A Nuclear Submarine Is Safer Than Sitting At Your desk – 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.
The nuclear navy technology was shared with Britain. But the French, Russian and Chinese nuclear navies developed on their own. Russia actually developed fast-reactors for some of their submarines, their Alpha attack subs, which made them the fastest in the sea, although they were a bit noisier.
According to Lloyd’s, about 700 nuclear reactors have been used at sea since the 1950s, and there are about 200 reactors at sea today. Most are submarines and all use highly-enriched uranium as fuel, allowing them to stay underwater for longer periods, years if necessary.
Of the submarines, the United States has 70, Russia 40, China 19, Britain 10, France 9 and India has 3, including those being commissioned. China has the fastest-growing nuclear navy which should more than double in the next ten years. Japan and Germany each built a nuclear-powered ship but decommissioned them years ago.
Nuclear-powered non-combat and commercial ships have been built but most were considered too expensive to operate. Lately, Russia and China have developed floating nuclear reactors for remote or emergency use, and for use in super-large icebreakers.
As Harry Degenaar pointed out yesterday, the floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov was connected to the grid, generating electricity for the first time in the remote Chaun-Bilibino network in Pevek, in Russia’s Far East.
America’s Nuclear Navy is one of the oldest and largest nuclear organizations in the world, and has the world’s best safety record of any industry of any kind. In terms of work hazards apart from combat, it is safer to work on a U.S. nuclear submarine or aircraft carrier than it is to sit at a desk trading stocks.
Thousands upon thousands of people, 22,000 people at any one time, have lived, worked, eaten and slept within a stone’s throw of these nuclear reactors for 60 years with no adverse effects from radiation at all.
Annual radiation doses to Navy personnel have averaged only 0.005 rem/year (5 mrem/year; 0.05 mSv/year), a thousand times less than the federal 5 rem/year allowed for radworkers. Normal background radiation in the United States varies from 100 mrem/year to over 1,000 mrem/year.
The Nuclear Navy has logged over 5,400 reactor years of accident-free operations and travelled over 130 million miles on nuclear energy, enough to circle the earth 3,500 times.
From the time of the USS Nautilus in 1954, to the present, no civilian or military personnel on these ships has ever exceeded any Federal radiation limit. And none of those more than a hundred thousand people has ever been harmed by radiation from reactors or facilities with which they were so intimately in contact.
Numerous reports from the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program Office provide detailed information of personnel exposures from living and working in nuclear submarines and on nuclear ships, as well as working in the on-shore facilities that produced fuel and materials for the Nuclear Navy such as nuclear propulsion plants and nuclear component engineering plants.
Their findings supported past studies that indicated no civilian or military personnel on these ships, which number over 22,000 thousand people at any one time today, has ever exceeded any Federal radiation limit. And none of those hundreds of thousands of people has ever been harmed by the radiation from reactors or facilities with which they were so intimately in contact for so long.
The report also reviewed the history of radiation health effects in the general public which indicated no observable health effects from low levels of radiation:
“It is fair to say that we have more scientific evidence on the hazards of ionizing radiation than on most, if not all, environmental agents that affect the general public.”
“Cancer-causing effects of radiation…have been observed only at high doses and high dose rates. Studies of populations chronically exposed to low-level radiation have not shown consistent or conclusive evidence upon which to determine the risk of cancer. Attempts to observe increased cancer in a human population exposed to low doses of radiation have been difficult.”
Actually, they’ve been impossible. We never have found any and we’ve been looking really, really hard for almost a hundred years.
While ordinary accidents occasionally occur as with any military operation, none have been related to nuclear or radiation, and no radiation health effects or reportable radiological accidents have ever happened in U.S. Navy history.
This is different than Russia. The Soviet Union/Russia has had 22 accidents involving naval nuclear-powered vessels from 1960 to 2003. The United States has had just 2, both occurring in the 1960s, for reasons unrelated to their nuclear reactors.
It is highly likely that, going forward, our Nuclear Navy will make sure things sail along as safely as ever.