Vacuum Cleaner Eyed in Nuclear Submarine Fire

KITTERY, Maine -- A vacuum cleaner is now being eyed as the source of a fire that broke out on a nuclear submarine undergoing work at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard last month, causing an estimated $400 million in damage.

Seven people suffered minor injuries during the May 23 blaze, which spread through the forward compartment of the USS Miami and continued to burn for more than 10 hours before it was extinguished.

U.S. Navy officials said Wednesday a preliminary investigation indicates the fire started inside a vacuum used to clean work areas at the ends of shifts. The vacuum cleaner was stored in an unoccupied space, according to information provided by a Navy official.

Navy engineers are still conducting a thorough damage assessment of the submarine, including surveying the interior and exterior of the hull. The Navy has approximated the damage at $400 million, plus another $40 million for so-called "secondary effects," such as disruption to other planned work across all Navy shipyards and the potential need to hire private contractors.

Built for $900 million, the USS Miami (SSN 755) was scheduled to remain in service for another nine or so years. It is among the older boats in a fleet of about 54 U.S. attack submarines, which are used to launch missiles, gather intelligence and support other Navy vessels.

Navy officials have indicated the USS Miami can be salvaged, but have not decided whether to carry out the repairs.

They are expected to make the decision by the end of the coming week, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe said in an announcement Wednesday.

"Having received both an initial cost estimate for repairs, and promising results from preliminary testing, I am encouraged that the submarine can indeed be seaworthy again," Snowe stated in the announcement. "I absolutely remain optimistic that the tremendous Kittery-Portsmouth Naval Shipyard workers ... will be given the opportunity to make any and all necessary repairs to the USS Miami, and will work with my colleagues here in Congress, the U.S. Navy, and all stakeholders to ensure that the Yard has the resources they require to rapidly return the USS Miami to sea."

The Miami arrived at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for maintenance and upgrades on March 1, and has remained in dry dock for the last three months during a scheduled 20-month overhaul.

The submarine's nuclear plant had been powered down for two months prior to the fire, and the unit was not operating when the fire broke out, naval officials said in May.

Extinguishing the flames required approximately 75 waves of firefighters, and some 3 million gallons of water, Snowe said last week.

Emergency responders from at least 21 Seacoast-area communities provided aid during the fire. Others traveled from Logan International Airport and as far away as Groton, Conn., to assist in the effort.

After being ventilated for several days, the submarine's forward compartment was cleared to be occupied again by shipyard workers last week. The submarine has now been drained of water and workers have installed temporary structures and lighting.

The Navy is planning to hire private contractors for the next phase of the work, which involves detailed cleaning.

The Navy has launched separate Judge Advocate General Manual (JAGMAN) and safety investigations, and intends to focus those efforts on "lessons learned" that could prevent a similar fire in the future, according to an update provided Wednesday via email by a shipyard spokesperson.

The investigations are expected to yield initial conclusions and recommendations in the next two weeks, according the email update.

Commissioned June 30, 1990, the USS Miami is assigned to the Navy's Atlantic fleet, and is based in Groton, Conn. Recently, the submarine was stationed overseas, traveling between ports in Norway, Scotland, England and the Mediterranean between July and December 2011.

The crew conducted maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 6th Fleet area, according to information provided by the shipyard.

The submarine is one of five "improved" Los Angeles-class nuclear submarines operated by the U.S. Navy.

Copyright 2012 - Foster's Daily Democrat, Dover, N.H.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service