Fire on US Nuclear Submarine Injures Seven at Maine Naval Shipyard

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Common Dreams

Fire on US Nuclear Submarine Injures Seven at Maine Naval Shipyard

by
Common Dreams staff

Smoke rises from a dry dock as fire crews tackle a fire on the USS Miami submarine at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard at Kittery, Maine. (Photograph: Ionna Raptis/AP)

Firefighters at a shipyard in Maine fought flames Wednesday night into this morning to extinguish a fire on a Los Angeles class nuclear-powered US Navy submarine, the USS Miami. The vessel was docked at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine.

The fire burned for more than six hours, but was brought under control in the early morning hours. Reports indicate that seven people were injured during the fire, but that no one was killed.

According to officials, the blaze – which started in the "forward compartment" of the submarine – did not affect the vessel's reactor, which was not operating at the time.

According to Navy records, the USS Miami features a single nuclear reactor propulsion system, carries an armament of Tomahawk missiles and Harpoon missiles and has the capacity to lay mines. No nuclear weapons were aboard the ship at the time of the fire, said officials.

2008 presidential candidate and Republican Senator from Arizona, John McCain, famously touts the safety of nuclear energy in general by citing the safety record of the US Navy's nuclear submarine fleet.  Despite his claims, however, nuclear submarines have a long history of safety problems.

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Seacoast Online/New Hampshire: Nuclear sub burns at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard

Capt. Bryant Fuller, commander of the shipyard, said that the ship's reactor was not operating at the time of the fire and remained in a safe and stable condition throughout the event. There were no weapons aboard, he said. Kittery Police Chief Paul Callaghan said the shipyard made no requests for police to evacuate residents in the area and there was no danger to the community.

According to Fuller, there were six reported injuries, including one firefighter who suffered from heat exhaustion. "He is conscious and alert," Fuller said.

The shipyard commander said that due to the heat created from the fire, steam linked to the firefighting effort was emitting from the vessel.

All personnel were accounted for and those who were injured were either treated at the scene or taken to the hospital. Ambulances from multiple Seacoast fire departments arrived and departed from the shipyard throughout the night.

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Bloomberg News (8/16/08): McCain's Pitch for Safe Nuclear Power May Be Undercut by Leaks

Republican presidential candidate John McCain promotes nuclear power as a central element of his energy plan, boasting in particular about the safety record of the Navy's reactor-propelled fleet.

``We have been sailing nuclear ships around the world for 60 years, never had an accident,'' McCain, an Arizona senator and former Navy pilot, said July 22 in Rochester, New Hampshire.

Only two days later, the Navy disclosed that one of its nuclear submarines, the USS Houston, had been leaking radioactive coolant for two years as it called on ports in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Guam and Hawaii. The incident is part of a spate of nuclear accidents on land and sea that may undermine McCain's message.

Even after the Navy reported the Houston incidents, McCain continues to make the safety record of nuclear power a staple of his energy proposals. At an Aug. 8 fundraiser in Rogers, Arkansas, he said the U.S. has ``never had a serious problem.''

That wasn't the view of officials in the Japanese ports of Nagasaki and Okinawa, who said they would refuse future visits by the USS Houston until measures were taken to prevent another accident.

``We're very surprised because this is the first such leakage involving a nuclear submarine and it lasted for as long as two years,'' said Toshio Mizoguchi, a Nagasaki prefecture risk-management and disaster-prevention official. ``We were always told that nuclear-powered submarines were safe.''

[...]

The Navy, which has 99 vessels powered by reactors, has had a number of radioactive incidents since it first began using nuclear propulsion in the late 1950s.

In 1999, the USS John C. Stennis, a nuclear aircraft carrier, ran aground off the California coast, clogging the cooling pipes to its two reactors. McMichael said one reactor shut down automatically and the other was taken off line by the crew.

He pointed to a 2005 incident involving the USS San Francisco as another demonstration of the fleet's safety. The submarine hit an underwater mountain, though its reactor was undamaged and the ship returned to port under its own power, McMichael said.

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