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Nuclear sub fire in Maine reminder that Hawai’i had close calls in the past

June 14, 2012 by  

As Ka’ala Farm begins to recuperate from the recent fire that started on Lualualei Naval Reservation, burned 1200 acres of Wai’anae shrubland, and destroyed irrigation pipe and the traditional hale pili (grass thatched structure), and as Hawai’i braces for the onslaught of RIMPAC, I was reminded of another fire May 23 that nearly destroyed a high tech U.S. submarine in Maine.

Seven people were injured in the blaze aboard the nuclear-powered submarine the USS Miami as it was docked at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine.  The news media reported that “Cause of USS Miami fire narrowed to vacuum” (June 9, 2012):

U.S. Navy investigators said it was not a malfunction within the vacuum cleaner that caused the fire aboard the USS Miami on May 23. Rather, something hot was sucked into a vacuum cleaner that subsequently ignited materials within.

Moreover, the Navy said in statement released Friday, the vacuum cleaner should have been emptied. Navy Public Affairs said shipyards “are directed to empty … vacuum cleaners each shift, or remove them from the ship.”

According to a statement released by the public affairs office at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the fire started with a “heat source” that was vacuumed up, “igniting debris in the vacuum cleaner.”

The Navy estimated the cost of the damage to be $400 million.  Plus,:

The Navy estimated that an additional 10 percent cost — or $40 million more — would be needed to account for disruption to other planned work across all naval shipyards and for potential assistance from private sector contractors, the shipyard said.

A shipyard source told me that the temperature outside the ballast reached more than 400 degrees F, which means that the fire was much hotter inside.  This source said that surely a fire of that  intensity would have damaged the temper of the steel.  This person said that they would not go underwater in the sub.  “It would probably be full of tiny cracks.”

The Navy said that there was never a danger of a meltdown of the sub’s nuclear reactor.   But in light of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, which continues to spew radioactive pollution, should we not be skeptical of such assurances?

Pearl Harbor already has 19 nuclear subs, with 5 more on the way.

In the past, we have had close calls with submarine near nuclear disasters.  In 1960 there was fire aboard the USS Sargo docked in Pearl Harbor.  The captain intentionally sunk the ship to extinguish the fire. A sailor was killed.  Had there been a nuclear reactor meltdown, I dread to think about the consequences.

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