When the leaders of the United States, Britain and Australia announced last week that America would help Australia build eight nuclear-powered submarines, the ripple effects rippled through every capital city. China, which the new alliance is clearly aimed at, has denounced the “cold war mentality” that underlies it. And France, which saw its $ 65 billion contract to build 12 diesel-electric submarines for Australia scuttled, called it a “punch in the back.”
But why should sharing 70-year-old nuclear propulsion technology shake up opponents and allies? Well, there’s more at stake than a quieter, long-running ship engine, a technology that has been lurking in the oceans for decades. To understand the deep context of this underwater fury, it is worth looking back at the one time the United States briefly opened its vault of nuclear submarine secrets – in the 1950s, when the Anglo- Americans agreed to a special pact which, like today, kept France in the dark.
First of all, a little background. Nuclear energy is particularly well suited to submarines because of two specificities: it generates heat without requiring oxygen or producing exhaust gases (except excess heat) and it can be stored in a very concentrated, unlike the large coal, oil or diesel bunkers that have supplied steamboats since the 19th century. And at the dawn of the atomic age, all the navies in the world realized that harnessing nuclear energy inside a reactor small enough to fit in the hull of a submarine would allow these ships. to travel quickly, to operate for weeks or even months underwater without refueling, and therefore radically transform the seas of the world in conflict.
In the early 1950s, under the auspices of a controversial US Navy captain named Hyman G. Rickover, the Navy and the recently formed Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy), started development of the world’s first atomic reactor. Before that, reactors were built of graphite and lead inside huge steel furnaces that were used to produce fuel for the bombs. They were dangerous, misunderstood, and their radioactivity was difficult to contain. Some got out of hand and turned into dirty bombs, spitting radiation across the landscape. The idea of sticking one in a submarine seemed impossible, bordering on madness.
At that time, existing submarines operated with diesel-electric hybrid engines. Then as now, they had to run on the surface of the seas using their diesel engines to charge batteries that allowed them to submerge themselves on their electric motors for short periods, measured in hours. They operated slowly underwater, and once above the waterline their noisy diesel engines made them highly vulnerable to surface trackers and attack.