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630 Safety Incidents Involved Nuclear Weapons

January 16, 1986|JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Navy recorded 630 safety incidents related to nuclear weapons aboard ships and aircraft and at on-shore sites from 1965 through 1985, but none resulted in the release of radiation, a Navy spokesman said Wednesday.

The spokesman, Cmdr. Kendell Pease, said that of the 630 incidents, 266 involved nuclear weapons and the rest were related to auxiliary systems.

Of the nuclear weapons incidents, he added: "None . . . caused a threat to the public, a nuclear hazard to property, to the environment or to sailors."

The Navy discussed its nuclear weapons safety record in response to the release of official documents by the American Friends Service Committee, which obtained them as the result of a five-year-old lawsuit filed by a peace activist in Honolulu under the Freedom of Information Act.

Only One 'Accident'

The 98 pages of reports provided to Ian Yonge Lind in Hawaii and the American Friends Service Committee, commonly known as the Quakers, indicate that the Navy encountered a series of problems involving nuclear weapons aboard submarines and surface ships as well as air-launched nuclear weapons from 1965 through 1977, the period covered by the documents.

However, only one incident was placed in the most serious category of "accident," and it involved the previously acknowledged loss of an A-4E aircraft carrying a B-43 bomb. The airplane was rolled off an aircraft carrier elevator into 2,400 fathoms of water in the western Pacific on Dec. 5, 1965.

This accident was placed in the category of "Broken Arrow." Less serious incidents were given the code name "Bent Spear" and "Dull Sword."

The American Friends Service Committee maintains that the reports indicate the danger of basing ships carrying nuclear weapons in such densely populated ports as San Diego, Long Beach, San Francisco or, in a dispute that is not yet resolved, at a new base on Staten Island in the New York harbor.

Nuclear Parts Not Damaged

The General Accounting Office, the congressional auditing agency, said in a report released last summer that of 62 incidents involving nuclear weapons aboard surface ships in port, none posed a threat to the public because "nuclear components were not damaged." Indeed, many involved sprinkler malfunctions that flooded weapons magazines, the report said.

Capt. James Bush, a retired Navy officer with experience commanding nuclear submarines, said in a telephone interview that while the presence of nuclear weapons aboard ships may pose the risk at some point of an accident that could lead to the release of radiation, the data made public Wednesday shows no evidence that the Navy has encountered significant problems with the missiles and bombs.

He said an overpressurized missile-launching tube could render a weapon inoperable, without posing any risk to the environment, and that such a mishap would be listed as an incident recorded in the documents.

Dummy Bomb Released

Navy officials said that incidents recorded in the documents involved such occurrences as a flat tire on an empty weapon-transporting truck--an incident in which no weapon was involved--as well as more seemingly threatening events, such as the accidental release of a dummy bomb by the pilot of a carrier-based A-7 attack aircraft. Had the weapon been armed, this accident in 1970 could have resulted in a nuclear detonation over the ocean, one source said.

The Navy officials said that another accident involved a practice flight from a carrier in which an unarmed bomb used for training broke loose from its rack inside an airplane's bomb bay, falling to the deck of an aircraft carrier after the mission ended and the bomb bay doors were opened.

A Navy safety expert, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, said that Navy pilots do not now train in flight with live nuclear weapons and that the Navy has never flown missions with actual nuclear bombs.

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