Now the toxic fumes and smoke have been ventilated from the nuclear submarine USS Miami, the Navy can begin assessing the extent of damage and whether the 22-year-old submarine can be saved.

The conclusion could have implications not just for American sea power, but also for workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, where the sub is in the third month of a 20-month overhaul.

Fire burned for about 10 hours from Tuesday afternoon into early Wednesday morning, damaging the crew compartment, command and control area and torpedo room in the front half of the sub.

“The USS Miami represents about 2 percent of the U.S. Navy attack submarine fleet. If it doesn’t return to service, the Navy has lost 2 percent of its undersea warfare capabilities,” said Loren Thompson, an analyst at Arlington, Va.-based think tank Lexington Institute. “However when you have a fire burning in a confined space of that facility for (many) hours, the likelihood it would make financial sense to return it to service is pretty low.”

Thompson said the Los Angeles class attack submarines which includes the Miami, were developed during the Cold War, even though the Miami was commissioned in 1990.

“This is a relatively old ship,” he said. “The technology has changed a lot since it was designed. You have to do trade-offs about whether it really makes economic sense to spend the 100s of millions of dollars to return it to service.”

However, Vice Adm. Kevin M. McCoy, commander of the Naval Sea Systems Command, told U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, that he hopes that the sub can be repaired. He said that many vital components escaped damage because they had been removed for the 20-month overhaul and that salvage parts are available from previously decommissioned Los Angeles-class subs.

“He said, ‘We’ve built submarines, so we can fix them as well,'” said Snowe, who toured the shipyard Friday as did Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, both members of the Armed Services Committee,.

The USS Miami’s nuclear propulsion components at the back of the sub weren’t harmed.

The fate of the submarine could influence the livelihoods of many shipyard workers.

“There are many thousands of work hours associated with the overhaul of nuclear submarine,” Thompson said. “If the work is not now going to be done it’s going to create a gap in the shipyard’s work schedule.”

“It’s not just the amount of hours, but different tasks require different skills. Depending on what stage it’s at, some people could be in surplus supply. There could be more people than needed for the near term,” he said.

Paul O’Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council, said his union is concerned about the possible loss of work is the submarine is scrapped.

Eric Wertheim, a U.S. Naval Institute author, characterized the USS Miami fire as a financial disaster, with the potential loss of a submarine that cost $900 million to build, but not a true disaster like the losses of the USS Scorpion and Thresher, nuclear subs that sank during peacetime with a loss of their crews.

“It’s important to put it into perspective,” Wertheim said. “It could’ve been a lot worse.”

On Friday, two days after the blaze began, workers at the shipyard finished pumping fresh air into the fire-damaged sub, allowing Navy investigators to enter to begin the first damage assessment. It remains to be seen whether the submarine can be salvaged.

Three Navy investigative teams were dispatched to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to help determine what caused the fire, the senators told reporters.

If the submarine is retired, it would mostly be recycled.

Thompson said such a fire is extremely rare.

“The U.S. Navy has the highest safety standards in the world,” he said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this story


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