I’m sure many have seen the news about the nuclear fast attack submarine, USS Hampton, which has had its operations suspended due to failing to perform required inspections, and then trying to fake the required paperwork later.
We had heard inklings of what happened before it hit the news, so I knew that the media coverage of the story was predicably inaccurate but nothing too bad. But then I saw what may have been the stupidest blog post ever about it. Their description? “USS Hampton Submarine Crew Fails To Read Meter, Fakes Logbook, As Fluid That Keeps Reactor From Going Critical Runs Low”.
They then go on to talk about some magical ingredient that submarine nuclear reactors have that keeps the reactor from going critical which must be constantly maintained and which this crew was not doing. Then they accuse the Navy PAO who said that there was never a threat to the public or crew of a “Flat-out fucking lie”.
Unfortunately reality has a funny way of interposing. First off, though this may surprise people, the reactor is pretty much always critical while underway. This may be deduced from the definition of criticality: “2. Physics The point at which a nuclear reaction is self-sustaining.”
Even going by what I assume they mean by critical (i.e. chain reaction going out of control) the chemistry levels couldn’t cause that. Pretty much everything dealing with the actual operation of a naval nuclear power plant is classified CONFIDENTIAL but the fact that we use Pressurized Water Reactors is public knowledge, and Wikipedia has a good article on their operation. I’d like to point out the section dealing with control of reactor power: “Generally, reactor power can be viewed as following steam (turbine) demand”, and “Boron and control rods are used to maintain primary system temperature at the desired point.”. In other words, reactor power depends on the system demand (it automatically rises and falls as necessary), while control rods control temperature. What about boron, you ask? The article answers it in the last sentence of that section: “Due to design and fuel enrichment differences, naval nuclear reactors do not use boric acid.”
Notice nothing of that (besides boron, which I’ve covered) deals with chemicals. We do add chemicals to the water, obviously. But not for control of power. The author of the story I linked to then goes on to say that failure to maintain levels of this magical substance will cause alarms going off, and then “everyone becoming radioactive and the ship sinking.” Which is just so funny that I actually laughed at first until I realized he was serious.
He then says that it’s easy to measure the level, i.e. you just read a meter. That’s unfortunately not the case. It may be on civilian plants but monitoring chemistry levels on the submarine involves (at the very least) drawing a sample of water to perform the analyses on in the first place, which is rather involved due to the fact that the water is radioactive to at least some degree and therefore radiological controls are required during the entire sampling and analysis process.
He then compares adding more chemicals to maintaining the oil levels in your car. I don’t know how his car operates, but with mine I can just unscrew the lid, pour in a quart, and screw the lid back on. You can’t just “unscrew” a cap off of a very highly pressurized primary coolant system and pour some chemicals in. It’s not super hard but it is an involved process.
Next up: “This is in the course, mind you, of a 12 hour daily shift, most of which you spend, in the normal course of activities, bored. Having something to do is good.” To which all I can say is that the author has obviously never been underway. Between training, drills, monitored evolution periods, actual mission operations, cleaning, and qualifying it’s hard enough to find time to sleep. And it’s not a 12-hour shift, it’s (in theory) 6 hours of watch, 6 hours of maintenance/training/other work and 6 hours of off time in an 18-hour day.
Finally the author says that this is the very last bit of maintenance you would want to mess up and then calls the workers in “the reactor room” a bunch of “complete fuckups”. I can think of at least 3 maintenance items right off the top of my head that would be much more horrifying to “gaff off” and I’m sure there’s dozens more that more directly impact reactor safety. And there is no reactor room, and not every nuclear-trained worker was complicit, and the fact of the matter is that we don’t know what happened to cause this (the Commanding Officer has just been relieved of command however).
This is not to try and fluff off what happened (missing chemistry analyses is a *big* deal to Naval Reactors). I would like to think that the whole division did not ignore daily samples for a month (as this would involve not only the RL division in question but also all of the EOOWs and EWSs who had stood watch over that time) but instead had forgotten some sort of non-daily sample. But until more information is released about what exactly the Hampton did wrong it’s way too early to start calling the hardest-working department on a submarine a “complete fuckup”.
Planet KDE readers: I tried to include something relevant to KDE but I have no nifty unfinished work laying around at this time. :-(.
I realize that there is often confusion about how nuclear power works so if anyone has any questions feel free to ask in the comments section but if I’m vague at all (or just refer you to relevant Wikipedia entries) just realize that I have confidentiality standards I have to maintain.