling long distances to fight its battles, was an early fan of nuclear propulsion. Nuclear power promised to eliminate the need for massive quantities of ship fuel, reducing the logistical demands of a fleet at sea. As Norman Polmar and K. J. Moore explained in their book Cold War Submarines, nuclear-powered submarines would have a virtually unlimited range, be faster above and below the surface of the ocean, generate more power per volume than diesel engines, and operate more easily than diesel engines.
Construction of a nuclear-powered submarine—the first nuclear-powered vessel ever—began in 1951. The submarine, Nautilus, would be powered by a S2W Submarine Thermal Reactor, a pressurized water atomic reactor capable of generating up to 13,400 horsepower. This would give the Nautilus a maximum speed of twenty-three knots. The ship would be 320 feet long, eighty-two feet longer than the conventionally powered Tang class, and displace four thousand tons submerged, twice as much as the Tangs. It had a crew of 105.