Powerful Partnership

Posted: February 7, 2013 - 6:58pm | Y-12 Report | Volume 9, Issue 2 | 2013

Y‑12 processes the feedstock to power the nation's submarines and aircraft carriers. These vessels can travel the world for years without refueling.

When the U.S. Navy's Capt. Hyman Rickover and a small group of naval officers began to study nuclear power in 1946, Oak Ridge, Tenn., was the go-to place. This large, bustling but undisclosed city, born just four years earlier, was credited with developing the highly enriched uranium for the world's first atomic bomb. It held the secret knowledge that set Rickover on course to cultivate the thought of using nuclear reactors to power submarines. His curiosity more than 65 years ago initiated the Navy's relationship with the Oak Ridge facilities and shaped what would become the nation's dominant oceanic nuclear arsenal.

Today powering the nuclear Navy is one of Y‑12's core missions. The site processes the highly enriched uranium feedstock that goes into submarine and aircraft carrier reactor fuel. Y‑12's long-standing commitment with the Navy helps ensure America's national security and keeps its fleet of stealth submarines and powerful aircraft carriers fueled to execute maritime missions worldwide.

“We work closely with the Naval Reactors program, which provides the Navy with nuclear propulsion plants and ensures their safe, reliable and long-lived operation,” said Steve Sanders, manager, Y‑12 Reactor and Material Supply. With support of the Naval Reactors program currently planned for decades to come, he said, “We're using dismantled weapons to provide feedstock, moving the material off-site and reducing Y‑12's storage footprint.”

The nuclear reactors in use on today's subs and carriers safely and efficiently power these vessels at sea around the world for many years without refueling. Speed, endurance, mobility and payload are significantly enhanced by nuclear power. As a result of investments by the nation in nuclear propulsion, U.S. vessels remain technologically superior — the most advanced in the world's oceans.

The long-standing Navy/Y‑12 working relationship helps ensure America's security, helps the Navy remain preeminent at sea and benefits Y‑12 as well. Technologies and methodologies developed by Y‑12 have been adopted as Navy standards, and on the flip side, Navy-funded projects also have benefited Y‑12.

Rickover probably never expected his trip to Oak Ridge to result in a mutually beneficial, decades-long connection between Y‑12 and the Navy, nor did he expect to be named the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” As he directed all aspects of designing, building and operating the nation's nuclear-powered fleet and training the crews, Rickover instilled a culture that demanded exacting standards of technical and individual operator performance at all times. He served for 30 years as the director of the Naval Reactors program and retired as an admiral after 63 years of active naval service under 13 presidents.

Two years before his death in 1986, the attack submarine USS Hyman G. Rickover was named in his honor. A hall at the U.S. Naval Academy also bears his name. His dedication, exemplified in the enduring contributions to national security made by naval nuclear propulsion, was initially fostered in Oak Ridge and matured into America's nuclear Navy — a global force for good.