back to article Sub-prang panic: Calm down, it happens all the time

There's widespread media panic at moment over the news that French and British nuclear-missile submarines collided beneath the Atlantic earlier this month. But in fact atomic-powered and -armed submarines have been bumping into each other - and sometimes sinking - for decades with no significant effects. No, seriously. They …


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  1. Jimmy Floyd

    Sacré bleu!

    I'd rather hope that the British and French could actually trust each other with their respective locations but that the French couldn't necessarily trust the British not to tell the Americans (and visa versa).

    A nuclear war between the UK and France would be the most pointless you could imagine; over before you could say "Eurostar to Paris."

  2. Lon Bailey
    Black Helicopters

    Surely all the Russian sub bits have been collected?

    "...The Soviets and then Russians are thought to have lost eight subs with warheads and/or reactors aboard at sea..." - didn't the CIA collected bits of these with the Glomar Explorer (or some other ship) and took them back to the States for studies?

  3. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Thumb Up


    Congrats for an eminently reasonable position.

    It also hear the ex-Soviet navy has a few radioactive rustbuckets hanging in shallow water up North / already dumped onto the sea bottom with minimal supervision and leaching into the foodchain. Apparently no-one gives a f*ck?

    We will now retune to Andrew's "Climate Change is a Global Conspiracy!!1!" attitude...

  4. Richard

    How I learned to stop panicking about nuclear submarine accidents...

    And love the bomb.

  5. Eddy Ito Silver badge

    That's it!!

    I can't take anymore. This type of abuse and propagation of ignorance simply must stop! Goldfish are far higher minded and possess a memory several orders of magnitude greater than 90% of the worlds media and 99.95% or the worlds politicians. For the love of krill and all things wholly, they are just simple peace loving carp, why must they endure this kind of humiliation.

    Apology accepted.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    And what's more...

    Although the ocean's just huge, the subs aren't randomly distributed in it. They follow features and currents and move through specific choke points on their way to and from deployment areas. (Which is why we used to try to keep count of the Red navy passing Iceland by means of an intercontinental sonar welcome mat.) And like aircraft they have standard operational cruising depths, depending on technology and geography, so a bump or near miss isn't nearly as unlikely as it seems even if they aren't aware of each other and playing hide and seek. (Which nobody's going to admit to if they were in this case.)

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Frenchies

    can't tell where they are so can't tell anyone else. Something about being useless sailors.

    As for not knwoing about enviro damage - how many mutant fish are being created in the depths that sub crash at ? Oiltankers are obvious and can be monitored when pumping out oil onto seabirds but who goes and checked radiation levels on subs which crash and no-one knows exactly where they are ?

  8. Ian Emery Silver badge

    another boot note

    That makes it's displacement MORE than the Ark Royal!!!

  9. Bruno Girin
    Thumb Up

    Common sense?

    Some common sense in the press about this incident? Surely not!

    Having seen the result of a major oil spill first hand (Amoco Cadiz, 227,000 tons of crude spilt in Portsall, Brittany in 1978--showing my age now), I can confirm that man hasn't yet invented anything that could destroy a marine eco-system any better in combined terms of speed, and surface impacted. A nuclear warhead exploding under water would probably bring faster destruction but on a much smaller scale, whereas over-fishing is slower but on a larger scale. In terms of time needed for the ecosystem to recover, I'm not sure which one is worse.

    And Amoco Cadiz is only the largest ever oil spill due to a tanker grounding. There have been larger spills due to other "acts of man", such as the one caused by the Iraqi troups sabotaging oil wells and refineries when retreating from Kuwait during Gulf War I: somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000 tons of crude.

  10. Ben

    Nuclear Accidents

    So, all those underwater nuclear accidents have had no impact? Which studies would you be referring to? Oh, you aren't. You're just saying whatever you like.

    The impact of Nuclear is institutionally downplayed. Perhaps it would do a great deal of good to remind yourself what *really* happened at Chernobyl. It is, of course, far simpler to ignore accidents that happen underwater.

    Of course, over the last few thousand years we have driven a huge number of species (of comparable size and sophistication) into extinction for a wide variety of reasons. Lets not add another cause, which takes over 250,000 years before it begins to go away.. eh?

  11. goggyturk

    More importantly...

    we need to develop a system that will allow insurance details to be easily passed between boats when Le Captain Clouseau strikes again. Registration, address and phone number will be sufficient - maybe they could use Whalesong communicators for this (invented for Star Trek IV)?

    Hell, even semaphore (by light) or Morse code (sound) will work underwater!

    As for the 'OMG RADIATION KILLZ' headlines, there's also a growing body of evidence, based partially on studies of Chernobyl and Hiroshima survirors and their descendants, that demonstrates that the damage caused to future generations is actually low. In the cases studied, most of the damage was done by the immediate effects of the disaster (blast, ingesting radioactive materials, etc).

  12. Gianni Straniero

    Allez les bleus

    I'm not entirely surprised Boney doesn't trust the UK with the whereabouts of his subs. After all, our government can't even be trusted with the whereabouts of its child benefit claimants.

    I don't share your attitude towards these sunken reactors and warheads, however. Presumably the subs were lost in fairly deep water, and so are beyond the reach of current salvage technology. It follows that, since the deep ocean is a comparatively stable environment, the reactor cores &c are not likely to be bumped about too much. But eventually these things will leak, and their U & Pu contents will get washed around the place.

    While I agree the risk is low, and extremely hard to quantify, I don't think it's non-existent.

  13. Danny Silver badge

    Don't Panic, Don't Panic!!!

    I take it the French sub was less badly damaged since it got back to port first citing a collision with a container, which seems an impolite description of HMS Vanguard - are there many semi-submerged containers ? Some news-gonk just suggested fitting the submarines with windows, but I don't think this can be blamed on Microsoft yet.

    I was more concerned when HMS Trafalgar crashed into the isle of Skye since I lived there at the time. Presumably Skye was operating in stealth mode and so undetectable by passive sonar. The RN then really pissed everyone in Broadford by issuing Iodine tablets and holding public meetings saying things like 'Our ships are perfectly safe in your X Berth but accidents will happen'. They even showed a map of the expected fallout and described evacuation plans to the nearest hospital, failing to realise the hospital itself was within the 'red zone'. It was like the Royal Navy were doing CNDs job for them.

    I loathe active sonar after seeing the whale and dolphin beechings around the Qinetic base in Kyle, I think that is a global risk to ceteceans more serious than the odd nuclear leak or even bang.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Distinguished by project numbers 971 & 941

    Further information on incidents from Bellona Foundation

  15. Peyton
    Paris Hilton

    I still would have liked

    To see info on the "odds" - yeah, I know, you don't have to figure [surface area of earth] * 75% - yes, it's smaller than that, there are more factors yada yada yada... but the explanation given for these "fender benders" involved purposefully tailing enemies... I would hope that doesn't apply here.

  16. Neil Porter


    have the french surrendered yet?

  17. James Hughes

    semi submerged containers

    To answer the question - there are bloody thousands of the things floating around the world, waiting to surprise yachts and break their keels off. Probably all leeching god knows what in to the sea. Probably worse than any noocleah sub accidents.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Another recent incident

    The US did lose Thresher & Scorpion, but that was because of a misdesign of the emergency blow valves, so they weren't collisions.

    However there was the sub a couple years ago that came in missing the sonar dome, and actually let everyone see the super-secret sonar globe before they were able to throw a sheet over it. That was attributed to "um, we bumped into something" - anybody remember this one? Google is failing me with all the recent crapfloods about this incident.

  19. Mike Richards

    French nukes

    The French actually have three missile submarines, Le Triomphant, Téméraire and Vigilant. A fourth, Terrible, is under construction.

  20. Anonymous Coward

    Various stuff

    1) IIRC: the "Crazy Ivan" maneuver wasn't simply turning around to investigate the blind spot behind the sub (as seen in The Hunt for Red October), it was actually a sub version of the game chicken. The Soviet sub would do a 180, then proceed along its former path at a fairly high rate of speed. This way, any training US or British sub would be forced to respond by making a high speed move of its own, thus revealing itself.

    2) One of the anti-nuclear groups referred to this latest incident as something like "a nuclear disaster of the highest order". Maybe I'm odd, but I'd think that an explosion of a nuclear weapon or two would be of higher order than this incident, thereby making this something less than the "highest order".

    Mine's the one with the lead shielding.

  21. Kevin

    When subs collide

    Given that these stealthy nuclear deterrent submarines are supposed to be undetectable - isn't this collision "by design"?

  22. Martin Silver badge

    Not quite the same thing

    These were both missile boats so shouldn't really have been shadowing anybody.

    Either one (or both) were playing silly buggers by seeing if they could shadow the other or they both were going to the same place.

    Presumably because they share a common enemy - the RAF!

    Still, makes a change from ramming fishing boats.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    One boat, not many missiles

    Even in the cold war the UK would generally only have one boat on patrol at a time, and it would often only have about four missiles on board. The missiles have a limited shelf life when at sea and need to be rotated out for maintenance. So to keep costs down they'd go out with the bare minimum.

  24. b166er

    Fish-eye cameras

    can't they just fit the above and have someone staffing some monitors?

    Do night vision goggles work at those depths?

  25. Martin Silver badge

    @Fish-eye cameras

    The problem with your basic deep sea is that it's pretty black, and your basic submarine is black, so it's pretty difficult to see one against the other.

  26. Mike Kamermans


    You in turn seem to forget the difference between a reactor big enough to power cities, and a reactor big enough to power only a single submarine. Not to mention the fact that Chernobyl melted above ground, whereas subs are, in fact, under water.

    Even if a nuclear explosion occurred under water, spread and reach are completely different (ie, far more contained) and unlike air, which is mostly composed of large amounts of nothing with some gas molecules mostly never touching each other, water at submarine level is a densely packed material perfectly capable of taking the blow of nuclear fallout, rather than letting all the radiation wibble for miles and miles. The effect of a nuclear sub actually having a meltdown (which in itself requires virtually impossible levels of mechanical tampering, not uppy-blowy-action of the sub) would be minute compared to what happened at Chernobyl. Even if it happened above ground. However, under water the effects are truly incomparable to the effect the fisheries have on the state of the ocean and its wildlife.

    Feel free to reference something that isn't a google video, but an actual scientific study, before getting riled up about the lack of scientific references in the article =)

  27. Steven Jones


    Nuclear polution is a non-issue for the natural environment. The Chernobyl explosion was the best thing that could have happened to the local fauna and flora. All those pesky human beings and their destructive habits, like agriculture, have gone from the area and the local wildlife is thriving. These days there is no real detectable evidence of any adverse effects to wildlife other than very close to the reactor. Of course wildlife is not too concerned about relatively small increases in some cancers - it's just another relatively small element to add to the already high mortality. However, human beings don't feel quite that way, especially as these days we expect to live to (by natural standards) exceptionally long lives.

    It's always a big mistake to confuse human interests with those of other creatures. If we stopped fishing an area due to a fear of ingesting nuclear contamination, then the natural world will be happily clapping their flippers and fins together. It's industrial fishing and human displacement that affects them - not the relatively minor issue of a little bit of background radioactive contamination. An all-out nuclear war might not be quite the same thing, but that's not the issue here.

    This was James Lovelock's take on nuclear contamination

    "A television interviewer once asked me, 'But what about nuclear waste? Will it not poison the whole biosphere and persist for millions of years? ' I knew this to be a nightmare fantasy wholly without substance in the real world... One of the striking things about places heavily contaminated by radioactive nuclides is the richness of their wildlife. This is true of the land around Chernobyl, the bomb test sites of the Pacific, and areas near the United States' Savannah River nuclear weapons plant of the Second World War. Wild plants and animals do not perceive radiation as dangerous, and any slight reduction it may cause in their lifespans is far less a hazard than is the presence of people and their pets...

    Now I'm not one of those who decry green issues as many of the commentors on this site appear to be. However, I'm no fan of the new-age, head in the clouds, sentimentalised stuff that a lot of so-called environmentalists trot out as truth.

  28. Oli Beaumont

    Voice of reason

    May I just say how pleased I was to see Lewis on the BBC news the other morning, giving their coverage a bit of perspective? Thanks.

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