A U.S. nuclear-powered submarine arrives at Shearwater. Photo: Chris Lambie

A U.S. Navy nuclear-powered submarine slipped into Halifax Saturday afternoon.

People strolling along the waterfront at Point Pleasant Park stopped to watch as a Canadian navy tugboat and two smaller runabouts accompanied the sub into the harbour while kids in small sailing dinghies tacked nearby.

“Hopefully it doesn’t blow up,” said Lucie Taussag, a French teacher watching with her friends from the shoreline.

“You think about it, but you tell yourself nothing’s going to happen.”

She wasn’t particularly worried by the nuclear-powered sub’s presence in Halifax. “You have to trust your neighbours.”

The 18,000-ton submarine is now tucked out of sight at a concrete pier in Shearwater, behind McNabs Island at the mouth of the harbour.

“It is a trust measure — there are places they won’t take their submarines because they don’t meet their security requirements,” said Ken Hansen, a retired Canadian naval commander who lives in Dartmouth.

“When they come here, they have to go to Shearwater … because it’s not a downtown, public access berth. They always want a more remote, more restricted access berth. So Shearwater jetty does that for them.”

The Canadian navy often takes advantage of U.S. submarine visits to stage war games off Nova Scotia because it doesn’t have nuclear-powered subs of its own, Hansen said.

“It’s a very different type of opponent,” he said.

“The American nuclear-powered submarines have enormous amounts of speed. They can simply run around you. And they frequently did when we were out there operating against them. So that puts a premium on helicopters and fixed-wing patrol airplanes, because you can’t outrun them.”

The U.S. subs are also quite noisy, Hansen said.

“Because they have to have so much cooling water for their turbines and their nuclear-powered generators there’s always a fairly large flow noise and a machine noise associated with that flow. And that’s how you’ll find them. It gets harder and harder with new generations of submarines, but it’s still there.”

The Canadian navy spent $915,000 on a nuclear de-contamination facility at Shearwater six years ago just in case something goes wrong with visiting nuclear powered vessels from the U.S., Britain and France. But navy public affairs in Halifax didn’t respond to a request from the Halifax Examiner for an interview with a member of the team tasked with working at the facility in the event of an emergency.

“There’s a minor safety risk,” Hansen said.

“We are capable of dealing with a nuclear incident … It would probably be something like cooling water escaping from the submarine. I don’t think there’s a realistic prospect of a reactor breach or anything like that. There’s a lot of safety systems built into these submarine propulsion systems.”

The Canadian navy reportedly takes water samples regularly during visits by nuclear-powered vessels.

“You don’t want any nuclear fluid escaping,” Hansen said.

Local peace activists are opposed to nuclear-powered subs coming to Halifax.

“They have no business here; no country that is sovereign leaves itself open to these things,” said Gary Zatzman, who has been protesting these types of visits for decades.

The submarine is likely here so its crew can attend a ceremony Monday near Armdale Yacht Club on the Northwest Arm for U.S. servicemen who died more than two centuries ago, said Alan Bezanson, who speaks for the group No Harbour for War.

“Historians have concluded that nearly 200 American Prisoners of the War of 1812 died while confined on Melville Island, on the Northwest Arm in Halifax, and are buried on Deadman’s Island,” says a news release from the U.S. Consulate in Halifax.

For the last few years, the crew of a U.S. nuclear submarine has attended the ceremony, said Bezanson, who is also opposed to these visits.

“There’s always a danger, which is one reason any nuclear-powered vessel is not allowed past Shearwater,” he said.

“But more important for No Harbour for War is the issue of what these nuclear submarines represent. As we speak, there’s two nuclear armed submarines off the coast of North Korea threatening that country’s independence and defence of its sovereignty. There’s a U.S. nuclear submarine, at least one, in the Mediterranean threatening the people of Syria.”

U.S. nuclear submarines can launch missile attacks at land-based targets, Bezanson said. “So they’re not just prowling the oceans for ceremonial events honouring prisoners. They’re actually there to threaten the world’s people. So we don’t want them here. It’s not much that they present a danger here. It’s that they present a danger everywhere.”

Isaac Saney worries about the possibility of a nuclear accident in the harbour.

“We’re never informed when they’re coming in,” Saney said of visiting U.S. submarines.

“In many case only after the fact. Sometimes these vessels carry nuclear weapons and we’re never told about that.”

The presence of a nuclear submarine in the harbour exposes “us to the possibility of a nuclear accident, which could have devastating consequences,” said Saney, who is the director of the Transition Year Program at Dalhousie University.

“And this is all done behind closed doors without any consent of Halifax. And people need to realize, too, that Halifax is a strategic military base and this renders us extremely vulnerable if some complication were to break out.”

The public creates a “fictional miasma of some sort of glamour with nuclear powered submarines and these incredibly sophisticated machines,” he said.

“But these are weapons of war; weapons of mass destruction that have been directly or indirectly responsible for countless acts of human suffering.”

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  1. I suppose when certain foreign powers developed nuclear powered submarines that some people though the western allies nations should just stick with their old pre-1950 WWII armaments, eh? Arms races are about deterrence and the perception of power; there is nothing nice about them, but they do make for a more level playing field. Mutually assured destruction is scary and really only works so long as the parties involved use logic when brandishing their WMDs. A nuclear weapon is like a gun, it holds not value if your opponent does not believe you would use it if you had to; empty threats are not a deterrence.

    North Korea would be developing nuclear weapons whether US submarines were off their coasts or not; crazy despots crave power… this small country’s leaders have a desire to be seen as the dominant power in their region and feared by their neighbours… well, they succeeded in the last part.

  2. Was there a protest about USA nuclear subs coming into Nova Scotia waters back in the early eighties? I have a vague recollection but alas it was before the Internet and so i can’t find any info.

  3. According to Alan Bezanson, US nuclear subs should not visit Halifax because US subs off Korea are “threatening that country’s independence and defence of its sovereignty.” Seriously? Do activists even think about how foolish they sound?

    I could understand “are making a bad situation even more dangerous by raising the chances of a nuclear exchange.” But “threatening the independence and sovereignty” of a crackpot dictatorship that constantly threatens nuclear attacks on US Territory and is rapidly pursuing the capability of doing so?

    1. Parker, not to defend Bezanson, but you might find this explanation for *why* North Korea has pursued nuclear weapons interesting. The author makes the argument that the pursuit of nuclear weapons is a quite rational choice by the north. (Linking to it isn’t necessarily agreeing; just pointing out that there’s another read):