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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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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.


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