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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Trench 94: Nuclear Submarine Graveyard of the United States Navy

When a nuclear submarine is retired, what happens to it?

Ever wonder what happens to nuclear submarines after they go out of service? That is after they are decommissioned, where are their extremely radioactive cores stored? There is a location in the United States known as Trench 94 that functions as a nuclear submarine graveyard, housing numerous obsolete reactors that are kept there indefinitely.

Furthermore, even though the site is safe and has been built to lessen the effects of its radioactive residents on the environment, the number of retired cores will probably increase over the next few years.

The proliferation of nuclear-powered submarines

A questionable representation of technological advancement is nuclear submarines. They can travel an infinite distance across all of the world’s oceans thanks to their atomic fuel, and they can run continuously for up to 20 years before needing to be refueled. These vessels only slow down for a large portion of their lives because of the humans they carry—those bothersome humans and their need for food and rest.

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During a war, having the capacity to operate continuously without requiring refueling is extremely advantageous. Unlike their diesel-powered counterparts, nuclear-powered submarines are not at risk of being discovered by sly adversaries because they do not have to surface to obtain air for their engines.

These useful vessels were first tested in 1953, having been developed amid the nuclear era in the 1940s. The USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, was eventually launched in 1955.

From this point on, the technology developed quickly and was used for a variety of other vessels, including cruisers (USS Long Beach) and aircraft carriers (USS Enterprise). The US Navy operated 26 nuclear submarines by the end of 1962, and another 30 were in the process of being built.

While other nuclear power states—those who had previously created and tested nuclear weapons—like France, Russia, and China, developed their versions, Britain was granted access to the technology at the same time.

There were more than 400 nuclear-powered submarines in service or under development worldwide by the time the Cold War ended in 1989. Today, that figure is much lower, at about 150, though India is now among the nations developing vessels, and other nations, like Brazil and Australia, are looking into their options.

Apart from nuclear submarines, certain nations have also created nuclear-powered ships for non-military use, like Russia’s icebreakers that scour the Arctic. In the 1970s, Japan also attempted to develop its nuclear-powered alternatives, but these failed to take off.

The massive graveyard of reactors

The extremely hazardous cores of reactors must be removed before they can be scrapped. First, the vessels are divided into sections to extract the reactor core and its fuel, which is shipped to Idaho National Laboratory in the US. The surrounding hull, the lead shielding of the reactor, and the fuel assemblies are all contained in the section that is removed.

After being removed, the so-called “dry casks” are moved up the Columbia River, offloaded at the Port of Benton, and then transported by truck to a location in Hanford, Washington. This is the location of Trench 94.

The casks are transported to the 1,000-foot (304.8-meter) open-air trench once they arrive. There are currently about 136 casks at the location; Google Maps shows them.

The casks, called High Integrity Containers (HICs), are made to withstand significant damage and retain their radioactive contents for 300 years.

While that is advantageous in the short term, they do pose a problem for future generations, just like most nuclear fuel. As per the US Navy, every cask has approximately 25,000 curies of radiation, which is lethal to humans if exposed to it, and it will remain at approximately 250 curies after a millennium.

This is merely the American ship cemetery; more reactors will be added to their exhausted ranks over time. Every nation possessing nuclear submarines will have dedicated locations for decommissioned fuel. For what length of time, then, can the nuclear cask be thrown down the metaphorical hall?


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I’m Olafare Michael Oluwabukola, a young enthusiast with an insatiable curiosity for the mysteries of science and technology. As a passionate explorer of knowledge, I envisioned a platform that could not only keep us all informed about the latest breakthroughs but also inspire us to marvel at the wonders that surround us.
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