Small issues have the potential to turn into big disasters when nuclear submarines are involved. In May 2011 tiny crabs and barnacles came close to causing the loss of one of the Royal Navy's nuclear powered submarines and its crew.
The incident occurred when Trafalgar class submarine HMS Turbulent was on duty in the Gulf of Oman in the Middle East. A major disaster was only averted when the submarine's commanding officer, medical officers and crew took decisive action to prevent what could have become an international incident, with major loss of life and potentially huge impacts for the environment and international relations.
Whilst in dock in the United Arab Emirates port of Fujaira, the interior of the submarine began to heat up unexpectedly. A decision was taken to set sail for the open sea where it was thought that waters would be cooler, but temperatures only continued to soar, reaching over 60 degrees Celsius and creating 100 per cent humidity in the submarine's interior. As many of the submarine's systems shut down almost a fifth of the 130 strong crew collapsed with severe heat stroke, many in life threatening condition.
According to a Royal Navy investigation report into the incident obtained by the North West Evening Mail, the crew believed that either the temperature of the hot, stagnant waters of the Fujaira port was to blame for the unusual rise in temperature on board the submarine, or that the submarine itself was generating heat and warming the surrounding waters. In fact, a build-up of tiny crustaceans had blocked inlet pipes to essential cooling systems on board the submarine whilst it was berthed at Fujaira. This resulted in failure of cooling systems, leading to dangerous overheating and many casualties.
Equipment became too hot to touch, making it impossible to properly investigate the malfunction. Crew were collapsing at their work stations, in the showers and toilets, every empty space had to be used as a makeshift sick bay. The commanding officer, Commander Ryan Ramsey, ordered hatches to be opened on the surfaced submarine in an attempt to reduce the core temperature. Some of the stricken submariners were brought outside but the air temperature of 42 degrees Celsius offered no relief. Commander Ramsey later said he had genuinely thought that some of the submarine's crew were going to die.
HMS Turbulent was now five hours from the port at Fujaira and returning to the port with a potentially crippled nuclear powered submarine in search of emergency assistance would have provoked a serious diplomatic incident – and risked the lives of the most seriously ill submariners. Calls to NATO's submarine controller for permission to dive failed due to location and there was no prospect of assistance as no other vessels were near their location. The commanding officer made the decision to order those crew still able to operate the vessel to sail up to 2 hours away to a point where the submarine could dive to deeper, cooler waters in the desperate hope that this would save them.
Commander Ryan admitted it was 'touch and go' before the dive – not knowing what would happen to the crew or to the submarine. All non-essential equipment was shut down and medics and first aiders cooled themselves and colleagues with ice packs, drinks and water hoses. Commander Ramsey said later that 'it was all about survival'. When the submarine reached a depth of 200 metres it finally began to cool. The blocked pipes could be cleared, systems brought back on line and sick crew began to recover. Within 24 hours, HMS Turbulent was continuing with its deployment, although all affected personnel were asked to rest and avoid physical exercise for a few days while they recovered from the effects of heat exhaustion.
Heat exhaustion, also known as heat stroke, usually affects older people and young children first and most severely. Symptoms may include severe headache, inability to take fluids or to sweat, dizziness, diarrhoea and vomiting followed by weakness (inability to stand), mental confusion, shaking, collapse and, if not treated in time, loss of consciousness, coma and death. Survivors may suffer some damage to the brain or other organs. According to the Royal Navy report into the incident the Petty Officer Medical Assistant's experience of heat related injury and its treatment along with his leadership during the crisis prevented a very serious situation becoming a disaster.
Everyone will be thankful that the incident did not end in any fatalities and that the submarine and its crew all survived to tell the tale. Things could have been very different if the medic had not been experienced in heat exhaustion or if he had beeen incapacitated himself or if the temperature had risen even faster – the day could have ended in tragedy . The incident highlights the inherent dangers involved in deploying nuclear powered and armed submarines, with complex and dangerous technology which may be prone to failures and situations which design engineers have failed to predict. The very nature of nuclear submarines means they are, in effect, accidents waiting to happen.