Newport News Daily Press
September 11, 2009
Navy Approves Northrop Welding Action Plan; Says Subs, Sailors 'Not At Risk'
By Peter Frost
Improper welding procedures at Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Newport News shipyard discovered in late 2007 pose no risk to sailors or submarines, the Navy said Thursday.
Following what it described as a 16-month "in-depth review," the Navy approved a report submitted by Northrop and sub-building partner General Dynamics Electric Boat that deals with welding errors found on Virginia class submarines in 2007.
In announcing its completion of the review and acceptance of the partners' report, the Navy said it "is satisfied that our people and platforms are not at risk due to this issue."
Northrop and Groton, Conn.-based Electric Boat were required to submit the report after Navy inspectors found that Newport News welders and pipe fitters used incorrect metals to weld together piping and joints on submarines and surface ships. The use of the wrong material could lead to cracking, and eventually, leaks.
The shipbuilders issued the report in April 2008, and the Navy approved it in August. The service didn't announce its acceptance until Thursday.
Northrop and Electric Boat "conducted exhaustive analysis and testing that demonstrates: the low probability of improper welds occurring aboard submarines; that improper welds are unlikely to fail during the ship's operational life; and that should a weld fail it would leak but not break, thereby alerting the crew in time to address the issue before the weld degraded further," the Navy said.
Navy spokeswoman Katie Roberts said Thursday that weld inspections are still ongoing, "which (raises) the possibility of finding additional welds that need to be replaced." Therefore, she said, the total cost of additional testing and analysis and replacement of welds is still under review.
Who pays those costs will be determined by the terms and conditions of the effective contracts, she said.
Shortly after the weld problems were made public, the Navy and Northrop expanded their probe to include all vessels built or serviced by the Newport News yard between January 2000 and January 2008. As many as 17 vessels were included, including seven carriers, nine submarines and a cruiser.
Faulty welds were found on at least two Newport News-built submarines, the USS Virginia and the USS Texas, a Navy official said in 2008. The most critical error that investigators found was on a pipe joint on a sub's emergency main ballast-tank blowout system, a fail-safe device that allows a sub to surface and submerge if its primary systems fail.
Overall, the Navy said, inspectors found "a low number" of faulty welds located within ship-critical systems, and each of those welds was replaced.
While the service didn't rule out the existence of additional improper welds, "the shipbuilders and the Navy have concluded that contaminated welds would likely not show any signs of failure during the submarine's operational life," the Navy said. If welds do fail, the Navy said those pipes would leak instead of failing completely.
As a result of the weld mishap, Northrop enacted sweeping changes at the local shipyard.
It held mandatory retraining sessions for more than 3,000 welders and fitters and implemented new processes those workers must follow.
Northrop also was required to submit a separate action plan for surface ships that may have been affected, but the Navy has not yet completed its review of that plan, Roberts said.
The weld-filler issue was the first of three quality-control incidents for the Newport News shipyard, the nation's only builder of aircraft carriers and one of two to build submarines for the Navy.
Earlier this year, a yard weld inspector admitted to signing off on the quality of welds that he did not inspect. The inspector, Robert Ruks, was fired. The issue is still under investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
Then last month, the Navy found that weapons-handling systems on at least four submarines were installed incorrectly by Newport News workers. Those errors could restrict the ability of sailors to move torpedoes into launch tubes, essentially disabling the sub's ability to launch attacks or defend itself, a Northrop executive said.
Northrop, which insists the three problems are unrelated, has submitted a plan to the Navy to address the weapons systems problems, the Navy said. A Northrop spokeswoman said the company is still investigating the issue and will provide findings to the Navy once complete.
"The quality of our work is something we take very seriously. We have a rigorous program in place that includes inspecting and evaluating our work to ensure it adheres to the Navy's strict requirements," Northrop spokeswoman Jennifer Dellapenta said in a statement. "When issues arise, it's something we address in an immediate and methodical way, in full communication with the U.S. Navy and our industrial partners."