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Chapter 3: Accelerating Projects

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RICKOVER: SETTING THE NUCLEAR NAVY'S COURSE

He was blunt, had a knack for quick comebacks and, as an officer in the U.S. Navy, subjected his prospective staff to grueling interviews to determine their reactions under stress. He earned a place in the history of nuclear technology, but never achieved his goal of becoming a submarine skipper. He was the legendary Hyman G. Rickover, who received a Congressional Gold Medal in 1959 "in recognition of his achievements in successfully directing the development and construction of the world's first nuclear-powered ships and the first large-scale nuclear power reactor devoted exclusively to production of electricity." His success, in part, was rooted in his nuclear training at Oak Ridge.

In May 1946, Rickover received word that the Navy had selected him to go to Oak Ridge to study nuclear engineering. His response was to collect and study books on atomic physics, chemistry, and mathematics. He also reviewed all Navy reports and memos on atomic energy and learned that Navy physicist Ross Gunn had proposed using nuclear energy to power submarines.

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy, converses with Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb.
Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy, converses with Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb.

When he arrived at the Clinton Laboratories Training School, he found four other Navy officers there. He gathered them together and told them he had been assigned the task of preparing their fitness reports, which are similar to performance appraisals. This bold tactic, uncertified by his superiors, gave Rickover substantial influence over the assignments and promotions of his peers. Using this power, he then asked the officers to take detailed notes and write definitive reports on specific topics. By getting the officers to work for him, Rickover took the first step toward developing a nuclear navy.

Theodore Rockwell, a former ORNL engineer, was a classmate of Rickover in Oak Ridge and tells this story about the captain in his recent book The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made A Difference: 

The lecturer was Dr. Frederick Seitz, an eminent physics professor who later became head of the National Academy of Sciences and president of Rockefeller University. . . [Rickover] kept asking simple, basic questions, making himself look pretty stupid and getting a lot of knowing chuckles from the wiseacres. "I'm not getting this. Would you please go over it again?" Rickover, the silver-haired captain, would say. The prof asked condescendingly,"Would you perhaps like to have us provide you with some tutoring in the evenings?"

Not taking this as a putdown, the captain said merely, "I would appreciate that very much, sir." So the tutoring class was in fact set up, despite the chuckles, and I decided I could probably get some good out of it myself. When I got to the tutoring class a little late, I was surprised to see not only the captain but a dozen or more of his classmates, including some of the chucklers, all busily taking notes. Noting my startled look, the captain said, "I guess I'm not the only dummy in the class. Just the only one with the guts to admit it."

Rickover later worked with Alvin Weinberg, then ORNL's director of research, both to establish the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology (ORSORT), known locally as the Klinch Kollege of Knuclear Knowledge, and to begin the design of the pressurized-water reactor for submarine propulsion. 

Graduates of the one-year program in nuclear science and technology were awarded the degree of Doctor of Pile Engineering, allowing them to write D.O.P.E. after their names. ORSORT turned out 100 graduates a year, many of whom became leaders in the nuclear industry.

In 1958, the first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States, the Shippingport plant in Pennsylvania, began operating, and the first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, sailed submerged   from Hawaii to England by way of the North Pole. Rickover's leadership and his nuclear knowledge from Oak Ridge played a major role in these historic achievements, earning him the sobriquet father of the nuclear navy.

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