FAS blogger puts last week’s report on submarine fires in context

The 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 had broken out on Royal Navy submarines. While many reacted with shock to the revelations about the frequency of fires – some 266 in 25 years – the author provides some great context to dampen the hysteria.

Here’s how the report appeared in last week’s World Naval Brief:

United Kingdom: “Nuclear submarine fire figures revealed”

BBC News, 08 July 2012

Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) has revealed that there have been 266 fires aboard Royal Navy (RN) submarines over the past 25 years. Of these incidents, 74 occurred on ballistic missile boats, though the vast majority of all fires were reported as “minor”, involving smoke but no flames. Twenty fires were reported as “medium”, involving open flames but manageable with onboard firefighting systems, and just three were considered “major,” or requiring the assistance of outside suppression assistance. These numbers were revealed after a representative from the Scottish National Party (SNP) asked for the figures in parliament; the issue of nuclear submarine safety has become an important issue for the SNP, as the RN’s fleet of ballistic missile submarines is based in Faslane, on Scotland’s west coast. While the MoD has said that no fire has ever jeopardized the nuclear safety of the vessels or their weapons, critics have suggested that the number of incidents suggests that the RN’s nuclear deterrent capability is not as credible as claimed if these accidents remove vessels from service and pose hazards to the British public. RN representatives denied that the incidents had damaged the ability of the navy to operate a continuous sea-based nuclear deterrent. Fires aboard nuclear-powered and armed submarines are not rare occurrences; in May the Los Angeles class attack submarine USS Miami caught fire during refit, while the Russian missile submarine Yekaterinburg was extensively damaged this past December. Both boats were under refit at the time.

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