Thorner: Thresher disaster, its aftermath, and how Illinois stacks up enegywise(Part 2)

September 1, 2013

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Thorner: Thresher disaster, its aftermath, and how Illinois stacks up (Part 2)

ThornerBy Nancy Thorner – 

Continuation:  Lecture by Thomas V. Banfield, Retired Commander U.S. Navy and Nuclear Submariner at the Garlands in Barrington Hills on Monday, August 26, presented by the Barrington History Museum.

The nuclear sub,Thresher, entered Portsmouth Shipyard in New Hampshire on July 16, 1962, to begin a scheduled 6-month, “post-shakedown availability” to examine systems and make repairs and corrections as necessary. As is typical with a first-of-class boat, the work took longer than expected, lasting nearly 9 months. The ship was finally re-certified and undocked on April 8, 1963

On April 9th,1963, the Thresher headed out to sea under the command of Lieutenant Commander John W. Harvey, U.S. Navy to perform a schedule of required tests. The Thresher completed her initial submerged shake down test in salvageable water on the same day.

About the Thresher (SSN 593):

  • It was the most advanced attack submarine of its time and the first submarine of its class.
  • It was faster and quieter than any submarine ever built.
  • It was able to dive deeper than any submarine in the world.
  • It was considered the most advanced weapons system of its day, created specifically to seek out and destroy Soviet submarines.
  • Its new sonar was able to detect other submarines and ships at greater range.
  • Its design was sufficiently advanced for the Navy to wish to build 14 additional Thresher submarines.
  • It was shock tested and withstood this depth-charging in a manner far superior to that of any submarine the Navy had previously tested.  It had been at or near her test depth at last 50 times.  It had received more shock tests than any other submarine in service

The next day, April 10, 1963, the USS Thresher sank with 129 men on board during a deep test dive of 1,300 feet about 200 miles off the northeast coast of the U.S where the depth of the ocean was 8400 feet. Its last message: “Experiencing minor problem. Have positive angle. Attempting to blow.”

Among Banfield’s friends who died on that fateful day were Lt. Robert D. Biederman and Lt. Pat Garner.

The Trieste, a deep submarine vehicle, was in San Diego at the time, requiring it to go through the Panama Canal to reach the site where the Thresher had sunk.  Six major sections of the Thresher were found on the ocean floor in a 400 foot square area.  A sure sign that the wreckage was of the Thresher was the recovery of its brass tag, SSN 593.

The Navy Court of Inquiry found that flooding probably occurred because of a rupture of a brazed joint in the seawater cooling system in the engine room.  Dense seawater spray brought about the loss of electrical power and with it the ultimate flooding of the engine room. Thresher tried to blow the main ballast tanks to return to the surface, but the expansion of the high pressure air caused ice to form, blocking the valves preventing the blowing of the ballast, as the Thresher began to sink.

What did Admiral Rickover have to say when asked what really happened?  “I don’t know.”

Rickover did insist that everything be looked at that could have attributed to the Thresher’s loss.  Rickover thought it important to re-evaluate present practices, where in the desire to make advancements, we may have forsaken the fundamentals of good engineering.

In a hearing before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Banfield shared what Rickover had to say about responsibility, a concept Rickover took seriously:

Responsibility is a unique concept:  it can only reside and inhere in a single individual.  You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished.  You may delegate it, but it is still with you.  Even if you do not recognize it or admit its presence, you cannot escape it.  If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion, or ignorance or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else.  Unless you can point your finger at the man who is responsible when something goes wrong, then you have never had anyone really responsible.

SUBSAFE program established.  The USS Skate was the first nuclear sub to complete the SUBSAFE conversion and certification program.  The conversion took over 2 years.  Before SUBSAFE, on the average of every three years, a submarine was lost for non-combat reasons, 16 all total.  Since SUBSAFE  began in 1963, only one submarine, the non-SUBSAFE-certified USS Scorpion (SSN -589) has been lost.

Tom Banfield had little to say about the USS Scorpion loss.  The USS Scorpion was declared lost on June 5, 1968, with 99 crewmen dying in the incident.  The Scorpion and its crew simply vanished in the Atlantic, failing to return home to its home port in Norfolk, Virginia.  There are theories only of what may have happened.

Revealed about Rickover is that he personally selected every officer candidate who came into the nuclear submarine program.  Before Rickover ever saw a candidate, the candidate had undergone three other interviews.

Rickover would test candidates to make sure they could operate under pressure.  He is known to have cut off the front legs of a chair, polishing the seat, so candidates would slip off the chair while attempting to ask questions.

Initially, the Atomic Energy Commission wanted civilian engineers to run the nuclear reactors.  Rickover convinced Congress, however, that he would personally devise the training curriculum –  a 6 month program to train Navy personnel to run reactors safely.

General Dynamics Electric Boat, Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock company and others are under contract to build new nuclear subs.  Others submarines are in the planning stage, not yet contracted, and still others are under construction with launching dates set for 2013 and upward.

According to Tom Banfield, the U.S. now has 53 attack, 14 ballistic missile, and 4 guided missile nuclear submarines.  When questioned how fast a submarine can travel, Banfield said top speed was in excess of 20 knots, but speeds over 20 knots are classified.

Disconcerting is the retirement of nuclear reactors here in the U.S., even those that are running well, bringing the number remaining in the U.S. to 100.  Recent news of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant’s planned shutdown surprised both environmentalists and businesses.

Illinois has 11 operating nuclear power reactors at six sites in the state operated by Exelon Corporation.  Many of them were built in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but will their licenses to operate continue to be renewed when they come due?

The NRC issues licenses that allow nuclear power plants to operate for up to 40 years.  Plants are allowed to continue operation for an additional 20 years beyond the original 40-year period if licensees prove that there are appropriate aging-related programs in place to assure safe operation throughout this period.  With proper upkeep a nuclear plant can operate safely up to 100 years and beyond.

Also problematic in Illinois is the war on coal to fuel power plants which is being waged at the national level since CO2 was declared a pollutant by the EPA, resulting in a mandate to regulate coal plant emissions.  The Midwest Generation coal-fired plant located in Waukegan, IL is predictably under fire by the Sierra Club with its “Beyond Coal” campaign.

But what lies beyond nuclear energy and coal?  Gas is making inroads, but it is folly to believe that this nation’s insatiable need for power, which will only increase in future years, can be supplied in any measurable amount by moonbeams and wind!  Here in Illinois, by law, 25 percent of Illinois’s electricity must come from wind, solar and other renewable resources by 2025.  This is just a pipe dream!–20120531_1_renewable-energy-wind-and-solar-developers-renewable-portfolio-standard

The Japanese Fukushima disaster of nuclear reactors caused countries to once again become skittish over the role of nuclear energy as a clean, green, viable source of power giving the biggest bang for the buck.  For those who doubt the role of nuclear power as a valuable, safe source of power now and in the future, please consider the statement of Admiral F. L. “Skip” Bowman, U.S. Navy Director, Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program before the House Committee on Science on October 29, 2003:

These core values … are the foundation that allowed our nuclear-powered ships to safely steam more than 128 million miles, equivalent to over 5,000 trips around the Earth . . . without a reactor accident . . . indeed, with no measurable negative impact on the environment or human health.

Part 1:

Sunday, September 01, 2013 at 01:45 PM | Permalink



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