Submarine Accidents

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					                                                                          Design Safety
                                                                        Design Safety

        Accidents               A 60-year statistical assessment
                                                       By Christopher Tingle

that effectively spelled the end of America’s post-
war period of national innocence: the assassination
of President John F. Kennedy and the destruction of
the nuclear submarine Thresher, commanded by
                                                           sures occupied by adversaries, both above and
                                                           below the surface.
                                                               These weaknesses have been reasonably well
                                                           appreciated since the earliest of submarines, as the
                                                           accident record will attest. Since the 18th century,
                                                                                                                       Abstract: An analysis
                                                                                                                       of submarine accidents
                                                                                                                       from 1946 to 2005 was
                                                                                                                       conducted to determine
                                                                                                                       whether improvements
Lieutenant-Commander John Harvey.                          more than 1,800 submarines have been sunk and               in design and manage-
    Just as the context for both these events were         roughly 60,000 submariners have perished world-             ment systems have
markedly different, so too would be the fallout from       wide in peace and in war (Gray, 2003).                      reduced the probability
each. In the case of JFK’s assassination, it would mark        While these figures may seem relatively high,           of an incident. The
the end of the moral rectitude of U.S. politics and the    consider them in the following context:                     analysis showed that
sanctity of the office of the president. Robert MacNeil        •Early submarines were notoriously unsafe.              from 1946 to 1974, 0.92
of the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour summed this up              However, when coupled with the drive to maintain            sunk per 500 available
by stating, “. . . perhaps we lived in a fool’s paradise   a technological edge, these early losses resulted in        submarines per year;
before the Kennedy assassination” (Proctor, 1993).         improved design and operation.                              and 38 fatalities per
    In the case of the Thresher accident, the result           •Major overt conflicts naturally increase the risks     30,000 available sub-
would be scrutiny of submarine design and the              to submarines. Losses in these scenarios will contin-       mariners per year, while
implementation of assurance systems. It marked the         ue to occur despite improvements in design and              from 1975 to 2005: 0.31
beginning of SUBSAFE, a quality assurance pro-             operation.                                                  sunk per 500 available
gram of the U.S. Navy designed to maintain the safe-           The question remains: Have improvements in              submarines per year,
ty of the nuclear submarine fleet. Specifically, it        design and operations realized benefits in terms of         and 12 fatalities per
provides maximum reasonable assurance that sub             reducing losses or has the increasingly complex sub-        30,000 available sub-
hulls will stay watertight and that they can recover       marine coupled with the ebb and flow of the geopo-          mariners per year.
from unanticipated flooding.                               litical situation introduced even greater risk resulting
    Interestingly, and by a twist of fate, both Kennedy    in relatively more losses?
and Harvey share more than just a tragic place in              To determine this, the author analyzed subma-
U.S. history. Both had apparently received a gift          rine accident data that has been collated since 2001.
from enigmatic Admiral Hyman Rickover, director            The scope of the data covers the 60-year period, 1946
of the U.S. Navy’s Naval Reactors Branch. The gift         to 2005. These data were selected as they ensured
was a plaque inscribed with an old French fishing          elimination of accidents attributable to poor design
prayer: “O God the sea is so great and my boat is so       during the early part of the 20th century as well as
small.” Rickover had made a habit of presenting
these plaques to new submarine captains, which             Christopher Tingle, CD, CRM, M.Eng., P.Eng., is a principal engineer with BMT
was intended to be a reminder of their vulnerabili-        Fleet Technology Ltd. in Ottawa, Ontario. On behalf of BMT, he is also director of
ties. Kennedy, a World War II U.S. Naval Reserve           configuration for CSMG 
Description: An analysis of submarine accidents from 1946 to 2005 was conducted to determine whether improvements in design and management systems have reduced the probability of an incident. The analysis showed that from 1946 to 1974, 0.92 sunk per 500 available submarines per year; and 38 fatalities per 30,000 available submariners per year, while from 1975 to 2005: 0.31 sunk per 500 available submarines per year, and 12 fatalities per 30,000 available submariners per year. [PUBLICATION ABSTRACT]
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