SAN DIEGO -- The United States is about to have the world's first submarine fleet completely powered by nuclear energy.
The USS Blueback (SS-581), the last remaining U.S. Navy sub to run on conventional power, is to be decommissioned Monday with great ceremony and much affection at the San Diego Naval Station.
With the retirement of the Blueback, a venerable boat that impersonated a Soviet sub in the film 'The Hunt for Red October,' the Navy will realize the cherished dream of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover: an all-nuclear-powered submarine fleet.
The Blueback's demise will close the age of conventional U.S. underwater warfare, an era that started in the Revolutionary War when a small colonial U-boat sank a British ship.
Monday's decommissioning of the Blueback, however, will not end the debate over America's decision to switch to nuclear propulsion.
Submarines powered by diesel engines on the surface and electric motors underwater, like the Blueback, still rule the oceans. The rest of the world's 44 navies -- including the Soviet and British -- use some or all diesel-electric-powered subs, 400 in all,and continue to build them.
The newest diesel-electric submarines are considered superior to nuclear submarines in some important respects -- notably, cost and silence. While they are slower than nuclear subs and cannot stay submerged as long, diesel subs sometimes are preferred in close-range situations.
'The irony is that a non-nuclear submarine, when it's operating on its batteries, is quieter than a nuclear submarine,' said Norman Polmar, one of the world's leading experts on submarines.
'Diesel subs are smaller, much cheaper and require many fewer people. They are considered very cost-effective for a large number of missions, such as operating in restricted areas like the Mediterranean and the Far East,' said Polmar, an editor of 'Jane's Fighting Ships' and author of 'The American Submarine.'
But Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, doggedly steered the nation towards the exclusive use of nuclear subs, starting in the early 1950s.
'He destroyed anyone or any effort to build non-nuclear submarines,' Polmar said.
Obvious safety concerns over nuclear power led Rickover to institute a strict safety program aboard the nuclear subs. That effort has paid off with what seems to be an unblemished record, with one possible slip- up: an alleged 1973 leak of reactor coolant from the USS Guardfish, reported by Greenpeace and the Institute for Policy Studies in 1988, but subsequently denied by the Pentagon.
Still, a nuclear sub's ability to travel at speeds up to 40 knots an hour and remain submerged for more than 10,000 miles has won over most of the U.S. military community.
'Nuclear technology is the proven wave of the future,' said Mike McDaniel, executive director of the American Defense Institute in Washington, D.C.
'To Rickover's credit, the Navy's nuclear submarine program is one of the most effective and one of the safest in the world today.'
Still, the end of the diesel era has put a lump in the throat of many a sailor in Rickover's Navy.
'A lot of people on active duty in the Navy today started their careers on diesel submarines, so there's a feeling of nostalgia about this decommissioning,' retired Capt. Robert Gautier said.
Gautier was the Blueback's first skipper. He picked up the brand-new submarine in 1959 from a shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. On Monday, he will join the boat's present skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Grassi, and 10 other former commanding officers to bid the Blueback farewell.
'The diesel submarines have done a very fine job,' Gautier said, 'but the time has come to move from one era to another.'
Grassi said the current crew has prepared for this leave-taking for years.
'A lot of people got transferred to the Blueback just to be on the last diesel sub. And a lot of the personnel already on board extended their service to be here. That's a very gratifying thing for a commanding officer,' Grassi said.
Some of the crew will retire, others will transfer to surface ships and still others will enter the nuclear age aboard one of the Navy's 96 attack submarines.
The larger crews on nuclear subs are not likely to have the same esprit de corps as the Blueback's men, but Grassi says there will be offsetting advantages.
'Nuclear subs are nicer inside. You get more space in your bunk and some of the nukes have music piped in through earphones,' he said.
Grassi will be one of only two Navy officials still involved in diesel submarine operations as instructors at an international training facility in Norfolk, Va.
The Blueback will be mothballed in Bremerton, Wash.The Navy has decided the last of the diesel subs will never be sold, but the Blueback's future is otherwise up in the air.
'I've heard rumors that some cities are trying to get the Blueback as a monument or a tour ship,' Grassi said.