November 20th 2023.
Last year, the Royal Navy had a close call when one of its Trident-class nuclear submarines got into trouble. An issue with its depth gauge led the Vanguard-class vessel to sink dangerously low beneath the waves. Fortunately, engineers noticed the issue in time, and the submarine was able to make its way to the surface, narrowly avoiding disaster.
The vessel was carrying 140 crew members, and the potential consequences of such a tragedy were immense. Each submarine in the Royal Navy currently carries up to 12 missiles, each of which can carry up to four nuclear warheads. This means that if the submarine had suffered a catastrophic implosion, a total of 48 nuclear warheads could have been released.
Dr Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow in sea power at the Royal United Services Institute, explained the potential consequences: “If the hull implodes, then by extension a pretty valuable [weapon] will be lost or severely damaged. This means potentially radioactive waste within the oceans, because it would be very difficult to salvage [the wreck or missile] under those conditions at those depths.”
Although the Royal Navy has not commented on the depth the submarine reached, it is reported that the maximum operation depth of a Vanguard-class submarine is around 500 metres. There is likely a buffer zone beyond this figure before a submarine enters the ‘crush depth’.
In the event of an implosion, the wreck would sink to the bottom of the ocean, where it may remain for years. The release of radioactive material would be a significant environmental issue, similar to what has been seen in Russia and Japan. Dr Kaushal further commented on this: “A single Trident [submarine] suffering potentially catastrophic damage, and radioactive material being irretrievable, would be a significant problem from a national security standpoint, but the environmental consequences, although severe, would not be immediately catastrophic.”
Fortunately, the Royal Navy was able to avoid such a disaster this time. However, it serves as a reminder of the power and potential danger of nuclear submarines, and the need for the utmost care in their operation.
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