Posts Tagged nuclear submarine

We all live in a Russian submarine

Delta IV-class SSBNI love nuclear submarines, and I always thought that was a bit weird. Apparently not.

The Cold War-era nuclear submarine, Soviet or American, has become a trope of popular culture. It’s been the setting of movies like The Hunt for Red October, K-19 and the upcoming Phantom. A Soviet sub was even the setting for a recent episode of Doctor Who, appropriately titled “Cold War.”

Why have writers sent everyone from Sean Connery to Harrison Ford to Matt Smith to the depths of the oceans?

It’s certainly not for romance. Submarine service is one of the most arduous forms of duty in any military. Nuclear subs are sent on patrol for as long as six months at a time, and the crews rarely see sunlight. Just like on the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701D), interior lights are the only way crews can differentiate night and day.

It’s cramped, too. Enlisted crew share shelf-like bunks, each man (during the Cold War crews were all male in both the American and Soviet navies) sleeping while the other is on duty. It’s called “hot bunking.”

But what the submarine loses in comparisons with Paris in springtime it makes up for in drama. Submariners are literally under pressure: at the depths they operate, submarines have to withstand many atmospheres of pressure, which threatens to crush a boat that dives too deep.

Hunt for Red October posterOf course, there was plenty of mental pressure as well.

Nuclear ballistic missile submarines or “boomers,” like the Typhoon-class Red October from the eponymous film, or the Ohio-class USS Alabama from Crimson Tide, patrolled (and continue to patrol) the oceans loaded with more destructive power than all of the weapons detonated in World War II.

During the Cold War, submarines were an insurance policy for both sides. The United States and the Soviet Union relied on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the certainty that if one side fired a volley of nukes, the other would answer it, to avert an apocalyptic global war.

Submarines were an especially good way to maintain MAD, because they are virtually impossible to detect. They run too deep for anything but below-surface sonar to be effective, and having two-thirds of the Earth’s surface to hide in definitely gives the boomer captain the advantage. That’s why the U.S. Navy calls its submarine fleet the “Silent Service.”

World War III could have easily started hundreds of feet below the surface of the sea. In addition to being perfect fodder for military drama, that scenario also ties submarines to the Cold War in the public imagination.

Doctor Who Cold WarWhich brings us back to Doctor Who. He can travel anywhere in time and space, surely Earth’s Cold War is a less interesting background than an alien hot war.

In the episode, where the Doctor and companion Clara are accidentally dumped on a sinking Russian sub with a frozen (and belligerent) Martian, the sub serves as the quintessential 1980s backdrop.

“Hair, shoulder pads, nukes. It’s the ‘80s. Everything’s bigger,” the Doctor declares while trying to acclimate Clara. He’s simultaneously doing the same for an audience twenty-plus years removed from the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So the submarine has gone from harbinger of doom to ‘80s set piece. There’s even a Russian professor who’s obsessed with Duran Duran.

With so much resonance, the Cold War submarine might just be one of the most under-appreciated pop culture tropes around, which is fairly appropriate for a Silent Service.

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Epoch tech

Ford NucleonTechnology has a way of defining the times that create it. That’s why we have so many technological “ages.” Humanity has seen the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and even the Atomic Age. In a way, the current Digital Age is just repeating history. Like those past ages, the Digital Age features one epoch-defining technology (the Internet) that people try to apply to everything. If the past is any indication, that won’t work.

In 1945, the United States dropped two Atomic bombs on Japan, ending World War II and beginning an age of nuclear experimentation. In hindsight, playing around with radioactive materials seems a tad silly, but in the 1950s scientists couldn’t get enough of the stuff.

As with the Internet and stone tools, nuclear reactions quickly outgrew their original use. Navy Admiral Hyman G. Rickover quickly figured out that nuclear powered ships would almost never have to be refueled; the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus was launched in 1954. Concurrently, nuclear reactors were seen as a way to provide limitless quantities of cheap electricity.

That’s when things started to get out of hand. Soon, the Air Force was testing airborne reactors for a nuclear-powered bomber. In addition to the obvious safety risks, the reactor and its shielding would have been so heavy that the nuclear bomber would have had trouble taking off. Ford even created a (non-functioning) atomic car, the Nucleon, for the 1958 auto show circuit.

But these were fringe ideas; no one would actually buy a nuclear-powered car. No matter how great a new technology seems, it can’t fit every application. The best example of that is a less-ambitious project: the nuclear cargo ship.

In 1955, President Eisenhower proposed building such a ship as part of his “Atoms for Peace” program, which was meant to showcase peaceful uses of nuclear technology. The NS Savannah seemed like a perfect case: it took the nuclear propulsion technology from Navy warships and applied it to civilian commerce. By the time the Savannah was launched in 1959, the Nautilus had already logged over 60,000 nautical miles on nuclear power, and sailed under the North Pole. Atomic seafaring seemed like a sure bet; like the Nautilus, the Savannah was meant to demonstrate the effectiveness of atomic energy.

NS Savannah cutawayThe keyword is “seemed.” Nuclear power may have worked on an attack submarine, but it was not ideally suited to hauling freight. In fact, the Savannah’s novel system of propulsion upset an ancient precedent in maritime labor. Traditionally, deck officers on merchant ships were paid more than engineering officers. However, on the Savannah, the engineering officers needed extra training to run the ship’s reactors, earning them more pay than the deck officers. The labor dispute ultimately made the ship economically unfeasible.

The cost of running a nuclear ship completely outweighed the Savannah’s positive attributes. She could steam at a heady 24 knots consistently, and only needed to be refueled once every 20 years. Still, the U.S. Maritime Administration determined that it costs $2 million more per year to operate the Savannah than a conventional cargo ship. Nuclear technology was simply too complex for the low-budget world of international shipping. Unlike the Navy, shipping companies only cared about profits, and they didn’t need the Savannah’s speed and fuel economy, not when oil was so cheap.

Today, we risk falling into the same trap. Both private companies and the government think the Internet is the solution to everything. They believe people’s bills, medical records, and shopping will be inherently better in digital form. Digital technology has given the world some amazing things, just as nuclear technology gave the world the Nautilus and the atomic clock. Yet not every problem can be solved with an app, just as not every vehicle can work better with a nuclear reactor.

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