NGC, GD Inspection Failures Call Ships Into Question
On May 14/09, a welding inspector at Northrop Grumman’s Newport News, VA shipyard did the right thing, and complained that a fellow inspector was signing off on ship welds without actually inspecting them. The inspector’s admission of wrongdoing created an extremely serious situation. He had supervised over 10,000 welds, on 8 Virginia class nuclear fast attack submarines (SSN 777-783, and SSN 785) and on the new nuclear aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush [CVN 77]. About 10% of the submarine welds were SUBSAFE joints involving critical parts or hull integrity.
The final report has now been released, but a similar issue has now arisen at co-producer General Dynamic Electric Boat…
Northrop Grumman Newport News and General Dynamics Electric Boat use a Shipyard Weld Status System (SWSS) to keep track of every shipbuilding weld – a total that can run to 300,000 for a Virginia Class submarine. Newport News has used that system to identify welds supervised by that inspector, which may force re-inspection. Northrop Grumman immediately informed the Navy of the situation, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) reportedly began its own investigation on May 20/09.
The effects of these revelations extended to an array of internal changes at the Newport News shipyard. Defense News offers more background in its informative article “Northrop Grumman Inspector’s Lies Raise Alarms.”
While that is an accurate title, it could just as easily, and accurately, have been titled “Northrop Grumman Inspector Tells Truth, Raises Alarms.”
Jan 16/10: The Daily Press reports that General Dynamics Electric Boat has launched an investigation into welds on at least the USS New Mexico, after the company found that a shipbuilder at its Quonset Point, RI, shipyard may not have properly evaluated the quality of the welds he was charged with inspecting.
Electric Boat, said that they notified the Navy “immediately” after they uncovered the issue on Dec 1/09, and a preliminary investigation and assessment led GDEB and the Navy to conclude that even in a worst-case scenario, the welds in question would not pose an immediate risk. The company can not yet say how many submarines might be affected; they are still collecting and reviewing records, and expects to conclude its investigation within the next several weeks. Because final assembly and delivery of the New Mexico was handled in Newport News, Electric Boat is coordinating weld assessments and any potential corrective actions on the boat with Northrop.
August 2008: Following what it described as a 16-month “in-depth review,” the Navy approves a report submitted by Northrop Grumman and sub-building partner General Dynamics Electric Boat that deals with welding errors found on Virginia class submarines in 2007. The shipbuilders issued the report in April 2008. The Navy said that the contractors:
“…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.”
Weld inspections are still ongoing, which means that the total cost of additional testing and analysis and replacement of welds is still under review. Liability for the costs of any required re-work would depend on the specific contract. Newport News Daily Press (the town, not the shipyard).