U.S.S. Narwhal SSN-671 (Nuclear Attack Submarine)
USS Narwhal was built by the Electric Boat Division in Groton, CT as a unique vessel, not a member of any class, and operated for over thirty years as a fast attack, anti-submarine warfare, and covert operations submarine. Unlike any other American submarine before or since, Narwhal offered more commodious living spaces for its crew and was one of the quietest American submarines ever built.
The US Navy has always maintained strict secrecy regarding its submarine operations and Narwhal’s history is no exception. The ship operated extensively under the polar ice throughout its career, deploying to waters off the northern Soviet ports to detect and track Soviet fleet operations. The cat and mouse game played throughout the 1960s and 1970s by the American and Russian submarine services remains largely classified, but Narwhal used its stealth and speed to contribute to the American ability to maintain a silent vigil on Soviet fleet operations during the Cold War.
During its career, Narwhal twice entered the shipyard for refueling of its nuclear reactor, and had one non-refueling overhaul in which its sonar and weapons capabilities were enhanced. For the remainder of its career it deployed on lengthy cruises to the Arctic, Mediterranean and Pacific waters.
In 1988, Narwhal was in Charleston for upkeep when that city was ravaged by Hurricane Hugo. Moored in the Cooper River, Narwhal was unable to get underway to escape the storm, as did most of the fleet stationed there. As the eye of the storm approached, the submarine was torn loose of its moorings, and despite efforts of its own crew and fleet tugs, was unable to be made secure. Narwhal submerged in the river, with only portions of its sail exposed, until the remainder of the storm passed, escaping serious damage.
By the 1990s, the second flight Los Angeles class and the emerging Seawolf and Virginia class submarines rendered Narwhal obsolete. The vessel was deactivated while remaining in commission, an unusual circumstance, and offered as a museum. Although plans were put forward for the submarine to be placed on display in Newport KY, across the river from Cincinnati, OH, the necessary funds were not forthcoming. The ship is scheduled to be scrapped.
Asbestos Exposure on USS Narwhal
Narwhal was a submarine that contained many innovative and unique designs, yet it also contained standard equipments used in the construction of all submarines at the time. Asbestos containing materials were used in many applications throughout the vessel, most frequently in insulation for piping systems. Piping systems for main and auxiliary seawater, chilled water, potable water, steam and coolant systems, and others ran throughout the ship, all wrapped with insulation manufactured from asbestos cloth. Although painted, much of the piping was located in hard to reach areas, and deterioration of the paint and the exposed asbestos was frequently undetected for lengthy periods.
Submarine operations required long periods of isolation and frequently periods where maintenance was deferred due to the need to maintain silence. During such periods, asbestos insulation that was exposed, or damaged due to maintenance on nearby equipment, released microscopic fibers into the atmosphere, where they could be freely dispersed throughout the enclosed submarine by the ships ventilation system. Thus lengthy and undetected exposure to asbestos in the air was unavoidable for members of the crew in any circumstances.