Flame wars

I was stationed on an old submarine – at the time we took it into the shipyard for decommissioning it was one of the half-dozen oldest nuclear submarines in the world. It was creaky, things stuck or broke, it was sometimes temperamental – come to think of it, pretty much the way my body is starting to act now that I’m eligible for membership in the AARP…. And along with everything else we had fires onboard – in my three years we had three that were potentially serious and more than a dozen that weren’t. But of the 20 (plus or minus) fires we had during my tenure – even the potentially serious ones – there was not a single fire that endangered the reactor, that had us in fear for our lives, or that placed any nuclear weapons we might (or might not) have carried in harm’s way. The fires were not routine by any stretch of the imagination and we took every one of them seriously – but neither were they unexpected. They were simply a part of life at sea.

When you think about it this shouldn’t be surprising. We had – in one relatively confined space – high-temperature steam, high-temperature equipment (some of it turning at thousands of RPM), scads of high-voltage and high-amperage electrical equipment, and miles of electrical wiring. All of these potential ignition sources were in fairly intimate proximity with all sorts of flammable materials – lubricating oil, fuel oil, weapons, pyrotechnics (flares, for example), and so forth. And, of course, the paper that we had to bring along with us – God forbid a warship should go to sea without several tons of paperwork, and all of it was flammable. So – high temperatures, high-energy electrical systems, and flammable materials in close proximity – of course we had fires, and I’d have been surprised if we didn’t! But – again – there was not a single one of them that ever placed the boat at risk. In fact, the typical “fire” that we responded to was most likely to consist of an acrid smell and possibly light smoke around an electrical panel – no flames per se, but enough to warrant going through the whole fire routine, including shifting the electrical power plant around, opening circuit breakers, breaking out the fire extinguishers, and (of course) reporting it to Naval Reactors.

So, given all of this, imagine my reaction at reading about the furor that has erupted in the United Kingdom with a recent report of a number of fires aboard British ballistic missile submarines (what we called “boomers”) over the last several years – 74 fires on boomers and 266 on all submarines over the last quarter-century. British politicians are calling for investigations while Scottish politicians are using this report as a pretext for pushing to have the boomers moved to non-Scottish ports – even when the report itself plainly notes that the fires aboard the British boats are not much different than those on mine – a lot of incidents of light smoke or an acrid smell, a very few incidents of actual flames, and not a single case in which nuclear reactors or weapons were put at risk. In fact, the report itself notes that 243 of these fires were small-scale, leaving about 1 larger fire per year across the entire British submarine fleet.

Part of what’s happening, of course, is that the Brits – like us – report everything that happens that’s even a little bit untoward. So light smoke and an acrid smell – something that I get from my toaster every so often – gets reported as a fire. In a sense, the British submarine force is being victimized by its very attention to quality – by tracking everything that’s even the slightest bit out of the ordinary the Brits get a great feel for conditions in their submarine fleet and how they can be improved, but they leave themselves open for criticism when these reports are perused by those who don’t understand what they say – or who deliberately mis-represent them.

And this latter part is possibly even more relevant – as near as I can tell there are only two possible explanations for the political furor these reports have engendered. One possibility is that the politicians and others reading the reports simply haven’t read them carefully and just don’t understand what is significant and what is not. The other possibility is that those raising a stink know exactly what is happening and they are deliberately misleading the public to make political points. I’m not sure if I prefer ignorance or dishonesty in a politician – both have their drawbacks – but I don’t see any other likely possibilities. And I know I shouldn’t be surprised at the politicians – these traits are both part and parcel of the political process – but I certainly hope that, in a nation with so long and proud a naval history, there are some of the public who can see through the political posturing and who realize that submarines are still among the safest of the world’s warships.

Finally, although I’d like to think that it goes without saying, I should probably say it anyhow – there is no way to pretend that a fire on a submarine is a good thing or that it is even something to be blasé about! Any fire at sea – even a little bitty electrical fire – has got to be treated seriously. That’s why we sounded the alarm, why we sent damage control teams to respond, and why we reported even the slightest thing to Naval Reactors. We knew that the vast majority of fires we were going to face would likely come to nothing – but we also knew that there would be no warning before something major struck. We treated every fire seriously because we had to assume it could threaten our lives until we could prove otherwise. It’s easy to be blasé today about all of the little fires we had on my submarine – but that’s only because I know today that they were minor. At the time, every puff of smoke got my heart racing, and I’m willing to bet that my shipmates felt the same way.

The conclusions that I draw from this are that British submarines are pretty much like American boats, that both nations’ naval nuclear propulsion programs are among the safest in the world (the US has lost only 2 nuclear subs and the Brits none that I know of), and that politicians in both nations are remarkably resistant to facts when a report comes out that serves their political purposes.

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  1. FAS blogger puts last week’s report on submarines fires in context « Maritime Security Challenges 2012 - July 16, 2012

    [...] ScienceWonk blog from the Federation of American Scientists has a great little piece commenting on a report that appeared in the British press last week about the number of fires that [...]

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