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More than 150 ships around the world use nuclear propulsion.

Traveling Aboard a Nuclear Powered Icebreaker

Icebreaker in action

Icebreaker in action

The Arctic Ocean used to be one of the least known and least visited oceans in the world, but now more adventure travelers are enjoying the sites and sounds of the North Pole in style and comfort thanks to nuclear powered icebreakers.

In the late 50s, icebreakers ensured safe passage of cargo ships crossing the Arctic circle covered in shifting ice packs. In the 70s, these vessels began assisting scientific expeditions. In the late 80s, the nuclear powered icebreakers joined the tourism industry providing adventure vacations to areas most tourists were unable to get to. Today, nuclear powered vessels make the North Pole an easier place to visit for scientists and tourists alike.

How They Work

These massive ships are designed to ride up on the frozen ocean waters using their sheer weight to smash through the frozen layers of ice that exist year-round. Made with a strong steel hull and a special skin to withstand the frigid water temperatures, these ships can charge through ice that’s as thick as seven feet, keeping travelers safe and warm.

Nuclear power is preferred over diesel because it allows these vessels to be at sea for long periods of time, only needing to refuel once every four years. The amount of room this technology takes up on board is also a benefit because many ships must carry their own diesel fuel aboard, losing valuable cargo space, which makes voyages less cost efficient.


Nuclear Ship Savannah, the world's first nuclear-powered merchant ship.

Nuclear Ship Savannah, the world’s first nuclear-powered merchant ship.

  • Built as a showpiece under President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program, the N.S. Savannah demonstrated the peaceful use of nuclear propulsion.
  • It demonstrated the technical use of nuclear propulsion for merchant ships and was not expected to be economically feasible.
  • It made several trips around the country and abroad and in 1971, the ship was retired. It was later declared a National Historic Landmark.
  • It sparked the interest of other countries to build similar ships for efficient and reliable water travel.
  • The ship is owned by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and managed by the Maritime Administration.  It is currently docked at Pier 13 at the Canton Marine Terminal in Baltimore Harbor.
  • A large amount of additional information about the Savannah, including a virtual tour of the ship is available on the Maritime Administration’s website.

Nuclear propulsion is also used for:
Space Technology

Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) that are powering space missions may one day help answer questions about Earth.  The nuclear generators have been in use since 1961, when the U.S. Navy first launched a transit navigation satellite. They convert heat from nuclear fuel into electricity.

Space missions have helped us learn about the planets, stars, and even the edges of our solar system. Spectacular pictures and scientific data have painted a detailed pictured of not only what our galaxy looks like but also what it’s made of.


Modern submarines are powered by one of two primary propulsion methods – nuclear power (NP) or diesel-electric (DE).

US Nautilus

DE submarines today, unlike those of past wars, are primarily used by smaller navies for coastal defense, rather than for long-range strategic purposes. This is because the advent of NP for most blue-water navies using submarines leaves the DE submarine at a disadvantage in a tactical situation. Though DE’s are extremely quiet on an electric motor, their speed limitations against another boat using NP means they’re on the defensive as soon as they make enough noise to be detected. Battery power also limits the scope of electronic and weapons systems they can carry, and their fuel limits their range and capability and speed.

Nuclear Power has been the choice of large blue-water navies for submarines since the U.S.S Nautilus circumnavigated the globe in the 1950’s without the need for refueling and in record time. Nautilus could remain underwater for up to four months without resurfacing. Nuclear Power gives naval vessels a huge advantage in the systems it can employ, crew comfort, and tactical employment. Nuclear submarines can be in a target area gathering intelligence or inserting covert teams long before main battle groups enter the area.

Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carriers

The U.S. Navy’s USS Long Beach (CGN-9) & USS Enterprise (CVN-65) were the first Navy surface combatants to be powered by nuclear reactors. Both ship keels were laid within 2 months of each other, and commissioned at almost the same time.

U.S.S. Enterprise

U.S.S. Enterprise

The Long Beach was the only ship of her class, and was the last cruiser built on a traditional cruiser hull. Subsequent cruisers were built on modified, scaled up destroyer hulls. The Long Beach was also the Navy’s first guided missile cruiser, which showed the reality that missiles had finally replaced traditional guns for surface-surface engagements. She was decommissioned on July 2, 1994.

The U.S.S. Enterprise was in service for over 50 years – the oldest active commissioned warship in the Navy. In December 2012, the Big E left active-duty Navy service in a formal deactivation ceremony at Pier 12 in Norfolk, Virginia.

In addition to the Navy’s 10 currently steaming carriers, three more are now under construction:

  • The U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford should set sail in 2016
  • The U.S.S. John F. Kennedy is slated to set sail in 2020
  • The U.S.S. Enterprise, CVN-80, is slated to sail in 2025

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