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USS Scorpion (SSN-589)

On 22 May 1968, the USS Scorpion (SSN-589), a Skipjack-class nuclear submarine was lost at sea while crossing the Atlantic on the way to her homeport of Norfolk, VA. The Navys initial search and rescue efforts were fruitless, as they conducted an unproductive search westward from the last known location of the Scorpion.

USS Scorpion, a 3500-ton Skipjack class nuclear-powered attack submarine was built at Groton, Connecticut and commissioned in July of 1960. The sixth Scorpion (SSN-589) was laid down on 20 August 1958 by the Electric Boat Division, General Dynamics Corp., Groton, Conn.; launched on 19 December 1959; sponsored by Mrs. Elizabeth S. Morrison; and commissioned on 29 July 1960, Comdr. Norman B. Bessac in command.

Assigned to Submarine Squadron 6, Division 62, Scorpion departed New London, Conn., on 24 August for a two-month deployment in European waters. During that period, she participated in exercises with units of the 6th Fleet and of other NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] navies. After returning to New England in late October, she trained along the eastern seaboard until May 1961, then crossed the Atlantic again for operations which took her into the summer. On 9 August, she returned to New London and, a month later, shifted to Norfolk, Va.

With Norfolk her home port for the remainder of her career, Scorpion specialized in the development of nuclear submarine warfare tactics. Varying her role from hunter to hunted, she participated in exercises which ranged along the Atlantic coast and in the Bermuda and Puerto Rican operating areas; then, from June 1963 to May 1964, she interrupted her operations for an overhaul at Charleston, S.C. Resuming duty off the eastern seaboard in late spring, she again interrupted that duty from 4 August to 8 October to make a transatlantic patrol. In the spring of 1965, she conducted a similar patrol in European waters.

During the late winter and early spring of 1966, and again in the fall, she was deployed for special operations. Following the completion of those assignments, her commanding officer received the Navy Commendation Medal for outstanding leadership, foresight, and professional skill. Other Scorpion officers and men were cited for meritorious achievement.

On 1 February 1967, Scorpion entered the Norfolk Naval Shipyard for another extended overhaul. In late October, she commenced refresher training and weapons system acceptance tests. Following type training out of Norfolk, she got underway on 15 February 1968 for a Mediterranean deployment.

Scorpion was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet and took part in the development of submarine warfare tactics. In one particular operational exercise, Scorpion was tasked to operate against Task Force Bravo -- an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) group centered on an ASW carrier (CVS).

Operating at periscope depth, the Scorpion raised its radar mast and radiated. Every electronic support measures [ESM] set in the task force was tuned exactly to Scorpion's frequency. Two escort ship -- the "pouncers" of that period's doctrine -- broke off from the group and raced toward their ESM intercept. The Scorpion's masts were lowered and the Scorpion corkscrewed down to test depth, leaving the world's biggest "knuckle" of turbulent, bubble-filled water remaining as a sonar-reflective column. Proceeding toward the battle group, Scorpion slowed, came back to periscope depth, and simulated shooting both units as they raced past toward their target.

She operated with the 6th Fleet, into May, and then headed west for home. On 21 May, she indicated her position to be about 50 miles south of the Azores. Six days later, she was reported overdue at Norfolk.

SSN 589 SCORPION was lost on 22 May 1968 with 12 officers and 87 enlisted men -- one of the worst casualties in the Navy's history. Its destruction occurred only five days before its scheduled return to Norfolk. The crew left behind 64 widows and 99 children. Some wives, pregnant at the time, later gave birth, adding to the number of children who lost fathers. The Sailors represented 25 states, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

Of the 12 officers and 87 enlisted men who perished, most were younger than 25. The agony of the families began on May 27, 1968, as they waited dockside in Norfolk, Va., for the Scorpion's scheduled return. When it didn't arrive the families were sent home, only to learn from inquiring news reporters that the submarine was missing. Countless night-long vigils ensued at crewmembers' families homes until the ship was officially declared "presumed lost at sea" on June 5. Her name was struck from the Navy list on 30 June. The submarine would later be found in mid-October.

In July 1968 the USS SCORPION Court of Inquiry was reviewed by the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Naval Ordnance Systems Command, Naval Ship Systems Command and the Oceanographer of the Navy. The Chief of Naval Operations concurews with the Court's opinion that the certain cause for the loss of SCORPION was not ascertainable from any evidence then available.

Based on prior experience with such problems and an analysis of the accoustic signature of the Scorpion loss, the Navy initially concluded that the most probable cause of the loss of the Scorpion was the launch of an inadvertently activated torpedo, which turned and struck the submarine. A six-month search eventually located the Scorpion's wreckage some 400 miles southwest of the Azores.

Dr. John Craven, a scientist in the Navys Special Project Division, was brought in to help. Cravens theory was that the Scorpion had been lost due to a catastrophic failure caused by a hot running torpedo. He posited that the crew of the Scorpion likely turned the vessel 180 degrees (heading eastward) in an attempt to disarm the weapon. Craven reached his conclusion by aggregating the opinions of submarine and salvage experts regarding both the fate and location of the Scorpion, asking them to place bets on a map of the sea floor. It was not until October, after the Navy had nearly called off the search and Craven lobbied for an additional two weeks to search eastward, that the Scorpion was foundwithin 220 yards of where Craven and his team predicted.

Dr. Gordon Hamilton, an acoustics expert who pioneered the use of hydroacoustics to pinpoint Polaris missile splashdown locations, was instrumental in analyzing the acoustic signals from the Navy's underwater SOSUS listening system, to provide a search box where the Scorpion was finally located.

At the end of October 1968, the Navy's oceanographic research ship, Mizar, located sections of SCORION's hull in more than 10,000 feet of water about 400 miles southwest of the Azores. Subsequently, other vessels, including the submersible, Trieste, were dispatched to the scene, In December 1968 the Navy Court of Inquiry was reconvened on 6 November 1968 to consider new evidence which had come to light since the Court adjourned on 25 July 1968. Despite the myriad of data and pictures collected and studied, the cause of the loss remained a mystery.

Investigation of the boat's wreckage on the ocean floor found no evidence of torpedo damage. A six-month expedition in 1969 by Trieste II found no direct evidence to support the theory that the Scorpion was destroyed by a torpedo. While some portions of the Scorpion's hull were never found, the wreckage that was examined did not exhibit the conditions expected from the hydrostatic implosion of a submarine hull structure.

Photographs taken at a depth 10,000 feet, 400 miles southwest of the Azores included a stern view of the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS SCORPION (SSN-589) showing the upper portion of the rudder (with draft markings) and the port stern plane. The impact with the ocean floor caused the after portion of the engine room section to be telescoped into the machinery room. The ribs of the stern planes could be seen due to the deformation of the metal covering then and display the massive force which was imparted to the ship upon impact with the sea bottom.

In 1970 a Navy panel completed a classified report that disavowed the Court of Inquiry's conclusion. Instead of an accidental torpedo strike, the new group suggested a mechanical failure caused an irreparable leak that flooded the submarine. That report said the bulk of the evidence suggested an internal explosion in the sub's massive electrical battery caused the sub to flood and sink.

The large number of accoustic signals detected from the loss of the Scorpion was characteristic of a submarine going through deep depths after experiencing substantial flooding, rather than an intact submarine passing through collapse depth. At the time of its loss, the boat had a history of unresolved maintenance problems, poorly functioning safety systems, and had received an extremely abbreviated overhaul prior to its final mission.

After two investigations, the US Navy said it still did not conclusively know what led to the Scorpion's destruction.

SCORPION is in two major sections. The forward hull section including the torpedo room and most of the operations compartment is located in a trench that was formed by the impact of the hull section with the bottom. The sail is detached. The aft hull section including the reactor compartment and engine room is located in a separate trench that was formed by the impact of the hull section with the bottom. The aft section of the engine room is inserted forward into a larger diameter hull section in a manner similar to a telescope.

There were two Mark 45 ASTOR torpedoes with nuclear warheads aboard SCORPION when she was lost in 1968. The warheads were low-yield tactical nuclear weapons. The special nuclear material from the warheads has not been recovered.

The most likely scenario is that the plutonium and uranium core of these weapons has corroded to a heavy, insoluble material soon after the sinking and remains at or close to its original location inside the torpedo room of the submarine. If the corroded materials were released outside the submarine, their large specific gravity and insolubility would cause them to settle in the sediment.

Comprehensive deep ocean radiological monitoring operations were conducted in August and September 1986 at the SCORPION site. The SCORPION site had been previously monitored in 1968 and 1979 and none of the samples obtained showed any evidence of release of radioactivity from the reactor fuel elements. Very low concentrations of cobalt 60 in the form of corrosion products from SCORPION piping systems were detected in sediment. Cobalt 60 is the predominant activated corrosion product found in the reactor coolant piping system on U.S. nuclear powered warships.

Therefore, it was the primary radio-nuclide released when the coolant piping system aboard SCORPION was breached. The conclusion of the earlier surveys was that SCORPION had not had a significant effect on the radioactivity in the environment. The purpose of the monitoring in 1986 was to identify whether radiological conditions had changed and to demonstrate the use of improved sampling and navigation equipment deployed from both a surface ship and a deep ocean submersible.

The 1986 survey confirmed the conclusion of earlier surveys. Fission products were not detected above concentrations typical of world wide fallout levels in sediment, water, or marine life samples. Thus, there continues to be no evidence of release of radioactivity from the reactor fuel elements. Cobalt 60 concentrations in the sediment were generally lower than those found in 1979 as would be expected due to radioactive decay. No cobalt 60 was detected in the large number of fish and other marine life specimens or in undisturbed water samples collected at the SCORPION site. This confirmed that cobalt 60 in the form of insoluble corrosion products is not concentrated in the deep sea food chain.

The maximum cobalt 60 concentration detected in the sediment was 1.16 pCi/gm and most samples contained much less. This is over a factor of ten lower that the concentration of naturally occurring radioactivity in sediment. For perspective, if a person's entire diet contained cobalt 60 at the maximum concentration detected in the sediment in the vicinity of the SCORPION site, that person would receive less than ten percent of the radiation exposure received from natural background radioactivity. Sediment, water, and marine life were analyzed for plutonium isotopes using very sensitive mass spectrometry techniques. The concentrations of total plutonium were not significantly different than the background concentrations due to fallout from past atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. Additional discussion is found in the SCORPION site environmental monitoring report.

The 1986 survey results confirmed that the SCORPION has not had a significant effect on the radioactivity in the environment.

The reactors used in all U.S. Naval submarines and surface ships are designed to minimize potential hazards to the environment even under the most severe casualty conditions such as the actual sinking of the ship. First, the reactor core is so designed that it is physically impossible for it to explode like a bomb. Second, the reactor fuel elements are made of materials that are extremely corrosion resistant, even in sea water. The reactor core could remain submerged in sea water for centuries without releases of fission products while the radioactivity decays, since the protective cladding on the fuel elements corrodes only a few millionths of an inch per year.

Thus, in the event of a serious accident where the reactor is completely submerged in sea water, the fuel elements will remain intact for an indefinite period of time, and the radioactive material contained in these fuel elements should not be released. The maximum rate of release and dispersal of the radioactivity in the ocean, even if the protective cladding on the fuel were destroyed, would be so low as to be insignificant.

Radioactive material could be released from this type of reactor only if the fuel elements were actually to melt and, in addition, the high-strength, all-welded reactor system boundary were to rupture. The reactor's many protective devices and inherent self-regulating features are designed to prevent any melting of the fuel elements. Flooding of a reactor with sea water furnishes additional cooling for the fuel elements and so provides added protection against the release of radioactive fission products.

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Page last modified: 21-02-2016 20:14:40 ZULU