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The Disappearing Wreck Mystery

Ascalon

Justified & Ancient
Joined
Jul 3, 2009
Messages
1,384
At 05:29 on July 16, 1945, the world changed forever.

The Trinity experiment was the first detonation of a nuclear device as part of the Manhattan Project that led directly to the only ever use of nuclear weapons in war.

Decades later, and an unexpected impact from the development and testing of nuclear weapons is a phenomenon known as low background steel.

All steel created after World War II has detectable radiation contamination as a result of the various detonations of nuclear devices in the decades since world War II. This has a distinct effect when the steel is destined for particularly sensitive uses, such as in measuring devices, medical equipment and scientific apparatus.

Hence low-background steel, that is steel which was manufactured before 1945, and has been shielded from atmospheric radiation contamination, is sought after for these purposes. But where does such steel come from?

The primary source of low-background steel was the scuttled German High Seas Fleet, from World War I, that littered the straits of Scapa Flow in Scotland. Having been deep underwater since the 2018 armistice, these wrecks have been protected from the atmospheric contamination in steel manufactured in recent times.
SMS_Bayern_sinking.jpg

The German High Seas Fleet was scuttled in Scotland after surrender in 1918.

However, since around 2018, there have been increasing reports of wrecks, right up to World War II, but previous that 1945 watershed, simply disappearing from the sea bed. From Malaysia, to the Philippines and beyond, wrecks have been plundered or simply removed from the sea bed. These include many war graves, and wrecks as famous as the HMS Prince of Wales. The UK government said that it was looking into such reports.
nm-msia-2702.jpg

A Malaysian barge recovers steel from sunken Japanese ships.

The scale of the problem is only now only being realised and is leading to the question of why? Why is demand for low-background steel got to such a level that war graves are being openly plundered to retrieve this now precious commodity? Why are people risking criminal sanction and international incident to retrieve this difficult to recover commodity? Where is all of this low0background steel going? Who has the resources to recover these wrecks form often hostile depths?

The issue is that One issue is that while it is primarily steel that is sought after from low-background sources, lead, brass, and other metals and alloys are also in demand.
98-de-ruyter.jpg

The HNLMS De Ruyter thought to be another victim of low-background metal plunder.

While concerns have been raised as to the extent of this plundering, no one has yet been able to say with certainty, why there has, in the last few years, been such an increase in incidence. Demand within the Chinese market for scientific and medical equipment has been speculated as the cause, but what else could be driving such audacious desecration of marine graves?
 
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I'm guessing it may still be possible to make low-rad steel, just not cheaply.
Iron ore that is still in the ground starts off with low radiation levels - so just process it with low-radiation carbon and oxygen.

I'm guessing it may be in demand from a country wanting to use it for a nuclear-related purpose that may require the creation of sensitive instrumentation. It's best to make such devices from low-rad materials, perhaps?
 
I'm guessing it may still be possible to make low-rad steel, just not cheaply.
Iron ore that is still in the ground starts off with low radiation levels - so just process it with low-radiation carbon and oxygen.

I'm guessing it may be in demand from a country wanting to use it for a nuclear-related purpose that may require the creation of sensitive instrumentation. It's best to make such devices from low-rad materials, perhaps?

Indeed, you are correct, it is possible to make the modern equivalent of low-background metals, but yes, it is currently prohibitively expensive.

The mystery here is firstly, the ability to get to some of the wrecks, which are not in shallow water, or readily accessible, and secondly, without being observed.

Then there is the audacity of going for wrecks that are not only well known, but protected under international treaties, which suggesta motivation far beyond previous.

Then, there is the demand itself. Is China's economy really growing at such a rate that they are outstripping the normal sources for low-background metals and alloys? For medical and scientific purposes?

It sounds as if a new demand has emerged that is outstripping supplies and is driving ever more daring attempts to access sources.

But what? Fusion energy? Stealth technology? New sensors?

It is a delicious prospect to speculate upon.
 
At 05:29 on July 16, 1945, the world changed forever.

The Trinity experiment was the first detonation of a nuclear device as part of the Manhattan Project that led directly to the only ever use of nuclear weapons in war.

Decades later, and an unexpected impact from the development and testing of nuclear weapons is a phenomenon known as low background steel.

All steel created after World War II has detectable radiation contamination as a result of the various detonations of nuclear devices in the decades since world War II. This has a distinct effect when the steel is destined for particularly sensitive uses, such as in measuring devices, medical equipment and scientific apparatus.

Hence low-background steel, that is steel which was manufactured before 1945, and has been shielded from atmospheric radiation contamination, is sought after for these purposes. But where does such steel come from?

The primary source of low-background steel was the scuttled German High Seas Fleet, from World War I, that littered the straits of Scapa Flow in Scotland. Having been deep underwater since the 2018 armistice, these wrecks have been protected from the atmospheric contamination in steel manufactured in recent times.
View attachment 32820
The German High Seas Fleet was scuttled in Scotland after surrender in 1918.

However, since around 2018, there have been increasing reports of wrecks, right up to World War II, but previous that 1945 watershed, simply disappearing from the sea bed. From Malaysia, to the Philippines and beyond, wrecks have been plundered or simply removed from the sea bed. These include many war graves, and wrecks as famous as the HMS Prince of Wales. The UK government said that it was looking into such reports.
View attachment 32821
A Malaysian barge recovers steel from sunken Japanese ships.

The scale of the problem is only now only being realised and is leading to the question of why? Why is demand for low-background steel got to such a level that war graves are being openly plundered to retrieve this now precious commodity? Why are people risking criminal sanction and international incident to retrieve this difficult to recover commodity? Where is all of this low0background steel going? Who has the resources to recover these wrecks form often hostile depths?

The issue is that One issue is that while it is primarily steel that is sought after from low-background sources, lead, brass, and other metals and alloys are also in demand.
View attachment 32822
The HNLMS De Ruyter thought to be another victim of low-background metal plunder.

While concerns have been raised as to the extent of this plundering, no one has yet been able to say with certainty, why there has, in the last few years, been such an increase in incidence. Demand within the Chinese market for scientific and medical equipment has been speculated as the cause, but what else could be driving such audacious desecration of marine graves?

What a fascinating thread and very well written, thank you for posting this.

I wasn't even aware that steel had this radiation inside it, so the concepts of low- background steel is completely new to me.

There must be some big project going on somewhere, perhaps, that this steel is required for. How much more of this steel is there, hidden underwater? What will whoever it is do when it runs out?

It is a mystery indeed as to how they're retrieving this. Looking at your linked articles, it seems some are plundered/looted whereas some are missing altogether. I can sort of understand bits being plundered over time, but for the whole things to disappear... I'm probably showing my lack of understanding here but is it possible to attach chains to these ships and drag them from another ship above?

An exciting mystery anyway. :)
 
The Prince of Wales is thought to be one, it weighed over 40,000 tons and the main armor
was over 14" thick, that must take some shifting, I've seen 2 ships broken up on the beach
near here, one over 4000 tons, they just ripped them apart with a big excavator, but a cargo
ship and warship are two completely different animals.
 
It is certainly an intriguing mystery.
The fact that the previous primary source was within British territorial waters may have something to do with the the search for new sources. I would imagine a source that would not require great scrutiny for subsequent supply and application would be desirable in certain quarters.

That said, applications such as satellite technology, ultra-precise measurement and more, would drive demand, and these are mostly taking place where international relations are currently strained, at best.

Still, I'm struggling to find reliable sources as to why there has been such a sudden surge in demand, and what, specifically, might be driving that demand.
 
My first thought was, interesting story. On giving the matter further thought I have a question. Why do all these 'sensitive' scientific devices have to be made of steel? Surely if this has been a major problem since 1945 there would have been a push to use/develop an alternative material rather than go to this extreme.
 
My first thought was, interesting story. On giving the matter further thought I have a question. Why do all these 'sensitive' scientific devices have to be made of steel? Surely if this has been a major problem since 1945 there would have been a push to use/develop an alternative material rather than go to this extreme.
Probably used as a casing around sensitive devices or as part of radiation shielding, perhaps?
We really are just speculating at the moment.
 
Maybe someone or more likely a Country, is cornering the market, push up prices in the long term and make a killing.
Sure as hell it's not a couple of out of work peal diver with a sampan and a hack saw.
 
Why do we have to look beyond the simple need for large quantities of good quality steel? All over the world, shipbreaking is a profitable industry; even more so when labour (and lives) are cheap, and you don’t even have buy the wreck at scrap value.

Bangladesh and Turkey:

https://www.offbeattravelling.com/ship-breaking-safe-or-suicide/

maximus otter
 
Why do we have to look beyond the simple need for large quantities of good quality steel? All over the world, shipbreaking is a profitable industry; even more so when labour (and lives) are cheap, and you don’t even have buy the wreck at scrap value. ...

Good point ... For years now the hand-wringing over salvaging pre-nuclear sunken metal has been increasing, and it's now to the point it smells over-inflated to me.

One big reason for skepticism relates to the presumption that any salvage operation harvesting pre-nuclear metal has to be uniquely motivated by the metal being pre-nuclear. Nobody seems to mention or address the possibility that low-background metal may be no more than a peripheral benefit rather than the prime motivation for undertaking the salvage operation in the first place.
 
On a sort of related topic to uncontaminated steel, it has been mentioned on many Forensic science progs that an unidentified skeleton unearthed practically world-wide could be dated pre or post 1945 by the presence (or absence) of Strontium 90 and Caesium 137.
 
The Prince of Wales if it as gone was 223ft down upside down and
loaded with enough ordinance to shift a small town, I still think
there as to be more to it than just scrap value to make it viable
to nick it.
 
£78,000000 worth - expenses, wonder what it cost to get it up,
I can see were there's profit if you can just lower a grab and
drag big lumps up they must have some interesting kit.
 
As had been speculated in previous posts, it would appear new and interesting applications for low-background metals have emerged in recent years.

These new applications are not just for steel, but also reportedly for Roman era lead that was excavated from a shipwreck.

However, despite the diverging spread of appetite in materials, the applications are narrow enough: new physics.

From the Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search in Minnesota to deep underground Chinese PandaX Experiment, low-background metals are in higher demand, and for greater quantities than ever before.

Given these types of application, it is little wonder that even the vast number of ships that lie in Scapa Flow are insufficient to meet the magnitude and diversity of demand.

The nature of the usage seems to be in creating shielding for highly sensitive detectors and in pressure vessels for instrumentation.

The manufacturing of these components is often highly specialised, bespoke and hugely specific, meaning that waste or rejects are high. While recycling rates may also be high, it might often take a very high ratio of raw material to finished product to ensure success.

Much in the way that Burke and Hare enjoyed initial success because no one asked questions as to their supply, one wonders if some contractors creating these pieces of equipment might have equally dropped their standards to meet demand.

It certainly sounds as if unscrupulous agents are interfering with are designated war graves.

The lengths to which they are going do not seem to be consistent with just freely available quality metals, but rather a specific targeting of the level of expertise that existed from the turn of the last century in terms of metallurgy, combined with the specific properties of low-background metals, hence their willingness to risk the sanctions that come with the crime of desecration.
 
For years now the hand-wringing over salvaging pre-nuclear sunken metal has been increasing, and it's now to the point it smells over-inflated to me.
I totally agree. And shall re-read the literature on this low-radiation steel.

Also....

2021-01-01 22.37.18.png


This factual inexactitude facilitates a fascinating centennial concept...The Philadelphia Experiment nearly meets The Man In The High Castle!! And: they're 99yrs out, not 100....the fleet went down in 1919
 
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Question - given the way the Titanic and the Lusitania have almost been eaten into pools of rust by marine creatures, how come these old wrecks are still in any sense salvageable? Is it just the armour plate?
 
I think it's down to depth and types of marine biology. Bit of a mytho answer, (which is why we love him).
Thanks, but I don't really know! :) But I'll have a go...
Much of the rust is on the surface of the metal. Some parts of those old ships are iron, rather than steel. Iron doesn't rust as badly as steel, it generally pits and forms a layer of rust that preserves the metal underneath (this is why some of the oldest radiators I've seen were made of cast iron). At greater depths, there's less oxygen in the water, so less to oxidise the metal. And as Cochise said, those old warships had some pretty thick armour plate.
 
This is a weird case. But not that weird this is a very tangible case we could actually go out and watch the seas.
Healdton Ship went down 1917 location off Netherlands it's the wreck of a metal ship closest to Britain. Same year North West of Fastnet Republic of Ireland the Abosso Ship.
1918 NW by W of Eagle Island Republic of Ireland ship Atlantian. (All cargo ships)
 
Following up on a few points made earlier, with regard to ships such as the Lusitania and the Titanic nearly dissolving, compared with WWI era hulks being salvaged.

The main differences were not just construction techniques, but also armour.

Armour in fighting ships means a very different quality of steel and different construction techniques that mean quite a different longevity in the water.

Titanic, for example, was constructed of a fairly high carbon mild steel, in fairly uniform plates, that were riveted together with a mixture of steel and wrought iron rivets. Apart from pure iron, there is little else that will rust faster in salt water. Whereas the HMS dreadnought, buit about 6 years earlier, had much higher quality steel plates and banding over hull plates, ensuring a very different corrosion reaction, even in warm, salty seas.

It is mostly this armour quality steel that is so highly sought after for the salvage, and for use in the likes of dark matter detectors.

So, guns. turrets, armour plating and the like, are what is looked for, not old, mild steel.
 
There is a good general article here that charcaterises the whole situation well, including a loop hole that allowed a Roman wreck's lead ingots to be used for science.

The Worldwide Scavenger Hunt For Vintage, Low-Radiation Metals
The quest for precious metals has led scavengers to rip up old railways, raid sunken battleships, and disturb centuries-old artworks in the name of science.

(Via Good.is, 2018)
 
And, they're back....
22ntship1_1684710055.jpg


The News Straits Times reports...
"Illegal salvage operators, who once "cannibalised" sunken wrecks on the seabed off Pulau Tioman near here, appear to have resumed their activities after stopping for almost eight years.

Their targets are the steel, high-grade aluminium and brass fixtures from two British World War 2 shipwrecks resting on the South China Sea bed — battlecruiser HMS Repulse and battleship HMS Prince of Wales — which sank in 1941."

This is a shift from the low background metals that were being sought for large scale science experiments before.

If all they are after is a large quantity of high quality metals, it is plunder indeed.
 
Warships in particular must be rich pickings for illegal salvage operators. With the high quality armour plating which can be 15 or 16" thick on a battleship. The large gun barrels used very high quality metal ( on battleships the gun barrels often took as long to produce as the whole ship) and the large propellors made of bronze which are worth thousands on their own. HMS Prince of Wales had a 15" main belt and 4 propellors of about 14.5 feet across.

Another factor must be that, sadly a lot of warships were pretty new when sunk so probably hadn't suffered very much corrosion. HMS Prince of Wales was only commissioned in January 1941 and sunk in December 1941. Likewise the German ships scuttled in Scapa Flow, many were brand new or had seen very little sea time.
 
I’ve just done a quick, if rather complex, calculation involving current UK scrap brass price and the volume of a WW2 battleship propeller (the Bismarck’s, oddly enough), and a value of £21,000 seems about right.

(~£2.50/kilo; 2.4m³)

maximus otter
 
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