Thorner: At sea with Admiral Rickover and the loss of the nuclear sub, USS Thresher (Part 1)

September 1, 2013

Friday, August 30, 2013

Thorner: At sea with Admiral Rickover and the loss of the nuclear sub, USS Thresher

Thomas V. Banfield | Source: Nancy Thorner

By Nancy Thorner – 

On August 26 the Barrington History Museum in Lake County presented a lecture by Thomas V. Banfield, Retired Commander U.S. Navy and Nuclear Submariner, at the Garlands Performing Arts Center in Barrington, Illinois. Commander Banfield (retired) spoke about the U.S. nuclear submarine program under Admiral Rickover and the tragic loss of the USS Thresher 50 years ago. Many historians believour nuclear subs were a major factor in avoiding WWIII.

There is so much disinformation now days about the role of nuclear as an Energy Source, yet the Navy has been involved with Nuclear Powered Submarines, Aircraft Carriers and Destroyers even as the civilian nuclear power plants were being built almost contemporaneously with the Navy reactors, starting with Shippingport 1957-1958; later Indian Point 1, 1962; and Big Rock Point, 1962, the Nation’s 5th. Notable is that there were no nuclear submarine reactor failures in the Navy’s history.

Admiral Rickover is known as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” Although he was a man worthy of great admiration given his many accomplishments, it was not because of his management style. Rickover often behaved in a despicable manner. He had little tolerance for mediocrity and even less for stupidity.

Born in 1900, Rickover died in 1986.  Rickover put in 63 years of active duty.  No one before or since Rickover has served so long.  Rickover was forced to retire at age 82 by the Secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan.  Quirks:  Not only did Rickover always wore civilian clothing, but he also flew coach to save the Government money.

On June 2, 1922 Rickover graduated 107th out of 540 Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy and was commissioned as an Ensign.  Promoted from Captain to Rear Admiral in 1958, Rickover served 36 years of active duty before making the rank of Admiral.

It helped that Congress loved Rickover.  He told Congress the whole story at hearings, not afraid of saying anything.  When the acting Secretary of the Navy refused to give Rickover the title of Admiral, it fell to the Senate as the body in charge of flag rank promotions.  The Senate, in checking over the list of promotions and not finding Rickover’s name on the list, asked why Rickover’s name wasn’t there, where upon the Department of Navy was told by the Senate that either Rickover’s name was put on the list for promotion to Admiral or the Senate wouldn’t look at next year’s list.

The speaker, retired Commander Tom Banfield, first served on a diesel submarine, on which he earned his Dolphins which stipulated that Banfield knew how to operate everything on that submarine.  He then served on the USS Skate (SSN-578). About the Skate:  It was the third nuclear submarine commissioned by the U.S. Navy, the first to make a completely submerged trans-Atlantic crossing, and the first to surface at the North Pole.

At Sea with Rickover:  Rickover was always on board for the first sea trial of a submarine (Over 200 were built during his 63-year tour of active duty), he did special performance evaluations, and he went on board when something was to be done on a submarine that would require his attention.

Tom Banfield went to sea with Rickover three times.  In Dec., 1962, Banfield was on board the Skate for a full ship shock test which was required for the first ship of each class.  The explosive charges set off in shock tests result in huge noises inside the pressure hull of submarines.

Each shock of the Skate resulted in a multitude of incidents of minor damage or malfunctions. The major incidents were:

1.  Failure of seawater piping causing minor flooding.   One or two failures happened per shock.

2.  Main circuit breakers opened causing the reactor to shut down and the loss of propulsion, lighting and air conditioning.

Concerning the Skate’s performance, Rickover was angry.  He wanted to prove that the reactor would not be affected by shocks.

Regarding the piping failures, the copper pipes failed at their joints.  Silver brazing repair was done with a filler rod of a copper silver alloy applied to the pipe.  The main problem with silver brazing was that it was difficult to do in cramped quarters.  Also, in the early 60’s there was no good way to prove the integrity of the joint after the brazing was done.

The commander of the Skate, hesitant about going forward with other shock tests, called Rickover on the phone telling Rickover that it did not seem wise or worthwhile to complete the final Thresher shock test.  To which Rickover replied:  “You’re a bunch of scaredey cats.  I’m coming aboard.”

Banfield’s first encounter at sea with Rickover:  Rickover barked to the Skate commander, “Who’s your electrical officer.  Get him in here!”   Banfield was told by Rickover that the last shock of the Thresher will be done, and that he was going to see to it that no circuit breakers would open.

Tom Banfield had no idea how to accomplish Rickover’s order.  Despite an anti-shock open devise, some of the circuit breakers were still opening.

What Banfield devised was a wooden wedge that could be tapped into place to keep circuit breakers from opening.  Sailors stationed in front of each switch field station were ordered to open the switches manually if required.

The idea worked well and the last Skate shock was a success. The circuit breakers didn’t open; furthermore, the nuclear reactor kept running with no failure of any of its components.  There were, however, two more failures of silver brazed joints.

With this success, Rickover had lunch on the submarine and ordered a helicopter.  The story was told by Banfield that Rickover was nervous about the helicopter transfer.  Rickover wanted to sit on the sling for the helicopter transfer from the submarine instead of having it placed securely around him.  Rickover was heard to remark:  “Take me up.”  It was joked that when it was time for Rickover to leave this Earth he would say, “I’m ready, take me up.”

When Rickover returned to Washington, D.C. he ordered that all silver brazed pipe joints be replaced with welded joints.  Much to the dismay of Rickover, the Bureau of Ships denied his request.

While the Thresher was in port at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, on July 16, 1962, for its last overhaul, as all Navy ships do after a shakedown, Rickover did have his way at least in so far as having all joints within the reactor compartment (his area of responsibility) replaced with welded joints.  At the time the Thresher’s anticipated repairs were in no way cause for any particular concern.   Of note, however, was that the Thresher did have over 3,000 silver brazed joints.

PART 2: The Thresher disaster, its aftermath, and lessons learned from the Navy about the safety and reliability of nuclear energy here in Illinois and worldwide, which calls for its continued use despite disasters like Fukushima.

Friday, August 30, 2013 at 03:17 PM | Permalink

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