With toxic fumes and smoke ventilated from the fire-damaged USS Miami, the Navy can begin assessing whether the 22-year-old nuclear submarine can be saved.

The conclusion could have implications for the Navy’s fleet and for workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, where the sub is in the third month of a 20-month overhaul.

Fire burned for about 10 hours from Wednesday evening into early Thursday, damaging the crew compartment, the command and control area and the torpedo room in the front half of the submarine.

Vice Adm. Kevin McCoy, commander of the Naval Sea Systems Command, told U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, that he’s hopeful that the ship can be repaired.

But Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute, said, “When you have a fire burning in a confined space of that facility for (many) hours, the likelihood it would make financial sense to return it to service is pretty low.”

Thompson said Los Angeles-class attack submarines, including the USS Miami, were developed during the Cold War. The Miami was commissioned in 1990.

“This is a relatively old ship,” he said. “The technology has changed a lot since it was designed. You have to do trade-offs about whether it really makes economic sense to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars to return it to service.”

Thompson said the USS Miami represents about 2 percent of the Navy’s attack submarine fleet. “If it doesn’t return to service, the Navy has lost 2 percent of its undersea warfare capabilities.”

McCoy said many vital components escaped damage because they had been removed for the overhaul. He also said that salvage parts are available from previously decommissioned Los Angeles-class subs.

The nuclear propulsion components at the back of the sub weren’t harmed.

“(McCoy) said, ‘We’ve built submarines, so we can fix them as well,’” said Snowe, who toured the shipyard Friday, as did Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, both members of the Armed Services Committee.

The fate of the submarine could affect the livelihoods of many shipyard workers.

“There are many thousands of work hours associated with the overhaul of a nuclear submarine,” Thompson said. “If the work is not now going to be done, it’s going to create a gap in the shipyard’s work schedule.

“It’s not just the amount of hours, but different tasks require different skills,” he said. “Depending on what stage it’s at, some people could be in surplus supply. There could be more people than needed for the near term.”

Paul O’Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council, said his union is concerned about the possible loss of work if the submarine is scrapped.

On Friday, two days after the fire began, workers at the shipyard finished pumping fresh air into the fire-damaged submarine, allowing Navy investigators to enter and begin the first damage assessment.

Three teams of Navy investigators were dispatched to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to help determine what caused the fire, the senators told reporters.

If the submarine is retired, it will mostly be recycled at a facility in Washington state.

Eric Wertheim, a U.S. Naval Institute author, characterized the fire as a financial disaster, with the potential loss of a submarine that cost $900 million to build, but not a true disaster like the sinkings of the USS Scorpion and the USS Thresher, nuclear subs whose crews were lost.

“It’s important to put it into perspective,” Wertheim said. “It could have been a lot worse.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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