LONDON (AP) - Nuclear submarines from Britain and France
collided deep in the Atlantic Ocean this month, authorities said
Monday in the first acknowledgment of a highly unusual accident
that one expert called the gravest in nearly two decades.
Officials said the low-speed crash did not damage the vessels'
nuclear reactors or missiles or cause radiation to leak. But
anti-nuclear groups said it was still a frightening reminder of the
risks posed by submarines prowling the oceans powered by
radioactive material and bristling with nuclear weapons.
The first public indication of a mishap came when France
reported in a little-noticed Feb. 6 statement that one of its
submarine had struck a submerged object - perhaps a shipping
container. But confirmation of the accident only came after British
media reported it.
France's defense ministry said Monday that the sub Le Triomphant
and the HMS Vanguard, the oldest vessel in Britain's nuclear-armed
submarine fleet, were on routine patrol when they collided in the
Atlantic this month. It did not say exactly when, where or how the
France said that Le Triomphant suffered damage to a sonar dome -
where navigation and detection equipment is stored - and limped
home to its base on L'Ile Longue on France's western tip. HMS
Vanguard returned to a submarine base in Scotland with visible
dents and scrapes, the BBC reported.
"The two submarines came into contact at very low speed,"
Britain's First Sea Lord, Admiral Jonathon Band, said. Band,
Britain's most senior naval officer, offered no further
HMS Vanguard came into service in 1993, has a crew of around 140
and typically carries 16 Lockheed Trident D5 missiles. Under
government policy, British nuclear submarines carry a maximum of 48
warheads. At least one of Britain's four submarines is on patrol
and ready to fire at any given time.
France's Le Triomphant carries 111 crew and 15 nuclear missiles,
according to defense analysis group Jane's.
"This is the most severe incident involving a nuclear submarine
since the sinking of the Kursk in 2000 and the first time since the
Cold War that two nuclear-armed subs are known to have collided,"
said Kate Hudson, head of Britain's Campaign for Nuclear
Russia's Kursk nuclear submarine crashed to the bottom of the
Barents Sea during a training voyage in August 2000, killing all
118 crew members.
In March 2007 two British sailors were killed in an explosion on
board HMS Tireless during a war game beneath the Arctic ice cap.
The same submarine crashed into an object, possibly an iceberg,
while on patrol in the Arctic in May 2003. And in November 2002 HMS
Trafalgar suffered considerable external damage after running
aground on rocks off Scotland while taking part in a two-week
"It's an absolute one in a million chance that the two
submarines were in the same place at the same time," said Lee
Willett, head of the maritime studies program at the Royal United
Services Institute, a London-based military think tank. "There is
no precedent of an incident like this - it's a freak accident," he
Stephen Saunders, a retired British Royal Navy commodore and the
editor of Jane's Fighting Ships, said that while NATO countries let
each other know what general area of the Atlantic they are
operating in, neither submarine would have had a precise position
for the other.
"This really shouldn't have happened at all," Saunders said.
"It's a very serious incident, and I find it quite
Both Saunders and Willett said submarines don't always turn on
their sonar systems, or make their presence obvious.
"The whole point is to go and hide in a big chunk of ocean and
not be found. They tend to go around very slowly and not make much
noise," Saunders said.
Willett said the greatest risks from an accident would be from a
leak of radioactive waste. An accidental firing of a nuclear weapon
as a result of a crash would be impossible, because of the complex
processes needed to prime and fire a missile, he said.
Stephane Lhomme, a spokesman for the French anti-nuclear group
Sortir du Nucleaire, said his organization is checking the French
coastline for evidence of any leak of radioactive material.
"This reminds us that we could have a new catastrophe with a
nuclear submarine at any moment," Lhomme said.