Nuclear-Anything Makes Me Nervous

Anytime I hear the word “nuclear” attached to a news story, I brace myself for bad news.

Nuclear bad news is the stuff legends are made of.

Like this:  Three-Mile Island, Pennsylvania, 1979:

And this:  Chernobyl, Soviet Union, 1986:

Closer to home, in California we have not one, but two nuclear power plants on the coast:

Both plants sit near or on earthquake faults, and we’re regularly reminded what could happen if…

So when I saw a story about a U.S. Navy nuclear powered submarine, the USS Connecticut, colliding with something…

I took notice.

And as I learned about this event, I was also reminded about the twists and turns a story can take, sometimes without ever getting to the whole truth.

Let’s start with what.

What is the USS Connecticut, is a $3 billion Seawolf-class nuclear powered fast attack submarine:

“Nuclear powered” means it’s powered by a nuclear reactor, as is a nuclear power plant.  The Connecticut was commissioned in 1998, which makes it – and its nuclear reactor – more than 23 years old.

Now let’s move on to when.

According to that October 7 Washington Post article,

“The collision occurred on October 2 but was not disclosed until Thursday [October 7].”

Now let’s move on to where.

A November 4 article on CNN.com said,

“The US Navy has not said exactly where the Connecticut hit the seamount.  Officially, the service says it was in Indo-Pacific waters, but US defense officials had previously told CNN it occurred in the South China Sea.”

Here are Indo-Pacific waters:

Here’s the South China Sea:

Big difference.

The above excerpt references a “seamount,” which is an “underwater mountain formed by volcanic activity,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Here’s an illustration and caption from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution:

“Seamounts are underwater mountains that rise hundreds or thousands of feet from the seafloor.  They are generally extinct volcanoes that, while active, created piles of lava that sometimes break the ocean surface.  In fact, the highest mountain on Earth is actually a seamount – Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano that is more than 30,000 feet tall measured from its base on the seafloor 18,000 feet beneath the surface.”

But earlier on, nobody knew what the hell the Connecticut hit.  The following and several other headlines are from USNI News, the U.S. Naval Institute’s online news and analysis portal:

The article references the submarine hitting “an unknown underwater object.”

Within days, China was accusing the U.S. of a cover-up:

“‘Such irresponsible attitude and stonewalling and cover-up practice only make the international community more suspicious of the US intention and details of the accident,’ said Zhao Lijian, Foreign Ministry spokesman.”

Twenty-five days after the October 2 collision, the Navy still didn’t know – or said it didn’t know – what the Connecticut had hit, and China was still accusing the U.S. of a cover-up:

In the midst of all this, we were advised that up to a dozen sailors were hurt, “minor and ‘moderate’ injuries, the official said, without specifying the extent of them.”

We learned that the Connecticut made it up to the surface, and stayed on the surface while it traveled to Guam for damage assessment.  The damaged submarine’s trip was between 1,300 and 2,500 miles and took about a week.

We were repeatedly assured that there was no damage to the submarine’s nuclear system.

Then, on November 1:

That “uncharted seamount” surprised me – if we’re sending more than 100 people on a $3 billion submarine someplace, I’d assumed the crew would know ahead of time what obstacles it might encounter.

Not so, according to CNN.com:

“In the busy South China Sea, through which a third of the world’s maritime trade passes and where China has been building and militarily fortifying man-made islands, less than 50% of the sea bottom has been mapped, David Sandwell, a professor of geophysics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, told CNN.”

Though on November 13, another possibly was suggested:

So we knew – maybe – when the collision happened, and – maybe – where and what, but there was no vagueness about the who – as in, whose heads were going to roll for this:

“The reliefs are ‘due to loss of confidence.  U.S. 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Karl Thomas determined sound judgement, prudent decision-making, and adherence to required procedures in navigation planning, watch team execution and risk management could have prevented the incident,’ reads a statement from the Navy.”

Vice Admiral Thomas is to be congratulated on his 20/20 hindsight.

I’d like to send his sorry ass into uncharted waters and see how well his “risk management” techniques work out.

In that same November 4 article, China was still expressing its concerns:

“‘We have repeatedly expressed our grave concern over the incident and asked the US side to take a responsible attitude and provide a detailed clarification so as to give a satisfactory account to the international community and countries in the region,’ Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said this week.”

This article concluded with,

USS Connecticut remains in Guam while undergoing damage assessment and will return to Bremerton, Washington for repairs.”

Here’s what we don’t know:

A lot.

Since that November 13 South China Morning Post article suggesting the Connecticut may have hit an oil rig, I’ve found no further updates as to…

  • How the injured sailors are doing.
  • How much damage was done to the submarine.
  • Was there damage to any of the nuclear components.
  • Was/is/could there be a nuclear leak.
  • Can the damage be fixed and if so, what the repairs will cost.
  • When the Connecticut will be back in service.

I did learn something from this November 18 article:

“The US Navy ordered a safety stand-down for the entire submarine force on Wednesday in response to the results of an investigation into an incident last month in the South China Sea.”

A “stand-down” is a period of additional training where crews will be reviewing lessons learned from the USS Connecticut collision as well as the Navy’s existing rules on sound navigation practices.

And this November 18 article…

…announced that the Connecticut had left Guam, but then seemed to walk that back:

“While we can’t say for sure, one definite possibility is that Connecticut is underway now off the coast of Guam, or at least had been for a time, to determine whether it can sail by itself to another base.”

But what I found chilling was this, from a November 18 article in The Diplomat, the “premier international current-affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region”:

Here’s one of those “potential crisis points”:

“…there is the potential danger of nuclear leakage.  The memory of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is still fresh in our minds.  Should a nuclear leak occur in the South China Sea from a nuclear-powered submarine, it will cause irreparable and huge damage to the marine environment of the region, seriously affecting the production and living activities of the countries around and nearby, casting an indelible shadow on regional peace and development.”

Earlier I talked about the twists and turns a story can take, sometimes without ever getting to the whole truth.

I suspect that when it comes to the Connecticut and its past, present and future, we’ll never know…

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