US Navy tests new steam suit for submariners

By Julia Bergman

The US Navy is testing a new suit designed to protect sailors from steam leaks aboard its nuclear-powered submarines.

If pressurized steam lines rupture, the leaked steam is extremely hot and can result in severe injury or death. To make repairs or rescue crewmembers, sailors must wear protective suits.

Sailors complained that the existing steam suits, which went into use about 2002, are cumbersome to put on, involving two layers — one that is like a normal firefighting ensemble and then a protective suit on top of that.

The new suit, which was designed to be easier and quicker to put on, is one piece, nine pounds lighter, and easier to move around in. Improvements also were made to the gloves, which now look like lobster claws, improving dexterity.

Sailors on the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Toledo (SSN-769), which returned to Groton on Wednesday from a six-month deployment, tested out the suits while at sea, and will provide feedback to the Navy. The suits also are being tested by sailors on the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Kentucky (SSBN-737), based in Bangor, Wash., and the Virginia-class attack submarine USS Missouri (SSN-780), based in Groton.

Part of the testing is to see how quickly sailors can get into the suits, said Command Master Chief Matt Matteson with the Office of Naval Research. Testing at the Naval Submarine Base in the spring showed sailors could suit up in minutes.

“The most important thing is that it’s quicker for sailors to don and get to the scene of the casualty,” Matteson said. “It provides a little bit more assurance that the protective gear you’re wearing will actually be appropriate for that situation.”

There are only a few times in the history of the Navy’s nuclear power program that the suits had to be used, Matteson said. They are not intended for use by the entire crew, but those in certain jobs.

Matteson expects the new suits to be implemented across submarine fleet in a year or two. He didn’t have an estimate for how much the suits will cost.

The Office of Naval Research’s TechSolutions, which focuses on rapidly producing prototype solutions to problems submitted by sailors and marines, provided funding for the testing. The new suit was developed by the Naval Sea Systems Command and Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility.


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It looks and appears to be much superior to the steam suit we used in the seventies that had to be provided an air supply to keep the occupant alive and took almost twenty minutes to dawn.