KITTERY, Maine — A fire inside a nuclear-powered submarine reached its greatest intensity in the control room, where charred wires, burned metal and melted glass remained after the removal of soot-covered debris, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said Monday, giving the first glimpse of damage inside the USS Miami.
Investigators are looking into whether the extreme heat may have damaged the integrity of the metal hull, which must withstand extreme pressure under sea, Pingree said.
The hull’s integrity plays into the cost of repairs, which will determine whether the Los Angeles-class attack submarine is scrapped or returns to sea, she said.
“The real question centers on whether we can bring this sub back into service again,” said Pingree, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “They’re very busy trying to come up with an estimate. They’ve removed a lot of debris and are getting down to what the nature of the damage is.”
Based in Connecticut, the $900 million submarine was in dry dock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for an overhaul when a fire broke out on May 23.
Firefighters said insulation and wiring fueled a stubborn blaze that they battled for 10 hours, with firefighting reinforcements coming from as far away as Boston and New London, Conn. The metal hull trapped heat inside, turning the front part of the 360-foot-long sub into a superheated oven.
Workers began an assessment and cleanup last week. Pingree became the first member of Congress to get a look inside when she toured the sub Monday, observing the fire-damaged control room as well as the nuclear propulsion area in the rear of the sub, which was not affected by the fire.
Even after the cleanup, there was evidence of an intense fire in the forward portion of the sub, where the fire damaged command and control, crew quarters and the torpedo room, Pingree said. The smell of smoke hung in the air, even in areas untouched by the fire, she said.
The USS Miami was three months into a 20-month overhaul when the fire broke out. If the sub is scrapped, the workers would lose out on many months of work.
If the submarine is repaired, an older sub that was decommissioned last year could be used for spare parts, Pingree said. The USS Memphis was the oldest active Los Angeles-class submarine before it was decommissioned last year, and it has been at the shipyard as part of the deactivation process.
The Navy and the shipyard are working under the assumption that the Miami will be repaired and that the work will be done at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Pingree said.
Paul O’Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council, said there’s no doubt that it can be repaired, but the bigger question is whether it’s worth the cost.
All indications so far suggest the repairs would cost less than a preliminary estimate of $1 billion by Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Pingree said. The congressional delegation and the Navy “will be anxious to do it if it can be done for a reasonable cost,” she said.
Multiple investigations of the fire are under way and the first findings are expected in a couple of weeks.
Working against the USS Miami is its age. The submarine was commissioned 22 years ago, making it one of the older of the Navy’s 54 Los Angeles-class nuclear submarines.
Working in the sub’s favor was that the fire was confined to only part of the sub, sensitive equipment had been removed, and the fact that the propulsion system was unaffected.
Back in the late 1990s, the Navy had more than 90 submarines. Tt’s projected there will be only 44 subs in 2020, so the Navy doesn’t want to lose the USS Miami, which originally was expected to serve 12 to 14 more years after its overhaul at the shipyard, Pingree said.
“That makes this more critical. The commanders at sea are calling for these ships and we can’t build them fast enough,” she said. “That makes me think they’ll do everything they can to return this ship to service.”