By Francis Duncan

Review © John Ed Robertson *

            The purpose of this book is neither to be an authorized (or unauthorized) biography of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, nor to be a comprehensive history of the development of the nuclear Navy.  In the words of Admiral Rickover himself when he commissioned Francis Duncan to write this book, 'Your job is to show what it takes to get a job done.'  Duncan’s purpose is therefore better captured by the subtitle: The Discipline of Technology.

            The Navy sent then-Captain Rickover to Oak Ridge, Tennessee in June of 1946 to study the possibility of applying the same nuclear energy used in the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to provide power for ship propulsion.  Like most Americans, Rickover had known nothing of the Manhattan Project (which developed the atomic bomb) until after the war.  The first prototype reactor for the submarine Nautilus achieved criticality on March 30, 1953.  On January 17, 1955, the Nautilus sent its famous message “Underway on nuclear power”.  Thus, in less than 9 years, Rickover had taken an assignment that many thought was a way to get rid of him (at one point his office was a remodeled ladies’ room!) and an idea that seemed far-fetched at best, and produced the nuclear submarine, which was to revolutionize Naval warfare strategy.  This is arguably the greatest engineering achievement of all time.

            And it was an engineering achievement.  Admiral Rickover often made the point that what was needed to get things done in the world of technology was engineering more than science.  This may sound like a false distinction, but he deeply believed that what was needed to deal with the messiness of reality was engineering.  Of course, engineering is dependent on science, but Admiral Rickover felt that scientists were too theoretical to overcome the entropy inherent in making things happen in the real world.  (The layman’s term for entropy and the second law of thermodynamics is Murphy’s Law.)  Nevertheless, his engineers were dependent on the accomplishments of science to achieve what they did.

Rather than give a comprehensive history of the nuclear Navy, Duncan attempts to give a feel for what it was like to work with and for Rickover.  He was an unbelievably hard taskmaster, and he had no patience with those who either tried to snow him or to cut corners.  Many were repelled by his methods, but many others were drawn to the challenge of working with such a committed perfectionist.  And that is certainly what he was, to the point that even one of his harsher critics, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, once said, "One thing that you can say about Rickover is that he never built a lemon."  The National Academy of Sciences, while criticizing Naval Reactors’ refusal to seriously consider other reactor designs than the pressurized-water reactor nevertheless, admitted:

"[It] represents a larger body of practical experience in supervising the design and construction of reliable nuclear power plants, whether for propulsion or for energy generation, than any other comparable group in the nation.  Their judgment has often been vindicated by experience when the weight of expert technical judgment was on the other side."

To accomplish his purpose, Duncan limits himself to projects that are illustrative of the philosophy and methods of Admiral Rickover and his engineering staff, which was known as Naval Reactors.  He devotes three chapters, for example, to the battles in Congress and with the Department of Defense to get authorization to build nuclear surface ships. Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, was committed to "systems analysis", an attempt to quantify the capabilities of weapon systems in order to determine the most "cost-effective" weapons. Since nuclear surface ships (which are both more effective and more expensive than conventional-powered ships) were often evaluated as less cost-effective, Rickover and McNamara fought bitterly. Rickover wrote:

"No matter how many tradeoffs we study of other ways to spend the money we need to pay for nuclear propulsion, we will always be faced with comparing unlike things; none of the tradeoffs accord freedom from logistic support for propulsion fuel which is provided by nuclear propulsion.  The other tradeoffs provide additional defense protection to the CVAN [nuclear aircraft carrier], but none of them increase the offensive capability of the CVAN as well - as does nuclear propulsion in the escorts.  To compare a larger number of conventional escorts with a smaller number of nuclear escorts at equal cost is not to compare alternative ways of achieving the same capability; it is merely to compare two different capabilities that can be achieved with the same amount of money."

Rickover had the advantage of having much of Congress on his side, especially the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy and the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.  Because of Congress, Rickover won many of the battles for nuclear-powered surface ships, although aircraft carriers are the only nuclear-powered surface ships in the Fleet today.  The additional weight of the lead and water shielding needed for nuclear reactors makes it difficult for nuclear power to compete with conventional power on smaller surface ships, such as frigates and destroyers.

In submarines, however, there is no comparison between nuclear and conventional (batteries recharged by diesel generators) power.  The need to surface in order to have oxygen for the diesel generator to recharge the batteries every few hours in a conventionally powered submarine makes it much easier to detect, whereas a nuclear submarine can remain submerged for months.  Therefore, since the late 1950’s, all new submarines have been nuclear-powered.

So what can we learn from this book, especially those of us who are not engaged in scientific or engineering work?  Three themes from which we can all learn run through the book: discipline, commitment and excellence.  Rickover was incredibly disciplined, and he demanded that all around him be equally disciplined.  He knew that dealing with nuclear energy required extraordinary discipline, and that there was no place for sloppiness.  At Shippingport (the world’s first commercial nuclear-powered electrical generating plant) there was military-style discipline with absolutely no levity or fraternization between the utility and the government regulators.  In the aftermath of Three-Mile Island, Admiral Rickover stated that, in order to avoid similar incidents in the future, the emphasis should be placed on discipline in the day-to-day drudgery of running complex technology rather than on research and development.  He wrote to President Carter:

"Some have suggested that the success of naval nuclear power is a result of the discipline which can be enforced in a military environment, but which cannot be achieved in a commercial nuclear environment.  I do not agree.  I believe that adequate discipline can be obtained in commercial nuclear power.There has been too much emphasis on research and development in nuclear power and not enough on the daily drudgery of seeing that every aspect of nuclear power is in fact properly handled every day by each of the organizations involved.  That is where the emphasis is needed."

Testifying before the subcommittee on energy research and production of the House Committee on Science and Technology on May 24, 1979, in the aftermath of the incident at Three-Mile Island, Admiral Rickover succinctly summarized his basic philosophy that combined discipline, commitment and excellence:

"Properly running a sophisticated technical program requires a fundamental understanding of and commitment to the technical aspects of the job and a willingness to pay infinite attention to the technical details.  I might add, infinite personal attention.  This can only be done by one who understands the details and their implications.  The phrase, ‘The devil is in the details’ is especially true for technical work.  If you ignore those details and attempt to rely on management techniques or gimmicks you will surely end up with a system that is unmanageable, and problems will be immensely more difficult to solve.  At Naval Reactors, I take individuals who are good engineers and make them into managers.  They do not manage by gimmicks but rather by knowledge, logic, common sense, and hard work and experience."

One of the greatest strengths of the Naval nuclear propulsion program was the high level of responsibility and accountability demanded throughout the program.  One of the Admiral’s best-known quotes was on the subject of responsibility:

"Responsibility is a unique concept: it can only reside and inhere in a single individual.  You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished.  You may delegate it, but it is still with you.  Even if you do not recognize it or admit its presence, you cannot escape it.  If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion, or ignorance or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else.  Unless you can point your finger at the man who is responsible when something goes wrong, then you have never had anyone really responsible."

Duncan devotes a lengthy chapter to the loss of the nuclear submarine Thresher in 1963.  Although no one knows for sure what happened on the Thresher, many believe that the incident began with the failure of a seawater pipe.  There are many seawater cooling systems on all ships, including submarines, but those on a submarine must withstand pressure directly proportional to the depth at which it is operating.  It has been speculated that such a failure subsequently caused the failure of some electrical equipment, but this has never been proven.  Nevertheless, Duncan notes that, prior to the disaster, Admiral Rickover had been engaged in a battle with the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (which built the Thresher) trying to get them to apply the same standards to the welding of steam and seawater piping that were applied to the reactor plant.  In a letter to the shipyard commander written a little over a year before the Thresher disaster, Rickover wrote:

"Insofar as Timosa is concerned, I do not see how the problem of its non-nuclear pipe welding can be lightly set aside.  High integrity steam and salt water systems are equally as important in a submarine as the nuclear systems; all involve safety of the ship.  Based on experience with reactor plant welding, I recommend the shipyard be required to comply with applicable Bureau welding specifications."

In the investigation after the disaster, Rickover testified:

"I believe the loss of the Thresher should not be viewed solely as the result of failure of a specific braze, weld, system or component, but rather should be considered a consequence of the philosophy of design, construction and inspection, that has been permitted in our naval shipbuilding programs.  I think it is important that we re-evaluate our present practices where, in the desire to make advancements, we may have forsaken the fundamentals of good engineering."

Although the ultimate cause of the loss of the Thresher may never be known, it is highly unlikely that it was caused by any failure in the reactor plant, and furthermore it is possible, if not probable, that application of reactor plant standards to the steam and sea water systems, which must also withstand high pressures, would have prevented this disaster.

Because Admiral Rickover’s name was synonymous with naval nuclear propulsion, many wondered what would happen after he was forced to retire at age 82 by President Reagan.  The Admiral had worked hard to make Naval Reactors an organization that would embody his philosophy of engineering and technology after his departure. His successor, Admiral Kinnaird McKee, testified before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees:

"There will be no reductions in standards, or changes in the proven practices that have been instrumental in achieving the level of competence and technical integrity we currently enjoy in every aspect of the program."

By all accounts, Admiral McKee and two subsequent successors have been able to honor that pledge in no small measure because the nucleus of Naval Reactors consisted of civilians with 15, 20 or even more years, of experience in the naval nuclear propulsion program.

Aside from the strategic importance of naval nuclear propulsion in winning the Cold War, Admiral Rickover left a legacy of excellence in the application of technology.  In his eulogy to the Admiral after his death, Admiral James Watkins, former Chief of Naval Operations, stated:

"While others looked for short cuts, Admiral Rickover always insisted upon establishing rigorous standards of performance that matched technology to human potential.  Sure, this required more effort, checks and balances, concern for quality, and extra care, but these are now the hallmarks of not only our Navy’s nuclear power program but of our entire Navy’s combat readiness as well."



1.      Avoid committing ships and crews to highly developmental and untried systems and concepts.

2.      Ensure adequate redundancy in design so that the plant can accommodate, without damage to ship or crew, equipment or system failures that inevitably will occur.

3.      Minimize the need for operator action to accommodate expected transients.  If the plant is inherently stable, the operator is better able to respond to unusual transients.

4.      Simplify system design so as to be able to rely primarily on direct operator control rather than on automatic control.

5.      Select only materials proven by experience for the type of application intended and insofar as practicable, those that provide the best margin for error in procurement, fabrication and maintenance.

6.      Require suppliers to conduct extensive accelerated life testing of critical reactor systems components to ensure design adequacy prior to operational use.

7.      Test new reactor designs by use of a land-based prototype of the same design as the shipboard plant.  Prototype plants can be subjected to the potential transients a shipboard plant will experience, so problems can be identified and resolved prior to operation of the shipboard plant.

8.      Train operators on actual operating reactors at the prototypes.  Simulators are not an acceptable training device for naval operators.

9.      Confirm reactor and equipment design through extensive analyses, full-scale mockups and tests.

10.  Use specially trained inspectors and extensive inspections during manufacture; accept only equipment that meets specification requirements.

11.  Concentrate on designing, building and operating the plants so as to prevent accidents, not just cope with accidents that could occur.

* John Ed Robertson worked at Naval Reactors under Adm. Rickover from 1964 to 1970, mostly on the design of instrumentation and control systems for the USS Nimitz class of aircraft carriers.