Are nuclear submarines safe?

Naval reactors have an exceptional record of more than 134 million miles of steam safely powered by nuclear power, and have accumulated more than 5700 years of safe reactor operation. Galliott says nuclear submarines have a good safety record. There are no known melts of nuclear reactors involving submarines. When things go wrong, Stuchbery adds, they tend to be for the reasons any submarine can have problems: water depth and pressure or equipment malfunctions.

Nuclear risk is well understood and managed closely, he says. It is based on the Oscar-class naval submarine and is apparently designed for research and rescue missions. With the increasing attention paid to greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for international air and maritime transport, in particular dirty fuel for the latter, and the excellent safety record of nuclear-powered ships, it is quite conceivable that a renewed attention to marine nuclear powered vessels, interest in marine nuclear propulsion is likely to be renewed. Dozens of critical systems must work together to ensure both the safety of the crew and the effectiveness of the nuclear submarine as a whole.

Risks from the planned decommissioning of eight aging nuclear reactors that are still docked on submarines remain critical. This happened to a Russian Echo-class nuclear submarine during nuclear refueling in the port of Vladivostok in 1985, resulting in 10 immediate deaths and 49 radiation injuries. But Professor Mahananda Dasgupta says it's time for the nuclear industry (and waste disposal) in Australia to become more focused. The weakness of nuclear submarine stealth technology is the need to cool the reactor even when the submarine is not in motion; about 70% of the reactor's output heat dissipates into seawater.

The development of nuclear merchant ships began in the 1950s, but overall it has not been commercially successful. Acquiring nuclear submarines in the meantime will send a very strong message to China, “it will inevitably aggravate them, but it will leave us completely indebted to the United States and the United Kingdom,” he says. The article originally stated that there had been no serious incidents of a nuclear nature involving US nuclear submarines. While the nuclear submarine program had matured since it was first built, the USS Nautilus was first built in 1954, one might be inclined to believe that it had not advanced enough to keep up with the growing demand for 17 submarines in a single year, leading to the fall in safety in Thresher production and, ultimately, its destruction.

Nuclear ships are currently the responsibility of their own countries, but none participate in international trade. There are credible anecdotal reports that dismantled Russian nuclear submarines have been used to provide electricity to remote communities and oil exploration companies in the Siberian Arctic regions, probably in the 1980s. It currently rests on the floor of the Barents Sea, a mile deep, with its nuclear reactor and two nuclear warheads still on board.