Tales from the Silent Service • The Nuclear Submarine Graveyard
Back in the day when diesel-electric powered submarines outlived their usefulness and were decommissioned their corpses were scrapped via traditional means and the steel sold off to be recycled into hand-tools, razor blades, and the like. However, that circumstance is more problematic in the case of present-day nuclear-powered submarines because their very classification of “nuclear” poses stringent legal and environmental criteria. Consequently, nuclear boats that reach the end of their service expectancy are processed through the Ship/Submarine Recycling Program (SRP) at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNS) at Bremerton, Washington. Prior to the start of SRP nuclear fuel must be removed from the reactor vessel and that typically coincides with the decommissioning of the submarine. Upon decommissioning the submarine is stripped of its “USS” designation that specified it as a United States Navy Man O’ War, and thereafter is referred to by its former name such as “EX-name.” The original commissioning crew may be invited to attend the decommissioning ceremony, and it is a somber experience likened to a wake. The reactor defueling procedure, as well as the salvage of all reusable equipment aboard the sub, is accomplished at one of five repair facilities all located on the U.S. west coast. Then the spent fuel is shipped via rail to the Naval Reactor Facility located at the Naval Reactor Laboratory near Idaho Falls ID where it is stored in metal canisters and will remain indefinitely because currently there isn’t a practical use for radioactive spent fuel. Next, the defueled and stripped out submarine hulks are towed to PSNS where the recycling process begins and their hulls are cut into three or four sections depending on their types; aft section, reactor compartment, missile compartment if applicable, and forward section. At that time, the missile compartments are dismantled in accordance with the criteria set down by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (SALT). Up until 1991 the fore and aft sections only, of the boats were rejoined and placed in floating storage while various plans for their ultimate demise were considered including sinking them at sea, however, all were deemed economically unfeasible because they required the removal of all on board environmentally objectionable PCBs. So instead, the submarine sections are recycled and all reusable material are utilized in the construction of new ships and submarines, and although the process is not a profitable venture it does produce a limited reduction in the average disposal cost of approx. $25M to $50M per boat. During the recycling process, the reactor vessel is removed and the reactor compartment is permanently sealed then shipped via barge or high capacity tractor-trailer to the Department of Energy’s Hartford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state where they are kept in open dry storage until eventually they are buried. The first nuclear reactor to be removed from a submarine was in 1959 from the USS Sea Wolf SSN-575 to replace it with an updated type. The original reactor was then scuttled in the deep Atlantic Ocean east of Delaware. However In 1972, the London Dumping Convention convened in Stockholm Sweden under the auspices of United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and it banned ocean disposal of low-level radioactive wastes, and later on in 1993 ocean disposal of all radioactive waste was banned. Consequently, the Navy commissioned a study concerning scrapping of nuclear submarines and two years later shallow land burial of reactor compartments was selected as the most suitable option, and in 1990, USS Scamp SSN-588 became the first US nuclear-powered submarine to be scrapped under the new guidelines. Subsequently, the last of the Sturgeon attack boats, USS L. Mendel Rivers SSN-686, was decommissioned in 2001 and scheduled for SRP followed by USS Parche SSN 683 also a Sturgeon Class boat decommissioned in 2004. Also, the last of the initial “41 for Freedom” Fleet Ballistic Missile FBM submarines, USS Kamehameha SSBN-642, was decommissioned in 2002 and decommissioning of the 688 class Los Angeles boats began in 1995 with USS Baton Rouge SSN-689. Additionally, some nuclear-powered cruisers have entered the SRP program along with the first aircraft carrier decommissioned in February 2017, the “Big E,” USS Enterprise CVN-65 following a stellar service record including participation in the flight of Friendship 7, the Project Mercury space capsule in which Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr. made the first American orbital spaceflight, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and many Viet Nam Conflict operations where Enterprise became the first nuclear-powered ship to engage in combat when she launched aircraft against the Viet Cong near Biên Hòa City. Additionally, she gave support during the USS Pueblo capture and hostage situation. She is the second carrier to bear those names with the first being CV-6 the renowned and highly decorated Yorktown class carrier that participated in historic WWII battles earning 20 battle stars. Submarines currently awaiting SRP are beginning to pile up at NSRS as during a ten day stretch in 2016 three arrived; USS Houston SSN-713, USS City of Corpus Christi SSN-705 and USS Norfolk SSN-714 joined eleven others there. Sixty-two Los Angeles-class boats were built between 1971 and 1996 and fourteen are at NSRS including two hulls nearing completion of recycling and two more in line to replace them. They’re being replaced by Virginia-class subs at the rate of about one per year with a total of forty-eight Virginias planned with twelve having been completed already Since being assigned the responsibility in the late 1980s of dismantling the Navy’s nuclear ships, the shipyard has recycled eight cruisers, 60 fast attack submarines and 28 ballistic missile subs. And, with the continued rapid advancement of submarine technology and the necessity for America to keep pace with other global navies expanding their submarine fleets the facility is destined to continue to be a valuable resource to the United States and the Navy. For any submariner though, the mere thought of the “graveyard” at PSNS gives reason to pause as shivers roll down their spines to think that their beloved boat will one day or has already been disposed of in such a heartless fashion. Because, although the public generally views these craft only as stealthy cold steel high-tech killing machines, their crews identify them more as their abodes away from home and recognize that they have a welcoming warm and fuzzy side to them too. So, every boat sailor harbors fond memories of combating bitter cold, howling wind, brutal heat, pouring rain, hail, sleet, snow, lightning, or some combination thereof during their long post-midnight trudges up a lonely pier back to their boat moored in an unfamiliar U.S. city or far off land while anticipating with every step to being met with the comfort and safety of their ship and a good crew. And then, upon arrival there peering down into the hatch and sensing the warmth or coolness of the recycled air and the fragrance of the distinctive aromatic cocktail of hydraulic oil, food and sweat that is a trade-mark of submarine life, and realizing that they are home at last. Or, spending the holiday season far away from home deep in shadowy and unforgiving waters while sharing a feast devotedly prepared by the ship’s cooks and being in the company of their “other family” while relishing a brief respite from the burden of their duties. Then there’s the long lonely hours on watch, the boredom broken when a shipmate happens by and offers to fetch him a cup of coffee, or lingers to chew the fat for a spell. For me to this day, my eyes mist up to think that after twenty-five years of faithful and noble service to America my boat USS Bluefish SSN-675 became just another number that was chopped up and disposed of like just so much junk. Particularly, because I was a Plank-Owner member of her commissioning crew and so I witnessed her birth in the shipyard; she was my baby girl and I miss her still. Too, over her life-span she accomplished hundreds of perilous clandestine undersea missions from breaking through the thick Arctic ice at the “Top of the World” to deployments in the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific; she transited the Panama Canal, crossed the Equator, and tied up at piers in cities around the globe while transporting thousands of young sailors, and she brought her crews back home safely to their families every single time. And personally, although there were hard times like being strapped into the bridge as lookout in 13-degree weather and a high sea while transiting Long Island Sound coming back home into New London and chilled to the bone from the waves crashing over my head, surviving on spuds and canned goods cause that’s all we had left while returning from a northern run, or being wreaked with strep-throat at sea and being stretchered off to the hospital when we hit Norfolk, there were many good times too. Thus, the Silent Service, my boat “Blue Thunder from Down Under” and my crew will live on in my heart and memory for evermore.