LONG BEACH — A coalition of local community groups has launched an effort to force the City Council to consider for the first time the potential danger of nuclear weapons on Navy ships in the port.
While the Navy will not confirm that nuclear warheads are on warships stationed at the Long Beach Naval Station, four vessels--including the battleship New Jersey--are capable of firing such weapons.
Members of the newly formed Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Harbor are pushing for the council to hold hearings on the matter, saying public discussion is needed to determine if Long Beach residents condone having nuclear weapons "in their backyard."
'Issue Needs to Be Addressed'
"I don't think the Navy has the right to put these weapons in populated areas without public discussion," said Joe Galliani, acting chairman of the group. "The council has hearings on light rail and airport noise. On the most basic level, nuclear weapons are just as much a community issue that needs to be addressed."
The group contends the weapons are a threat because of the potential for an accident that could result in the release of radioactive plutonium particles. They also maintain that the warheads make Long Beach a more tempting target for Soviet missiles.
Nonetheless, the coalition faces an uphill struggle to get hearings in Long Beach, a city with a long tradition of supporting the Navy. Council members say they are solidly opposed to the idea of hearings.
"The mode of weapons systems on those ships is determined by the federal government, not by local officials," Mayor Ernie Kell said. "Any hearings would just become a dog and pony show."
Kell and other Long Beach officials instead point to the more than $100 million the Navy spends annually in payrolls and construction as proof that the ships are important for the city--nuclear weapons or not.
In addition, Kell said the Navy's safety record with nuclear weapons "is above reproach."
"I personally support the Navy being in Long Beach," Kell said. "It's not only good for our country, it's good for the city and our citizens. And far and above the majority of residents feel that way."
The council is currently trying to lure additional Navy ships to the area, in particular some of the nine warships that will be assigned to a task force headed by the battleship Missouri.
Although Long Beach has been ruled out as a home port for the Missouri, which is being overhauled at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, the city is still in the running for some of the support vessels. A decision will probably be made by July 4, according to Capt. J.F. McCarton, leader of the Pacific Fleet Homeporting Study Team.
Councilman Thomas Clark said a move to hold hearings might send the wrong signal to the Navy at the wrong time.
"I don't think it would help us," Clark said. "A hearing would give the implication that we're evaluating whether we want to have the Navy in town. In Long Beach, that's just not the case."
Coalition leaders complain that the council has given an open invitation to the Navy without asking city residents what they think.
'Carte Blanche' Invitation
"They're inviting nuclear weapons to town, carte blanche, with no regard whatsoever to public opinion," Galliani said. "They seem to view it as a black and white economic question. To them, the Navy is good for Long Beach money-wise, no questions asked."
Galliani said the Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Harbor has sent letters and information to more than 50 Long Beach-area civic organizations, unions, political clubs and student groups in an effort to drum up support for hearings.
The group wants to gain widespread support for the hearings before formally approaching the council, probably during the summer. If the council does not agree to the hearings, the coalition will sponsor its own, Galliani said.
Although the coalition has been endorsed by 10 local civic and religious groups, its leaders are mostly members of the South Coast chapter of the Alliance for Survival, the Long Beach Area Peace Network and other activist groups.
Galliani could not say specifically how many people the coalition represents. But he said that the Los Angeles and Orange County chapters of Alliance for Survival, which backs the coalition, have a combined membership of 10,000 persons. The South Coast chapter of Alliance for Survival, which covers cities from the South Bay to the Orange County border, boasts a membership of 1,200, Galliani said.
The Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Harbor was formed after several of the peace groups came together in late February to hold a mock version of the Boston Tea Party at the Downtown Long Beach Marina to protest the council's efforts to woo the Missouri.
Several council members said they feel the coalition has little support in the community.
Called 'Fringe Element'