Nuclear submarines use nuclear reactors, steam turbines and reduction gearing to drive the main propeller shaft, which provides the forward and reverse thrust in the water (an electric motor drives the same shaft when docking or in an emergency).
Submarines also need electric power to operate the equipment on board. To supply this power, submarines are equipped with diesel engines that burn fuel and/or nuclear reactors that use nuclear fission. Submarines also have batteries to supply electrical power. Electrical equipment is often run off the batteries and power from the diesel engine or nuclear reactor is used to charge the batteries. In cases of emergency, the batteries may be the only source of electrical power to run the submarine.
A diesel submarine is a very good example of a hybrid vehicle. Most diesel subs have two or more diesel engines. The diesel engines can run propellers or they can run generators that recharge a very large battery bank. Or they can work in combination, one engine driving a propeller and the other driving a generator. The sub must surface (or cruise just below the surface using a snorkel) to run the diesel engines. Once the batteries are fully charged, the sub can head underwater. The batteries power electric motors driving the propellers. Battery operation is the only way a diesel sub can actually submerge. The limits of battery technology severely constrain the amount of time a diesel sub can stay underwater.
Because of these limitations of batteries, it was recognized that nuclear power in a submarine provided a huge benefit. Nuclear generators need no oxygen, so a nuclear sub can stay underwater for weeks at a time. Also, because nuclear fuel lasts much longer than diesel fuel (years), a nuclear submarine does not have to come to the surface or to a port to refuel and can stay at sea longer.
Nuclear subs and aircraft carriers are powered by nuclear reactors that are nearly identical to the reactors used in commercial power plants. The reactor produces heat to generate steam to drive a steam turbine. The turbine in a ship directly drives the propellers, as well as electrical generators. The two major differences between commercial reactors and reactors in nuclear ships are:
- The reactor in a nuclear ship is smaller.
- The reactor in a nuclear ship uses highly enriched fuel to allow it to deliver a large amount of energy from a smaller reactor.
See How Nuclear Power Works for details on nuclear power and propulsion systems.