Origins of the Army Nuclear Power Program

MG Kenneth D. Nichols

Maj. Gen. Kenneth D. Nichols was Groves’ deputy. His vision and tenacity led the Defense Department to assign the Corps of Engineers a nuclear power research, development, and generation mission after WWII that lasted into the 1970s.

LTG Leslie R. Groves

Lt. Gen. Leslie R. Groves led the Corps of Engineers’ Manhattan Project from Sept. 1942, through its successful development of nuclear weapons in Aug. 1945, to project closeout and transfer to the AEC in 1947.

During the Second World War the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers directed the Manhattan Project, the massive scientific and industrial development effort that produced the atomic bomb and helped end the war. The infrastructure the Army created—both in terms of facilities and personnel—constituted the bulk of the of the nation’s nuclear expertise and was transferred to the newly created Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1947 to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy.

Although the Manhattan Project’s leadership was aware of the possibility of using nuclear fission to generate electricity, the post-war Army initially focused on developing and safeguarding the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. However, in 1952 Maj. Gen. Kenneth Nichols, the former deputy commander of the Manhattan Project who had long been interested in nuclear power generation, became Chief of the Army Office of Research and Development. He began studying the feasibility of using nuclear reactors to generate electricity for the military.

Nichols’ initial study showed promise, and in July 1952 a second study, conducted under the auspices of the Office of the Chief of Engineers (OCE), determined that nuclear reactors could safely generate electricity. In 1954 the Secretary of Defense authorized the Army and the Corps of Engineers to develop nuclear power plants — the start of the Army Nuclear Power Program. The Corps undertook the effort in partnership with the Atomic Energy Commission, where Nichols was now the general manager, and with the U.S. Navy and Air Force.

To administer the program, the Corps of Engineers established offices within the OCE and at the AEC. Its goal was to build nuclear power plants to supply heat and energy at remote military installations, thereby eliminating the need to ship conventional fuel. Other goals were to increase reliability, minimize crew size, reduce maintenance, and create speedily assembled, transportable power plants. The concept was successfully tested in 1957 with a prototype nuclear reactor at Ft. Belvoir, designated SM-1.

The success of SM-1 prompted the Corps in 1958 to greatly expand the Army Nuclear Power Program, taking on more responsibilities to include research, experiments, design, engineering, and plant operator training for all service branches. The Corps consolidated its management of the program into its U.S. Army Engineer Reactors Group, which continued coordinating with the AEC and other military branches.

The Corps built seven more reactors, and all but one went into service during the life of the Army Nuclear Power Program, which ended in 1976.

Apr. 2017


Visit the other pages of the Army Nuclear Power Program Virtual Exhibit

SM-1 Booties

Exhibit Home

Sturgis Core

Nuclear Power Generation

SM-1 Control Panel

SM-1 Ft. Belvoir


MH-1A Sturgis


Experimental Reactors


Shutdown & Legacy