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Submarine Accidents

On 26 May the Faslane based submarine HMS Superb collided with rocks in the Red Sea 80 miles South of Suez.


The sonar system was so badly damaged that the vessel is now unable to dive and can only travel on the surface. The submarine was due to be decommissioned shortly and the Navy may scrap it rather than carry out a full repair. This was only the latest in a series of accidents on British nuclear submarines in recent years. In May 2000 there was a radiation leak from the reactor on HMS Tireless while it was sailing in the Mediterranean South of Sicily. This resulted in a 12 month repair in Gibraltar which was strongly opposed both in Spain and in Gibraltar itself. In November of the same year two submarines ran aground, HMS Triumph hit the seabed off the West coast of Scotland and HMS Victorious, carrying Trident missiles, ran aground on Skelmorlie bank on the Clyde in fog. Within the last month the Ministry of Defence has released the Board of Inquiry reports into two other incidents. On 6 November 2002 HMS Trafalgar was taking part in an exercise to train future submarine captains off the North coast of Skye. The instructor deliberately covered up navigation aids with post-it notes to make the exercise more diffi cult. With a trainee at the controls the submarine crashed into the seabed at a speed of 14 knots, 165 feet below the surface. The senior instructor and commanding offi cer were both court martialled. The second Board of Inquiry report was into an incident on HMS Tireless in May 2003. The submarine hit an iceberg while sailing underwater. The iceberg had a draft of over 60 metres. The crew were under the false impression that any iceberg could be detected on their passive sonar system. Because of the presence of other icebergs in the area, withdrawing the submarine after the collision was diffi cult. One of the conclusions of the report was – “the focus of RN submarine environmental effort is in tactical exploitation and there was insufficient focus (HQ and on board) on the hazards to submarine safety presented by icebergs”. In March 2007 there was a second incident with the same submarine under the ice cap. Air-purifi cation equipment on HMS Tireless exploded killing two sailors. The vessel had to surface through the ice. The incidents above all took place on nuclear-powered submarines. There was also a fatal accident on the diesel powered submarine Upholder, when it was on route from Faslane to Canada in October 2004. The British-built vessel had been sold to the Canadian Navy and was sailing on the surface. Water entered the submarine from an open hatch. This caused a serious fire in which one sailor was killed and nine injured. A similar fire on a Trident submarine could have catastrophic consequences. This catalogue of mishaps indicates how dangerous it is to continue to have nuclear submarines operating around the coast of Scotland.

John Ainslie