19. Memorandum of Discussion at the 244th Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, April 7, 19551

[Here follow a paragraph listing the participants at the meeting and agenda items 1–6.]

7. Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy (NSC 5507/2; NSC Action No. 1358–c; Report to the NSC by the Chairman, AEC, on “An Analysis of Factors Involved in the Installation of a Nuclear Power Reactor in a U.S. Merchant Ship on an Urgent Basis”, dated April 7, 1955)2

After Mr. Dillon Anderson had briefly stated the problem, he called on Admiral Strauss. Admiral Strauss said that before making his report on the reference subject he had some very good news which he would like to pass on to the Council. The AEC would announce today that five concerns or groups of concerns had come to the AEC with firm propositions for erecting five separate nuclear power plants in the United States.3 Together, these business concerns would put up more than $180 million, while the Government would be obliged to put up only something like 5 to 10% of this amount. All this, said Admiral Strauss, was very gratifying.

Admiral Strauss then said that he would give his “story” on the merchant ship reactor, pointing out that the Atomic Energy Commission itself had not yet acted on this project,4 He indicated that it would take approximately 30 months to construct such a merchant ship reactor, and that the best kind of hull to contain it would be a Mariner [Page 66] Type dry cargo hull, although a suitably converted small aircraft carrier might do. The total cost of the project, including the cost of building the dry cargo hull, would amount to $31 million.

While, said Admiral Strauss, proceeding with this project might conceivably have some adverse effects on certain military programs for nuclear propulsion, he did not regard this as a serious obstacle. Moreover, the cost of operation of the vessel after the reactor had been installed would be approximately the same as operating costs using conventional fuels.

The President looked pleased at Admiral Strauss’ report and, turning to the Council, asked whether its members thought this was a good thing to do.

Admiral Strauss thought that he should note one possible psychological drawback. This merchant vessel was supposed to be a showcase of U.S. progress in the peaceful uses of atomic energy. Supposing that the vessel was showing its wares at Liverpool and had orders to proceed to Le Havre, and something happened to the machinery. The repercussions might be very unfortunate.

The President replied that he was not very worried about such possibilities, and while $31 million was “some money”, he believed that, quite apart from the psychological and political advantages of such a ship, we would almost certainly learn a lot of practical value from the construction and operation of such a nuclear-propelled ship.

Admiral Strauss pointed out that this project would need to receive a very high priority from the President if it was to be successfully completed. Mr. Dillon Anderson then suggested to the Council the action on this item which had been proposed by the NSC Planning Board.5

The President said that he agreed with the proposed action, but cautioned that when an announcement of this project was made, care should be taken to put the estimated date of completion a little beyond the time actually estimated for the completion. Admiral Strauss assured the President that a cushion had already been placed in the time estimate for completing and installing this reactor.

Secretary Anderson said that certain questions had been raised by the Departments of the Air Force and the Navy as to the sufficiency of trained technicians to construct this new reactor without undue interference in important military reactor programs which were currently in process. Admiral Strauss replied that he was aware of such possibilities, but was not inclined to regard them with great concern.

Governor Stassen suggested that while a high priority should be assigned to this project, the priority should not be so high as to interfere seriously with other vital military programs.

[Page 67]

The discussion ended with a warm endorsement of this project by the Vice President.

The National Security Council: 6

Noted and discussed the reference report by the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, distributed at the meeting.
Agreed to recommend that the President approve the steps outlined in paragraph 9 of the reference report by the Chairman, AEC; and direct their implementation under the coordination of the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, in collaboration with other interested departments and agencies subject to:
Avoiding any substantially adverse impact on current military programs for nuclear propulsion.
Advising with the Operations Coordinating Board in order to insure that proposed announcements and actions on this project result in maximum psychological advantages to the United States.7
Use of the Mariner type dry cargo hull, rather than the alternate use of a converted aircraft carrier as mentioned in paragraph 9–c of the reference report; and otherwise insuring that the project has no apparent military identification.

Note: The action in b above, as approved by the President, subsequently transmitted to the Chairman, AEC, for appropriate action.

[Here follow the remaining agenda items.]

S. Everett Gleason
  1. Source: Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, NSC Records. Top Secret. Drafted by Gleason.
  2. NSC 5507/2 is printed as Document 14. NSC Action No. 1358–c, March 24, requested the Chairman, AEC, “to submit for early Council consideration a written report analyzing all factors which would be involved in carrying out the proposal contained in paragraph 28 of NSC 5507/2, including the impact upon other atomic energy programs.” (Department of State, S/SNSC Files: Lot 66 D 95, NSC Actions) Strauss’ report to the NSC, dated April 7, has not been found in Department of State files.
  3. Not further identified.
  4. At the NSC meeting of March 24, Strauss reported negatively on the merchant ship reactor, saying it would cost $12 million, take 2 years to design a suitable reactor by which time the atoms-for-peace program would be so far advanced as to have no marked psychological impact, and the two U.S. companies best able to build such a reactor would have to abandon other high-priority defense projects. The President seemed reluctant to accept Strauss’ recommendation, but Cutler, then others, argued that it might be possible to use the prototype reactor developed to design the propulsion unit for the USS Nautilus. Accordingly, Strauss was asked to bring in a written report analyzing the various factors involved so that the NSC could make a rational decision. (Memorandum of discussion; Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, NSC Records)
  5. Not further identified.
  6. Paragraphs a–b and the Note that follow constitute NSC Action No. 1377, approved by the President on April 7, 1955. (Department of State, S/SNSC (Miscellaneous) Files: Lot 66 D 95, NSC Actions)
  7. President Eisenhower first announced publicly the administration’s proposed plans for a merchant ship powered by an atomic reactor in his speech at the Annual Luncheon of the Associated Press in New York on April 15, and he elaborated on the origins of the proposal in his news conference on April 27. See Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1955, pp. 417–418 and 434–435.