Key Point: Nuclear submarines are a powerful that can have powerful consequences when something goes wrong.
The discovery of wreckage from the Argentine submarine ARA San Juan in November 2018 grimly highlights the dangers inherent to submarine operations even in peacetime. Well over a dozen submarines have been lost catastrophic accidents since the end of World War II. Only stringent safety protocols and rigorous maintenance regimes can minimize the likelihood of such accidents.
Fortunately, though U.S. submarines have experienced numerous collisions and groundings, it has been over fifty years since the U.S. Navy lost its last submarine to causes which remain unclear to this day—though lax safety procedures may well have been involved.
The USS Scorpion was one of six Skipjack-class nuclear-powered attack submarines, a class which introduced a tear-drop shaped hull that enabled it to attain high speeds of thirty-four knots (thirty-eight miles per hour) while submerged.
Launched by Electric Boat in Connecticut in 1960, Scorpion operated as part of the Atlantic submarine fleet from her base in Norfolk Virginia. She helped test new nuclear submarine tactics and was also involved in clandestine missions, including reputedly infiltrating Soviet waters to spy on the launch of a new missile type in 1966.
By February 1967, it came time for Scorpion to undergo extensive routine testing and overhaul as part of the Navy’s SUBSAFE safety program. This required thoroughly testing surfaces and components using ultrasounds to certify the vessel’s integrity for continued operations.
SUBSAFE was devised after the loss in 1963 of the USS Thresher, the lead ship of a more advanced successor to the Skipjack class. An apparent rupture in her pipes allowed saltwater to spray into the vessel, causing a chain reaction leading to a reactor shutdown, a failure of the air flasks used to surface, and the progressive flooding of the submarine. The Thresher sank with 129 aboard—amounting to the deadliest submarine accident ever.