Saying goodbye to ‘Narwhal,’ a submarine whose stealth changed the Navy

It was nearly the nation’s 100th nuclear-powered submarine, whose pioneering Cold War innovations inspired systems still used today among the modern fleet.

But after a year of dismantling, the Narwhal is officially no more.

Crews from the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, experts at the only place in the world that recycles U.S. Navy nuclear submarines, have cut and chopped the former Narwhal into salvageable pieces, a part of roughly 16 million pounds of scrap Kitsap’s largest employer produces annually.

But in its prime, the Narwhal was a trendsetter whose prowess for silence under the waves changed the Navy.

“It became what a submarine is supposed to be,” said Michael King, a retired submariner who served as a machinist mate aboard the Narwhal in its earliest days. “Completely stealthy, undetectable.”

Just about all that’s left is its nuclear reactor compartment, which will float out of Puget Sound and up the Columbia River and to the Department of Energy’s Hanford Site, where it will indefinitely reside in a trench with fellow former reactors. It’s a far different outcome for a vessel once destined to become a museum on the banks of the Ohio River.

The USS Narwhal — named for a 20-foot-long gray and white arctic whale whose males possess a twisted ivory tusk — was the third such submarine called by that creature. Its predecessors also broke new ground in the earliest days of subs, and SSN-671, as it was known by its hull number, continued that tradition.

The Narwhal contained cutting edge technologies that gave the Navy the upper hand in the underwater theater of the Cold War. Its new natural circulation reactor plant could operate without noisy reactor coolant pumps. A “scoop” system injected seawater into its steam-turned turbines. And a direct drive, or directly-coupled main turbine, eliminated reduction gears, another potential source of noise, King said.

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