Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2021-2022
USS Connecticut Smashes into Undersea Mountain
US Navy officials report that its nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut struck an underwater mountain in the South China Sea on October 2, echoing the disastrous crash of the USS San Francisco in 2005 south of Guam. US military officials told CBS News that two Connecticut crew members suffered “moderate” injuries and several sustained minor bumps and bruises. The Navy said the sub’s nuclear reactor was not damaged.
A month after the crash, Connecticut’s three top officers were fired “due to loss of confidence.” As we go to press, the Pentagon had not yet explained why the 23-year-old Connecticut struck an underwater mountain, or revealed the extent of damage to the vessel. China’s government has accused the US of a “lack of transparency and responsibility” regarding the accident. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said November 2, “We once again urge the US to give a detailed account of the accident,” the AP reported.
Some 52 US conventional diesel-powered Navy submarines were lost at sea during WWII, according to The Lost 52 Project. Beginning with the USS Nautilus in 1951, the submariners’ risk-taking with their own lives and with the ocean’s biological integrity was compounded by the switch to nuclear reactors for propulsion.
300-Year Oceanic Hazard
The Aug. 25, 2000 New York Times report about long-lived radioactive materials leaking from sunken nuclear reactors (then onboard the Russian sub Kursk), noted a fact that applies to all the lost reactors: “The two of most concern — strontium-90 and cesium-137 — have half-lives of about 30 years, and will take about 300 years to decay away.”
USS Thresher was a nuclear-powered attack submarine that sank on April 10, 1963 during deep-diving tests, killing all 129 crew and shipyard workers onboard. Thresher was the third of four submarines that would sink with more than 100 people aboard.
The nuclear-powered submarine Scorpion sank with all hands on May 22, 1968. The Scorpion was one of four submarine disappearances that year, the others being Israel’s sub Dakar, France’s sub Minerve, and the Soviet sub K-129.“Neither vessels’ reactors [on the Thresher and Scorpion], nor the nuclear weapons on board the Scorpion, have ever been recovered,” the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported Sept. 17, 2021.
Forty-two crew members died when the experimental Soviet sub Komsomolets sank 5,577 feet to the bottom of the Norwegian Sea following a five-hour-long onboard fire April 7, 1989. While part of the crew abandoned ship in rubber rafts, some of the crew stayed on fighting the fire and shutting down the sub’s nuclear reactors. Researchers said July 10, 2019, that the sub is still emitting radiation, Reuters reported.
In August 2000, after explosions destroyed forward parts of the sub, Russia’s nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed Kursk sank in the Barents Sea, only 354 feet down. All 118 crew members died after the failure of repeated rescue attempts.
On May 12, 2000, the British fast-attack submarine Tireless suffered reactor accident, spilled radioactive coolant into the Mediterranean, and conducted a lengthy, risky, experimental, and unlawful repair operation in the densely populated area of Gibraltar. News reports at the time said Tireless came within “a few minutes” of a reactor meltdown when high-pressure coolant began gushing out of the system. Docking the damaged, contaminated sub at Gibraltar for six months of repair work violated Royal Navy regulations, and reactor failure resulted in the recall of all 12 of Britain’s Trafalgar Class subs.
Nine crew members died when the Russian submarine K-159 sank in 2003 while being towed through a violent storm in the Barents Sea. Environmentalists said that the danger of radioactive contamination from the sub’s two propulsion reactors was “much higher than official statements suggested.”
USS San Francisco
On Jan. 8, 2005, the nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine San Francisco, running at top speed, smashed into an undersea mountain 500 feet down, killing one sailor and leaving 98 battered and bloodied after being hurled through the air by the crash. Several were knocked unconscious and many were bleeding from head wounds. After the crash, “blood was everywhere,” one account read. “There was so much blood on the instruments and on the control room floor,” Chief Petty Officer Danny Hager said, “that the place looked like a slaughterhouse.”
HMS Vanguard and Le Triomphant
On the night of Feb. 3, 2009, France’s Le Triomphant, and Britain’s HMS Vanguard, both carrying nuclear weapons, collided while submerged in the Atlantic. Both vessels were damaged although the 250 crew members aboard were uninjured, the New York Times reported. All nuclear-armed subs are shrouded in extreme secrecy, so very little is known about the extent of the damage, but Kate Hudson, chairwoman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said then the collision “could have released vast amounts of radiation and scattered scores of nuclear warheads across the seabed.”
On July 1, 2019, fourteen Russian sailors were killed by toxic fumes when a fire broke out aboard the nuclear-powered research submarine Losharik which was operating in the Arctic. —JL