Three Submarine Radiation Stories
I reported to my assigned sub in the relatively early days of nuclear submarining. In fact, because Red China had just tested a large weapon that released radioactive particles in upper atmospheric winds, all U.S. nuclear subs had to take an unusual precaution to prevent tracking radiation inside (which would confound normal radiation safety measurements). Unnecessary hatches are typically closed when use is not anticipated. What precaution was taken then? Contrary to a popular housekeeping myth, we never used screen doors; we simply wiped our shoes on approved doormats, however, for the next month or two.
radiation sickness noun.
Illness induced by exposure to ionizing radiation, ranging in severity from nausea, vomiting, headache, and diarrhea to loss of hair and teeth, reduction in red and white blood cell counts, extensive hemorrhaging, sterility, and death.
Submariners have good teeth. Diseased ones are fixed or pulled. In fact, perfectly good third molars were pulled to prevent impactions and infections on deployments. Submarine missions, you see, are critical. No submariner I knew of had a toothache during deployment.
What about the the other radiation symptoms: nausea, vomiting, headache, diarrhea, loss of hair, reduction in red and white blood cell counts, extensive hemorrhaging, sterility, and death? Not applicable from ionizing radiation, and cooking was generally excellent. Medically, submariners must be healthy human specimens, too, so other than sea sickness (really acute in log-hulled vessels in shallow waters) initial loss of hair was the only mild symptom. Even so, it was expected and short lasting.
Crew radiation exposure is monitored and cumulative, total rem are measured and recorded for the duration of assignments and each individual upon discharge (earlier as required) is provided his cumulative exposure.
When I was being discharged at Treasure Island during the Cold War, one other submariner was in my group. He was from a different sub. Who would expect that our cumulative dosages would have been identical to the last decimal point? We did not care, neither of us was worried about it.
U.S. nuclear submarines were safe thanks to one admiral, who fought the majority, the penny pinchers and sellouts. His name, of course, was Rickover.
Recently, the U.S. Navy reacted quickly to allay fears of a radiation leak from the submarine U.S.S. Honolulu in Japan. "The concentration of radioactivity reported in the water sample is about 5,000 times less than the naturally occurring radioactivity found in sea water throughout the world," Naval Forces Japan spokesman Jon Nylander said.
Radiation fears arise as Yokosuka prepares to permanently port the U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington in 2008. Local opposition to nuclear-powered American naval vessels remains a sensitive issue in Japan, which is the only country to have been victim to atomic attacks (August 1945).
Freedom from radioactive contamination was not the case for the conventional submarine (SS-305) USS Skate, however. Skate was one of the target submarines used in Operation Crossroads (Able and Baker tests) consisting of two, 21-kiloton detonations. Prior to July 1946, only three atomic bombs had ever been detonated. Bomb number one was the "Trinity Test" on 16 July 1945, in New Mexico.
Although badly damaged in the Able test, the submarine was towed back to an isolated berth in Pearl Harbor before her second test. Note the Keep Clear Danger Very Radioactive sign in the above photo. Skate in Pearl Harbor and the USS Honolulu in Japan. What a difference in contamination! The diesel sub was much more radioactive. Submarines, always silent and strange.