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  U.S. Navy Museum Cold War Gallery Covert Submarine Operations
Submarine Power & Propulsion

U.S. submarines rely on nuclear power for propulsion and life support. The nuclear reactor heats water, making steam that drives a turbine and turns the propeller. The same system also provides steam for the boat's turbine generators, the source of electricity for all submarine systems, including oxygen makers.

Virtual Walkthrough
Nuclear Propulsion Diagram

Nuclear Reactor

Nuclear reactors are basically heat engines. Splitting uranium atoms releases energy, much of it in the form of heat that can harnessed. In a nuclear-powered submarine, the heat released is used to produce steam to drive the turbines that power the submarine. The development of compact, safe, and highly reliable pressurized water reactors for naval use in the 1950s was the major technological achievement that made nuclear-powered submarines possible.

click image below to see how reactors work.

Nuclear Reactor Diagram
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Educational Videos

play videoReactor Operations:  This video on the reactor operations of nuclear submarines is part of the Covert Submarine Operations Exhibit, located in the Cold War Gallery, Washington Navy Yard. The Cold War Gallery is the latest addition to the National Museum of the United States Navy.

play videoNuclear Propulsion: "The Nuclear Navy" (1967):  This segment of a 1967 Navy documentary explains the basics behind nuclear propulsion. It also shares the history of its development in the years after World War II. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command, Photographic Section UMO-2.
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