The USS Hampton

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.

12 thoughts on “The USS Hampton

  1. nathan Identicon nathan

    former ET3 NEC 3383, here. spot on. work, thanks for bringing this article to my attention, also good to see that i haven’t lost anything in the decade since I sat watch on the RPCP!

  2. AugustFalcon Identicon AugustFalcon

    In the old navy the practice of falsifying log entries was common enough that it had a name: “gun decking.” I never saw it happen in any significant manner aft of frame 93. Most of my guys were both well trained and pretty conscientious.

    Soapbox mode on:

    Mostly this appears to be a lack of leadership. Not too surprising since I believe that today’s submarine force leadership and training styles have moved much closer to that of the respective surface force styles than in days of yore. One example would be that no longer do the junior officers have to go to a knowledgeable enlisted sailor to get their qualification card signed off on a specific engineering system — they can do it all in the wardroom. That single practice breeds less respect in each for the other.

    OK, I’m off the soapbox now.

    Back in the S1C and S5W days there was a procedure for shutting down the plant by poisoning it with boron. Obviously it was a last ditch effort kind of thing and pretty well screwed up the plant chemistry so bad that a restart was just about impossible without shipyard involvement. Can’t ever remember

  3. mpyne Identicon mpyne Post author

    AugustFalcon: I don’t know about other boats on the waterfront but when I qualified recently I still had to get signatures from the enlisted specialists. There were a few signatures that other officers didn’t mind signing but even so I would get told more often than not (even from people qualified to sign) to ask so-and-so so I’d get a good checkout.

    It sucked because it took me forever to qualify EOOW on S8G but I think the end result is better.

  4. Med Identicon Med

    Just wondering : are submarines reactor using fast or slow neutrons ?

    As far as i know all mordern submarine nuclear reactors use slow neutrons (i am 100% sure for France, would need to check for others). Some submarines using fast neutrons reactors have been produced such as the alfa soviet submarine class which could reach more than 40 knots.

  5. Lenny Identicon Lenny

    I did this sort of thing in the US Navy on a Los Angeles class boat. I was the officer who was responsible for reactor chemistry, among other things. I know what I’m talking about here. Honest.
    Without divulging anything that cant be found in Wikipedia, I’ll say that the chemicals not being maintained in this situation have nothing to do WHATSOEVER with the nuclear reaction. The chemicals maintained in the primary system have basically one function – maintaining the health of all that metal at the temperatures and pressures required, i.e. keep the thing from rusting and a pipe from blowing.

    Rust prevention. More or less. Honest.

    The absolute worst case scenario here – a pipe blows. The reactor compartment fills with superheated steam. There’s a SLIGHT chance that the steam may fill the engine room and a lot of good sailors get killed. The chance of it getting out of the boat is dang near impossible and would require MANY things to go wrong independently. The reactor will shut itself down (assuming safety systems haven’t been gundecked by the electrical guys) and may or may not sustain damage that will prevent it from ever being used again (in that case, the boat would probably be decommissioned – reactors aren’t easily popped out and replaced).

    Any nuclear submariner who had to learn how the engine room works should be able to back me on this.

  6. Douches Identicon Douches

    Don’t forget the other side of the Primary: radcon. The coolant sampled is analyzed not only for corrosion-friendly situations but also to verify that the fuel elements (discrete modules contained in the core itself) are still intact. If, on day one, there was a fuel element failure and just enough radioactive s#!t gets wet but doesn’t set off a general area alarm, it could have gone unnoticed for a month. This assumes they were gaffing off other periodic surveys or analyses. Personnel could have been unnecessarily exposed to more radiation than they needed to be. Kind of like EM’s hanging out by the Port SSMG at a power-limiting bell.

  7. mpyne Identicon mpyne Post author

    Douches: True, but there is absolutely no way that they went a whole month without actually *drawing* a sample, as that would make practically the entire engineering department complicit. i.e. engine room watchstanders are used to seeing ELTs draw a sample every day and would ask questions if it hadn’t happened.

  8. Douches Identicon Douches

    I agree. I was only commenting on primary analyses in general, not on whether or not the crew was gaffing logs. Hell, they could have just been re-copied inconsistent with other plant logs or surveys for all I know. With at least 3 EOOW’s, the Eng, XO, and CO reviewing the EOOW logs, there’s no way they didn’t sample without a lot more people being in the know.

  9. Lenny Identicon Lenny

    Oh yeah, I agree with all that – by the specific nature of yall’s comments, it’s evident yall know what you’re talking about.

    So having realistically eliminated most of the meltdown scenarios, this event just highlights what happens when ELT’s go unchecked. The temptation to cheat is always present. On my boat, the ELT’s were infamous for their ability to forge all the signatures of the wardroom. This sort of behavior went largely unchallenged until a few close calls with those guys in ties that make surprise visits.

    This sort of attitude existed on other boats on the waterfront and sometimes got caught and sometimes didn’t until something embarassing was discovered.

    Some people get fired. Everybody else is made to repent through seemingly endless training. The whole boat becomes honest as a Boy Scout for about a year. People forget. Things begin to go back to the way they were. The cycle repeats.

    Wow. Good times. I’m getting all nostalgic now.

  10. Mark Identicon Mark

    I am retired submariner, and I have thought long and hard about the recent events surrounding the brouhaha in question. Let’s face it, the issues here did not just “pop up” on the Hampton,…they have evolved across the service, and were shaped and honed over many, many years. I observed the very same disturbing symptoms in the years leading up to my retirement in 1997, and to my own shame, I never did anything about it. The Navy did not just “catch” this problem, as so many of you have already pointed out – the Navy was forced to stare into the harsh light of day, and come face-to-face with an ongoing problem that has plagued the submarine service for years. I believe someone,…an individual of great strength and courage has stepped up and taken a bullet for “the home team”. And now, the sub service must clean house and take care of our own.

    In the military, we give medals of honor to men and women who have thrown themselves in harm’s way to selflessly give their lives for the security of others,…and they most certainly deserve that honor. Yet, when someone who possesses the ethical and moral convictions to say that “enough is enough”, and tells the truth about the ills that plague our service, they are vilified for it and never recognized for the strength of their convictions and their selfless behavior. In fact, that are attacked for the path they have chosen.

    This situation is not about a squadron, a ship, its crew, the skipper or a single individual. This is about the US nuclear submarine service, which has a rich and deep tradition that harkens back to the earliest days of a man that embodied the essence of integrity, morals, ethics and standards that were so difficult for others to understand. This is a man that the Navy did not promote him beyond the rank of Captain – Congress did. His name was Hyman Rickover, and he was the father of the modern nuclear Navy. Admiral Rickover’s personal qualities were so profound and so pure,…that the military-industrial structure that he interfaced with absolutely struggled with his requirements for perfection. It was not only his demand for perfection in the ships we sailed,…it was his demand that every sailor embody a higher conviction and commitment that could not be found anywhere else. He wanted to know that each individual would willingly give their lives to protect our nation – and there was no compromise,…no quarter.

    For reasons that I will never be able to comprehend or discern,…the sub service has broken down and compromised itself. Officers and enlisted alike have conducted themselves in a way that has damaged the integrity of a branch of the US Navy that has been referred to as the “tip of the spear”. In the process, these same dedicated people have privately struggled with who they are,…and have questioned their own actions. While I am certainly not positive of my supposition, I believe that a single person (or a few persons) started the dominoes to fall. For too long, the submarine service has needed someone brave enough and strong enough to bring all of this to light,…and I think that someone threw himself on the grenade for those who still serve beneath the waves. I believe that someone’s actions and choices embodied the spirit of Hyman Rickover. He would have been proud to call this lone soul “shipmate”, and Rickover would have steadfastly stood side-by-side with him if he had to face the court,….because he knew he was fighting for everything that Rickover stood for,…and everything that defined the service. I believe this individual’s actions will positively impact the lives of countless sailors who serve our nation in the nuclear submarine force,…and I hope those responsible will help to return a once proud service to its roots.

    Whomever you are, thank you for your dedication,…thank you for your service,….and thank you for taking a bullet,….you honor us all.

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