The loss of the Thresher: Why it should be remembered every year

Thresher

The U.S. nuclear submarine Thresher, underway during early trials in 1961. (U.S. Navy)

The lessons of cataclysmic events tend to be overlooked when we remember them only on major anniversaries. The sinking of the U.S. nuclear submarine Thresher is a perfect example.

The Thresher went down during a trial cruise off the coast of Maine 51 years ago today, with the loss of all 129 on board. The event shocked an American public accustomed to thinking of its nuclear Navy as the epitome of crack engineering and technical expertise.

Two current events remind us that its sinking is as relevant today as it was on the 50th anniversary last year, and indeed every year since 1963. One event, the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, reinforces the Thresher disaster's message that the sea gives up its secrets only reluctantly; the sub's wreckage was not found for two months, despite its location at the time of its sinking being known.

The second event is Fukushima, the Japanese nuclear reactor disaster that continues to reverberate across the nuclear industry, three years after the event. The destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant is still leaking radioactive water into the ocean, and the industry in Japan and worldwide is in disarray, in part because the lessons taught by the Thresher have never been learned. 

A recap: The Thresher was the first of a new class of nuclear submarine designed to operate at greater depths, at higher speeds and for longer periods than its predecessors. It involved new techniques in welding and metal fabrication and new hull steel. Its construction was assigned to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in an effort to upgrade that yard's technical capabilities. Supervision was kept away from Adm. Hyman Rickover, whose rigorous construction and crew-training standards had successfully launched the nuclear Navy. 

Design and construction were rushed. Even though inspections turned up alarming inadequacies in Portsmouth's work, especially in welding, the haste continued. Rickover stepped in and forced a few improvements, but not enough. Plus, by the time the boat was ready for its sea trials, the captain and executive officer were new to the vessel and many of the crewmen were still effectively training.

On April 9, 1963, the Thresher cast off from Portsmouth. About 25 hours later, it began its test dives off the continental shelf, far deeper than could be reached by its escort's rescue equipment. At 8:53 a.m. on April 10, the Thresher radioed to the escort that it was proceeding to its test depth of 1,300 feet. Twenty minutes later a calm voice radioed, "Experiencing minor difficulties ... Attempting to blow" -- that is, to blow water from its ballast tanks with compressed air in an effort to surface.

The next few transmissions were garbled. Soon after that one of the radio operators heard a sound he thought he recognized -- the sound of a ship breaking up. Three and a half hours later, the Thresher was declared lost.

The Navy investigation concluded, on necessarily scant evidence, that an electrical failure possibly caused by a water leak had caused the Thresher's reactor to shut down. Its efforts to surface by blowing ballast were confounded by ice forming in its ballast valves at great depth, freezing the valves. When it sank to about 2,400 feet, its hull imploded in a split second.

But the real cause of the sinking was haste, which led the Navy to ignore accumulating problems in design, construction and operating procedures. Rickover lectured the investigative board that "the real lesson to be learned is that we must change our way of doing business to meet the requirements of present-day technology."

The frightening irony is that Rickover repeated essentially the same lecture 35 years later, when he was asked to testify before the panel investigating the Three Mile Island disaster. 

"Properly running a sophisticated technical program requires a fundamental understanding of and commitment to the technical aspects of the job and a willingness to pay infinite attention to the technical details," he said. "If you ignore those details and attempt to rely on management techniques or gimmicks, you will surely end up with a system that is unmanageable."

Have the nuclear industry and its regulators learned that lesson? On the evidence of Fukushima and of the half-baked regulatory response to that disaster in the U.S., the answer is no. Until it's yes, the threat of disaster predicted by the Thresher and Three Mile Island will continue to exist, and the promise of nuclear-generated electric power will not be met.

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email.

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