10 Fascinating Facts About Nuclear Submarines


Once nuclear power’s potential was clear, ideas were generated in all areas for how it could best be used. Obviously, we ended up with nuclear power and nuclear weapons, but nuclear subs were an early idea as well. They were pitched as far back as 1939. They started working on reactors in the mid-1940s and the very first nuclear sub, the USS Nautilus, was commissioned in 1954. There’s a lot more to nuclear subs than just a lot of power under the hood…

10. They Can Stay Submerged for a Very Long Time

Traditional submarines that run on diesel fuel don’t have a long time to spend under water. They can stay submerged for several days at most. But nuclear submarines have a distinct advantage in this department.

Obviously, a submarine can only stay down as long as its supplies allow. With that in mind, most nuclear subs are capable of managing 90 days under the water without ever surfacing. They make their own air, so as long as the crew has food and water, which is usually limited to three months, all is well.  But what if supplies weren’t an issue?

A nuclear submarine has the potential to stay submerged not just for months but for years. In fact, the UK’s Astute nuclear submarine can stay underwater for up to 25 years if it needs to. That’s how long it can go before it needs to worry about refueling, a 10 year boost over earlier models. So, in theory, if the crew were limited and maybe had a substantial garden growing down there, they could spend decades under the sea. Is it realistic? Not at all. But still possible. 

9. They Can Dive Deep

Figuring out just how deep a submarine can submerge is not as easy as you might think. The crush depth of a sub is generally a secret that world militaries are not eager to divulge. And if you can imagine why. Any nation wants to keep their potential enemies guessing about where they can go and how fast they can get there. But, in general, we do know some things about how deep a submarine can go. 

Many US nuclear subs are believed to have a crush depth between 2,400 and 3,000 feet. These are machines made with HY-80 tensile steel. Newer subs are made with HY-100 and some Russian subs are made from titanium and therefore will be able to go deeper. How deep? The deepest diving sub that we know of is the Russian-made Komsomolets, which could reach a depth of 4,265 feet.

There are other research vessels capable of going deeper, but these are not nuclear powered. 

7. They Cost a Lot

We know that anything the government, and in particular the military, builds is going to be pricey. No one makes discount brand tanks and airplanes. But what does a nuclear submarine go for these days? Is it something you could save up for? Depends on whether or not you’re Elon Musk. 

In 2021, a Virginia class submarine, which have been in commission since 2004, will set you back around $3.45 billion. That’s a heck of a lot of money.

During the Cold War, nuclear submarine propulsion set the US government back around $46 billion and another $220 billion for submarine construction. Adjusting that for inflation is difficult because it covers a span of about 40 years, but even if you measure from 1991, then, at the very least, you’re looking at over $500 billion in total. 

8. Russia Tried to Buy Dairy Products with Nuclear Subs

So, given what you know about what a nuclear submarine might cost, you can imagine what they could be worth in terms of trade. These things happen sometimes, especially with older military surplus items. A country might develop newer, better technology and look to sell some old items to another country that doesn’t have the capability to produce something on par. This was something Russia tried to do on a deal with New Zealand.

The deal in question was not New Zealand looking to buy older nuclear subs from Russia, though. Instead, it was Russia trying to pay a debt. During the Cold War and before the fall of the Soviet Union, New Zealand had been supplying the Soviets with dairy. A lot of dairy. By 1993, they owed the Kiwis $100 million

In an effort to settle their massive cheese bill, Russia offered trade in lieu of payment. Their offer was a pair of fighter jets and a nuclear submarine. New Zealand is decidedly anti-nuclear and so, as you can imagine, the offer was not accepted.

6. The Titanic Was Found Thanks to a Secret Nuclear Sub Search Mission

Everyone knows the story of the Titanic and its ill-fated voyage back in 1912, that resulted in an unplanned run in with an iceberg. The story was fascinating as when it happened and has remained so for over 100 years. But the story really hit a peak back in 1985 when a team led by Naval officer Robert Ballard discovered the remains of the Titanic on the ocean’s floor. 

After being lost for nearly three quarters of a century, it was a big deal to discover it again. At 12,000 feet below the sea, it was no easy task to find it. But find it they did, and that was the first time it became common knowledge that the ship had actually spilt in two as it sank.

What people did not know at the time, and what none of us would learn for many years, was that the mission to discover the Titanic had been a ruse. In reality, it was a mission to discover two sunken nuclear subs. The Titanic story was concocted by the military as a smokescreen, so no one, in particular the Russians, would know that the remains of the two subs were being studied to determine how their weapons and power supply were holding up in that environment.

Ironically, the research ended with 12 days to spare, so the team decided to actually go looking for the Titanic because they had the time, and they ended up finding it, providing the perfect cover for the true mission.

5. Dozens Have Been Built

We’ve already seen how much a nuclear sub can cost, so it’s maybe somewhat surprising just how many have been built over the years. The US has over 160 nuclear powered vessels in its fleet running over 200 reactors. Of those, 68 are submarines. Of course, the US isn’t alone in the seas. China currently has 12 nuclear subs, Russia has 29, the UK has 11, France has eight, India has one, and Australia is going to be getting some soon as well. 

Nine subs have been sunk over the years, usually as the result of accidents – two American, and seven Soviet/Russian. Numerous others have been decommissioned as well. 

4. The Crew on the Smallest Nuclear Sub Burned Chlorate Candles for Air

Most of us can probably picture a submarine in our heads. You have a general idea of the size and shape, even if you may not be able to say unequivocally how long or wide one is. But the truth is, they come in a variety of sizes. A Virginia-class sub is 377 feet long. Block V subs are 460 feet. Russian Typhoon-class subs were 574 feet long. So clearly these can be large vessels. But how do things work on the other end of the scale?

The NR-1 was the smallest nuclear sub at 130 feet. Launched in 1969, it was built to be a spy vessel that could tap into Russian communications cables. It was also designed to go down to what, at the time, was a considerable depth of over 2,300 feet. As a result, the hull had to be designed almost perfectly round, with barely a millimeter of discrepancy allowed in any measurement.

With the room required for the crew and propulsion system, there was little space in the NR-1 for things like supplies or air. In order to make oxygen on board, the crew had to burn chlorate candles. These were canisters full of sodium chlorate and iron. This created a chemical reaction that produced table salt, rust and oxygen as a result.

3. They Have Not Done Much in Battle

The word “nuclear” brings to mind, first and foremost, either nuclear power or nuclear weapons. Both of those things are infamous for their terrifying power. No one needs to be told twice about Chernobyl or Hiroshima to appreciate exactly what that means. Combine this with what you know about submarines, some of the most important naval vessels of the second world war, and it seems like a nuclear sub should be a destructive tour de force. 

US subs in WWII sank 1,314 enemy ships. U-Boats took out over 3,000 Allied vessels. How many vessels have been taken out by the nuclear fleet? Two. Two vessels. And only one during official combat.

The first was an Indian frigate sunk by a Pakistani sub in 1971. And then, in 1982, a UK submarine took out an Argentinian cruiser during their invasion of the Falkland Islands. And so far, that’s the end of their direct military might at sea. 

2. Two of them Ran Into Each Other

We’ve seen how many nuclear submarines have been produced since the 1950s and while the number is high, it’s not staggering. It’s not like the oceans are so clogged with them that they have trouble avoiding each other. Despite that, they actually do have trouble avoiding each other. So much so that two of them actually collided in 2009.

On the one hand, you can look at such a collision as a success. It means the subs are so well designed and so undetectable that they are virtually invisible in the water. On the other hand, they were allies and ran headlong into each other when they had an entirely virtually empty ocean all around them. 

The collision occurred between Britain’s HMS Vanguard and France’s Le Triomphant. It was at a slow rate of speed so none of the crew of either vessel were injured. But it did put a lot of people on edge since these were two nuclear vessels and the Vanguard had 48 nuclear warheads on board. The fear that a catastrophic nuclear explosion could have occurred made everyone edgy.

So how did the accident happen? It was never fully explained. If either sub had been using active sonar they could have seen the other, but since subs won’t use sonar when concealing their location, it seems to be just an amazing coincidence.

1. They’ve Been Taken Out by Cookiecutter Sharks

A nuclear submarine with a crew of several hundred and a complement of missiles and nuclear warheads sounds tough. But how tough are they? What can they stand up to? Evidently not the cookiecutter shark.

These sharks are small. How small? They’re sometimes also referred to as “cigar sharks.” Males won’t even reach a foot and a half in length. But they are infamous for their bite. They get the name cookiecutter from their unusual round mouths, which can cut circles out of the bodies of their prey. And, as it happens, they can also cut circles out of rubber sonar domes and electrical cables found on nuclear subs. 

Cookiecutter sharks have been so destructive to nuclear subs that they’ve forced them to return to shipyards for repairs after being effectively blinded.

On the upside, this problem happened back in the 1970s and it looks like later subs were made less delicious looking to the sharks.

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