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A collision in the Atlantic with a French sub left Britain's HMS Vanguard, pictured here, badly damaged. The sub has since been tugged back to port.  (Source: BBC/PA)
Collision leaves two nuclear-armed subs badly damaged

The HMS Vanguard of Britain's Royal Navy and Le Triomphant of France's Navy, both nuclear subs, collided earlier this month and sustained heavy damage.  While both countries assure there's no danger of a nuclear threat, both subs are key parts of their respective country's nuclear arsenal and are presumed to have been carrying a full complement of nuclear warheads.

The crash occurred in the middle of the Atlantic at an undisclosed date earlier in the month.  First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathon Band said the collision was at low speed and while the damage was heavy, no injuries were reported.  The British vessel had to be towed back to port and featured "very visible dents and scrapes" according to British officials.

The irony of the collision was that it perhaps proved that the countries' respective anti-sonar technologies were working as planned.  Neither nuclear sub could see the other, despite the fact that both were equipped with sonar.  And the seemingly rare chance crossing of the sub's paths occurred, and thus led to a collision.  States BBC's Caroline Wyatt, "This is clearly a one-in-a-million chance when you think about how big the Atlantic is. It is actually unbelievable that something happened."

French officials describe their sub's damage from the incident stating, "The sonar dome, at the front, was damaged. This incident did not cause any injuries among the crew and did not threaten the nuclear security at any time.  The submarine came back by its own means to L'Ile Longue, escorted by a frigate, as it is the usual practice when leaving or coming back."

While the collision seems like a highly improbable occurrence, it may actually be more likely than some suspect.  According to British nuclear engineer John Large, both countries prefer deep waters a certain distance off their coasts to patrol in.  Given the geography of Britain and France, these deep waters feature significant overlap.

States Mr. Large, "Both navies want quiet areas, deep areas, roughly the same distance from their home ports. So you find these station grounds have got quite a few submarines, not only French and Royal Navy but also from Russia and the United States."

In Britain, the Liberal Democrat spokesman Nick Harvey praised the Royal Navy and its response stating, "While the British nuclear fleet has a good safety record, if there were ever to be a bang it would be a mighty big one.  Now that this incident is public knowledge, the people of Britain, France and the rest of the world need to be reassured this can never happen again and that lessons are being learned."

However, Scottish National Party officials blasted the error, stating, "The Ministry of Defence needs to explain how it is possible for a submarine carrying weapons of mass destruction to collide with another submarine carrying weapons of mass destruction in the middle of the world's second-largest ocean."

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament also jumped aboard the criticism boat, stating, "The collision of two submarines, both with nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons onboard, could have released vast amounts of radiation and scattered scores of nuclear warheads across the seabed."



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Here we go
By mdogs444 on 2/16/2009 9:14:10 AM , Rating: 0
quote:
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament also jumped aboard the criticism boat, stating, "The collision of two submarines, both with nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons on board, could have released vast amounts of radiation and scattered scores of nuclear warheads across the seabed."

Lets see which environmentalist is the first to cite this above paragraph, coupled with the asinine comparisons of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl as the reasons we should not promote Nuclear Power across the country....




RE: Here we go
By meepstone on 2/16/2009 9:45:56 AM , Rating: 2
While im sure every environmentalist that has nothing better to do with their time will pick up on this story. I am under the impression that the nuclear warheads will not detonate unless armed and set off on purpose. So if both crashed into each other even at full speed there would be 0 chance of a blast. or am i wrong?


RE: Here we go
By Bateluer on 2/16/2009 9:51:38 AM , Rating: 4
Correct, there is ZERO chance of a nuclear detonation. Worst case scenario, both vessels would be lost with all hands and their nuclear arsenal and reactors would be sitting on the bottom of the ocean, awaiting recovery if possible.

I might be wrong about this, but isn't the reactor from the USS Thresher still sitting on the ocean floor because its down too deep for recovery?


RE: Here we go
By 9nails on 2/16/2009 10:39:05 AM , Rating: 2
Nuclear detonation is less probable. But nuclear radiation exposure and sickness is still likely. There isn't any vibration dampening to isolate and protect nuclear power plants and warheads from cracking and crushing during collisions. Jolted around, these things can be damaged and radiate the compartments they're in. If significantly shifted, such as in a collisions with another sub or the sea floor, we have reason to worry for the men's health and the health of the ocean's creatures during these peaceful times.

It might be time to consider some form of vision system to aid in reducing further improbable collisions.


RE: Here we go
By masher2 (blog) on 2/16/2009 10:57:05 AM , Rating: 5
> "There isn't any vibration dampening to isolate and protect nuclear power plants and warheads from cracking and crushing during collisions"

Boomers only move at about 25 mph and they (I believe) nearly always cruise much slower. A 'crash' doesn't cause much accelerative forces, compared to what a warhead has to withstand during the boost phase on its ICBM carrier.

Similarly, the reactor itself has an enormously strong containment structure, built to withstand the much higher pressures of the nuclear reaction inside. You might get a little low-level leakage from a coolant pipe or something, but not an actual release of core contents.

Worrying about the "health of the men" inside is silly. Any collision that could jeopardize the reactor would breach the hull, almost a near-certain death sentence.

As for a 'vision system', see my previous post as to why this isn't practical.


RE: Here we go
By djc208 on 2/17/2009 8:57:52 AM , Rating: 3
Um, this is a WAR machine. They are built to operate under extremely demanding conditions, such as actual enemy attack. So asside from the extremely high safty factor engineered into them because they are nuclear reactors, they are usually even more heavily designed in order to allow them to survive wartime conditions, such as enemy attack.

I'd be surprised if the reactor even SCRAMed from the collision. Wouldn't be much of a war machine if the power went out the minute you had any trouble. Remember the US fast attack sub than ran into the underwater mountain? That was much more severe than this collision and the reactor was fine.

As for the health of the men and the oceans creatures well significant radiation leakage would only be a concern if you had issues with the fuel cladding that released core material into the reactor compartment, which is a VERY unlikely event, and even then the shielding in the RC is such that a sailor on a nuclear submarine recieves less exposure during a tour than you do on the surface in that same time period. Remember these vessels can set peir side while critical and people can walk all over the topside of the ship with no special requirements.

As for sea life, there is still the shielding provided by the hull. If the boat is on the bottom part of that radiation is facing toward the sea floor. As for the rest well water is a wonderful radiation barrier. The 10th value is about 24". So the sea life on the hull might see higher levels but fish in normal habitable zones wouldn't be affected. Again, this is all assuming actual leakage of the core material, which is extremely unlikely. Otherwise the reactor would SCRAM and you'd be left with the much lower shutdown radiation levels outside the hull.


RE: Here we go
By mmatis on 2/16/2009 3:10:55 PM , Rating: 3
Actually, I heard that Bill Gates funded a clandestine salvage operation to retrieve it, and uses it regularly to keep Balmer at optimum operating temperature. He also has it rigged to go critical if Linux ever goes over 30% share. Not sure on the rumor for what he'd do with it in case of judicially-directed breakup of his monopoly.
}:-]


RE: Here we go
By Shadowself on 2/16/2009 9:53:20 AM , Rating: 3
As an ex-nuke I can say with some certainty that while the chance of a nuke going off due to such an accident is not exactly zero, it is so close to zero that any form of rounding of the number gets you effectively to a zero chance.


RE: Here we go
By voyager2084 on 2/16/2009 10:08:23 AM , Rating: 4
Couldn't one argue the same concerning the probability of this event? I mean, two nuclear subs in the middle of the Atlantic could never crash into each other. The ocean is just so big and the subs aren't. Well, they could, but the probability of it happening is so low that... nevermind.

That said, I'm not worried about any nukes going off in an accident like this.


RE: Here we go
By masher2 (blog) on 2/16/2009 10:27:11 AM , Rating: 2
> "Couldn't one argue the same concerning the probability of this event? "

No. Subs tend to patrol the same depths and sea lanes. This collision really isn't all that unlikely.

Furthermore, the chance of a collision -- even one at 10 times the speed these 25 mph boats can manage -- causing a detonation isn't just "very low", its infinitesimal. Even if it did occur, it would be a 'fizzle', 1/50 power or so, rather than the full detonation a boosted-fission device would normally experience.

Finally, even if a warhead did explode -- so what? Deep underwater, there wouldn't be any fallout. You'd kill some fish, but within a few days or weeks at the most, currents would bring down water radioactivity levels back to background levels. The risk to us on the surface would be zero. The most that would happen is fishing in the region might have to be suspended temporarily.


RE: Here we go
By voyager2084 on 2/16/2009 10:50:45 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
This collision really isn't all that unlikely.


The first nuclear sub was launched in the mid 1950's. This is the first collision of a nuclear sub with any other sub that I am aware of, nuclear or otherwise. To say then, that this collision isn't unlikely is wrong. Once in 54 years makes it a pretty unlikely event, especially when submarine crews actively try to prevent things like this, but it did happen.

quote:
Furthermore, the chance of a collision -- even one at 10 times the speed these 25 mph boats can manage -- causing a detonation isn't just "very low", its infinitesimal. Even if it did occur, it would be a 'fizzle', 1/50 power or so, rather than the full detonation a boosted-fission device would normally experience.


I agree completely with almost everything you said. Before today, I would have argued that two nuclear subs colliding in the Atlantic would have had an infinitesimal probability.
In saying that the probability of a nuke going off is infinitesimal, you are implying that it could never happen. In fact, it may never happen, but it could.

quote:
Finally, even if a warhead did explode -- so what? Deep underwater, there wouldn't be any fallout. You'd kill some fish, but within a few days or weeks at the most, currents would bring down water radioactivity levels back to background levels. The risk to us on the surface would be zero. The most that would happen is fishing in the region might have to be suspended temporarily.


I agree completely. My original post only concerned the likelihood of this event, not the dangers of the event.


RE: Here we go
By masher2 (blog) on 2/16/2009 11:08:15 AM , Rating: 2
> "Once in 54 years makes it a pretty unlikely event"

France has only had nuclear submarines since the 1990s. During the Cold War, the US and Soviets tended to patrol differing routes (except in a few isolated areas like the Giuk Gap). Furthermore, we haven't had submarines quiet enough to not be heard at close range since about the 1980s or so.

Also, let me clarify what I mean about what the word "unlikely" means in accidental nuclear detonation. It means an event so improbable as to require a page full of zeros to even write down -- much less likely than you striking an expensive, fragile Swiss watch with a large hammer, and having it keep *better* time afterwards. Compared to that, having two subs collide in a commonly used sea lane is indeed, "not that unlikely".


RE: Here we go
By Duwelon on 2/16/2009 11:10:38 AM , Rating: 3
The way nukes, at least American ones are made, are not at all like a stick of dynamite with a fuse next to a flame, where a simple shake could theoretically make the flame connect to the fuse and cause it to explode.

Rather, nukes are armed first and then detonated via a process much more complex then bridging two metal contacts together to close a circuit.


RE: Here we go
By bobny1 on 2/16/09, Rating: 0
RE: Here we go
By rudolphna on 2/16/2009 4:42:21 PM , Rating: 2
Hah, they can far exceed 25mph. That is just as fast as they can tell us. You know what they say, greater than 800 feet and greater than 25 knots. Nobody except those in the navy know the exact figures, but Im willing to put my guesses, for nearly all navies around the world with modern subs, somewhere around 1200 feet and 35 knots. I could be way off, and maybe it IS 800ft and 25k, we will never know.


RE: Here we go
By masher2 (blog) on 2/16/2009 6:05:49 PM , Rating: 2
> "I could be way off, and maybe it IS 800ft and 25k, we will never know. "

While you're right that we will never know, I find it extremely unlikely that boomers are constructed to reach speeds of 35 knots. Unlike an attack sub, there really is little advantage for them to move so fast, but there are a substantial number of engineering tradeoffs to be made in designing for a speed that high, not to mention the enormous sonar signature they would have when moving that fast.


RE: Here we go
By Jim28 on 2/17/2009 1:29:39 PM , Rating: 1
There is always an advantage to having a faster ship, provided it doesn't compromise stealth at slower speeds. In fact the faster your "stealth" speed, the happier you are. Also in the event the but is discovered and attacked stealth is less important than surviaval. Survival being to run up to flank speed to outrun incoming torpedoes, while sending some of your own to give your adversery some company. The faster flank speed is, the better your odds are of avoiding the torpedo by moving out of range.


RE: Here we go
By lemonadesoda on 2/16/2009 3:44:40 PM , Rating: 1
quote:
and scattered scores of nuclear warheads across the seabed

Nuclear contamination is not the primary issue here, but nuclear and tech security is. Ships/u-boats and their flotsam lost at sea in international waters, or indeed territorial waters, are subject to marine salvage law which can be very embarrasing for the "superpower" that just lost their technology to the nearest salvage operation from a potential "unfriendly".


RE: Here we go
By Felofasofa on 2/16/2009 11:29:38 PM , Rating: 2
Glomesh Explorer, CIA salvage boat, which featured in marine docos during the 80's. Is this thing still about?


RE: Here we go
By Felofasofa on 2/16/2009 11:41:07 PM , Rating: 2
Sorry it's the Glomar Explorer, - confusing french hand-bags with cold war trickery.


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