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    Op-Ed
    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Did flawed operational rules doom the Thresher?

    Then-Rear Adm. Hyman G. Rickover ispecting USS Nautilus (SSN-571), circa 1954. (U.S. Navy Office of Information)

    Fifty-seven years ago this month the U.S. nuclear submarine force experienced its greatest disaster with the sinking of the U.S.S. Thresher, costing 129 lives. It was the most advanced nuclear submarine of its time. What happened? We still don't have good answers. Hopefully, some may be coming soon.

    When a Freedom of Information Act request seeking information about the disaster yielded no results, Jim Bryant, one of the authors of this guest commentary, filed a lawsuit in July 2019 seeking access to unreleased documents about this disaster. This includes 1,700 pages of testimony and related exhibits presented to the 1963 Naval Court of Inquiry.

    In February, a federal district judge ordered the Navy to start providing the material identified in the FOIA request. The first of these materials was to be released beginning May 15, but will be delayed by the ongoing pandemic.

    The procedures and technology from Thresher's time are obsolete and archaic. We want to learn about the mindset that allowed this submarine to be lost on what should have been a routine and well-planned deep dive test after a nine-month overhaul.

    We wrote an article that was published on April 9 by the U.S. Naval Institute titled, “USS Thresher (SSN 593): Ten Questions Our FOIA Lawsuit Hopes to Answer.” One bit of feedback received regarding the recently published article came from Norman Polmar [author of the excellent book, “The Death of the USS Thresher (SSN 593)” and many others] who felt our assessment was harsh on Admiral Hyman G. Rickover.

    Rickover − known as the Father of the Nuclear Navy − was the first director of the U.S. Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and a celebrated American hero. Rickover interviewed Bryant for the Nuclear Program in November 1970. Bryant both admired and feared him, and later commanded one of his nuclear submarines.

    Yet Rickover had issues just like all of us.

    As noted in the Naval Institute article, Rickover’s procedure in response to an emergency reactor shutdown (Scram) on a submarine was to stop steam flow to the main engines. When Thresher was lost there was a procedure being tested − but that was not approved until after Thresher was lost − to respond to a scram by allowing steam flow to continue to the engines to provide a few minutes of emergency propulsion. Reportedly, Rickover allowed the first commanding officer of the first ballistic missile submarine, U.S.S. George Washington (SSBN 598) to use this procedure under certain conditions.

    Thresher was the lead ship of a class of submarines whose operating depth was much deeper than previous classes. It was well known by Rickover and submarine force leadership that the design of the main ballast tank blow system used to surface the new Thresher-class submarine was inadequate when deep and was never tested at depth. That left the nuclear propulsion plant as the only way to bring the submarine to the surface in the case of flooding at depth.

    Therefore, the Rickover-approved procedure to stop steam flow if the reactor scrammed meant the submarine had only the inadequate main ballast tank blow system and a large, slow-speed, direct-current motor attached to the propulsion shaft as the means of recovery from flooding at depth.

    Rickover is reported to have allowed the commanding officer’s procedure to maintain steam flow to the engines after a scram on the George Washington, so why did he not allow it for the much deeper diving Thresher Class until after Thresher sank? Was he too focused on avoiding a reactor accident?

    Rickover’s concern with reactor safety was justified as a submarine reactor accident had the serious potential to damage or even force the cancellation of the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program, which was undeniably critical to national security and winning the Cold War.

    While Rickover vehemently denied that his rules were rigid and that they could be overridden if the submarine was in danger, violating Rickover’s rules was known to bring swift punishment.

    We hope the Navy’s release of requested documents will provide clarification on these types of questions and inconsistencies.

    Jim Bryant is a retired U.S. Navy captain and was joined in writing this guest commentary by Steve Walsh and Nick Wulfekuhle. They are also the authors of the referenced Naval Institute article.

    USS Thresher (SSN-593) underway on the surface, circa 1961-63. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center)
    USS Thresher (SSN-593): Bow view of the submarine on the greased building ways, as workmen prepare for her launching at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, Maine, July 9, 1960. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History Heritage Command)

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