WHEN INCIDENTS ARE ACCIDENTS
The Silent Saga of the Nuclear Navy
By David B. Kaplan (Oceans Magazine, August 1983)
At three in the morning, I was awakened by a violent shock. I sat up in my bed and listened in the darkness, when I was thrown into the middle of the room. The Nautilus, after having struck, had rebounded violently. ." An incident, Captain?" "No, sir; an accident this time."
Pierre Aronnax to Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
It was sometime during the dayshift of 22 May 1978 that the accident occurred. Alarms rang out over the base, and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard jolted alive with the sounds of men and machines. The commotion centered on the 15,000 horsepower Westinghouse reactor of the USS Puffer. Coolant flooded out of the submarine's nuclear plant, pouring out of a mistakenly opened valve onto the concrete bed of Drydock 2. Before workers cut off the flow, as much as 500 gallons of "hot" radioactive water had escaped from the Puffer's primary coolant system into the shipyard. Only gutters of sand blocked the spill from falling into the inlet waters fifteen miles from downtown Seattle.
A lengthy clean up soon began, but not before word of the accident leaked to the local press. There were reports of 100 gallons, then of 150 gallons, another of more than 500 gallons. One shipyard source told the Bremerton Sun that the coolant did in fact spill into Puget Sound; others were not so sure. What was clear was that the shipyard had experienced a radiological emergency, and the navy would have to make a statement.
"Last Tuesday there was a very minor incident involving the USS Puffer announced a navy spokesman. " About five gallons of slightly radioactive water leaked onto the dry-dock floor. The radioactivity of the water was low-level, the highest radiation levels from the spill being comparable to radiation levels near the surface of a radium dial wristwatch. No personnel were contaminated. None of the water entered the Sound."
Bill Clymer, the six-foot, three-inch union steward of the shipyard's crack radiological control team, stood atop Drydock 2 and watched the clean up begin. He was handed a radiological survey of the area - the coolant had permeated the concrete with cobalt 60, a radioisotope which would not significantly decay for more than five years. Radiation monitors gave readings far more hazardous than those of a "radium [or luminous] dial wristwatch", and judging by the area affected, he was sure some 500 gallons or more must have spilled.
Clymer knew about coolant spills. He had been through over twenty-five accidental discharges since he started nuclear work at the shipyard eight years before. He had even won two commendations, including a 1977 Award of Merit for work "accomplished in highly radioactive contaminated environments under the most demanding conditions".
It took a month for decontamination crews to clean up after this "minor incident". Workers with jackhammers blasted away a fifteen-by-twenty foot section of the drydock, packed the concrete into steel drums, and shipped it to a government nuclear waste dump at Hanford, Washington. The clean up had its problems too. At one point, a work stoppage was called because the radiological control technician on duty demanded better safeguards to stop the spread of radioactivity.
Clymer and his buddies could stop a work crew that way. He liked to call his co-workers "nuclear traffic cops". They were the civilian watchdogs of the shipyards, responsible for monitoring and safeguarding much of the navy's nuclear overhaul work. However, it was getting more and more risky to confront the navy at the Puget Sound shipyard. Wedged into the classified work of overhauling nuclear submarines was an increasingly tense, two-year battle between management and labor.
Bill Clymer was the point man in this growing dispute. Only months before a valve was to blow out of a civilian reactor at Three Mile Island, the navy had begun teaching Clymer and his co-workers how to cope with the worst accidents imaginable at a nuclear plant. And now those men were asking for a raise. "We were being trained to handle nuclear meltdowns," states a defiant Clymer, "and they were paying us janitorial wages. All we wanted was a dollar or two more an hour."
Frustrated by the navy's inaction, Clymer began to blow the whistle on problems at the shipyard. His actions might have been those of just another disgruntled employee, were it not for a long career of top-secret government clearances dating back to his code-breaking days with the army. Federal agents had repeatedly investigated Clymer's background for these jobs and found only a hard working, patriotic American.
Starting in 1978, Clymer began leaking a series of official nuclear safety reports to the local press, exposing a part of life at the base rarely seen by Seattle residents. One document revealed there were thirteen radiological "incidents" at the shipyard during the first four months of1977. Another warned of a "deteriorating" safety performance and cited four more "incidents" of contamination during a two-week period, including the overexposure of three shipyard workers to "airborne" radioactivity. Asked for a comment by the press, Robert Kelley, the Shipyard's Director of Radiological Control, replied, "I can't confirm or deny this. This is not the type of thing we discuss outside the shipyard."
There was more controversy. After two unusual transfers away from the shipyard's nuclear work, Clymer went public with his discovery of plans to build a seven-story 400,000-gallon nuclear waste pit at the Shipyard, prompting two environmental groups to file an unsuccessful suit. The water pit is scheduled for completion in 1984.
In January 1979, Clymer was accused of the unauthorized use of shipyard documents (fuel oil report roust), taken into custody by armed guards, and escorted off the base. After eight years of nuclear safety work for the U.S. Navy, Bill Clymer was out of a job.
If they were isolated events, the problems Bill Clymer exposed at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard would be disturbing enough. There is evidence, however, that they are part of a global pattern of nuclear navy accidents, spills, and environmental and health problems. As a result of a yearlong investigation, the Center for Investigative Reporting has compiled the first comprehensive look at the environmental impact of the nuclear navy worldwide, including accounts of serious accidents in the U.S. and Soviet navies. The record we have amassed stands in sharp contrast to the U.S. Navy's thirty-year-old claim that it has never had an accident caused by one of its reactors, and raises even more serious questions about the safety of Soviet nuclear vessels. While some of these hazards have received brief mention in the press, information about others has been quietly suppressed by the U.S. Navy and its counterparts abroad. Consider the following:
Today, there are an estimated 352 nuclear-powered vessels worldwide, driven by some 376 marine reactors, and the number is growing rapidly. Yet, despite the many safety problems of civilian reactors, the world's nuclear navies release almost no information on the operation and accident records of these ships. Marine reactors are developed and controlled almost entirely by the world's militaries, with virtually no independent oversight or international control.
Nuclear accidents aboard these vessels are known to have occurred resulting in the release of radiation. Accidents involving Soviet nuclear-powered ships have recently been called "catastrophic" by the U.S. Navy. Serious problems have befallen U.S. naval reactors as well including at least thirteen accidental discharges of radioactive material in coastal areas. Nuclear vessels frequently encounter difficulties, which could lead to nuclear accidents including floods, fires, and mechanical breakdowns. Although most of these incidents go unreported, a 1983 survey by the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed 126 since 1954 or about once every three months. Over one-quarter of the events involved problems related to the nuclear power plant.
The nuclear fuel cycles that support these navies are plagued by accidents at every step of the way, from uranium mining to waste disposal. These fuel cycles, in turn, are serviced by a massive, little-known complex of shipyards, training centers, refueling plants and public and private industries that constitute a large part of the international arms race.
Not long after Bill Clymer lost his job, another career civil servant was being forcibly retired in Washington, D.C., though for unrelated reasons. Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the controversial barracuda behind this nation's nuclear navy, was finally relieved of duty after a record fifty-nine years of public service. Rickover's departure signaled a rite of passage for the U.S. Navy. This small, cantankerous man, the son of a Polish tailor, had grabbed hold of the reactor engineering project for the world's first nuclear powered ship, the USS Nautilus, and did not stop to rest until the submarine was launched, on schedule, in January 1954. Rickover then donned a civilian hat, and with that same technology helped pioneer President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program. By the end of 1957, his team had completed the nation's first commercial nuclear reactor, the Shipping port power plant in Pennsylvania.
During the next twenty-five years, Rickover was instrumental in creating what is today an almost underground nuclear industry. It is a huge virtually self-regulated naval bureaucracy that operates 154 floating reactors, plus another nine at land-based training centers, more than twice as many as those operated by America's utility companies. The Soviets, meanwhile, quickly followed Rickover's early lead, and now wield an enormous nuclear fleet of their own encompassing 135 ships and submarines. They in turn were followed by the British, French and. most recently the Chinese.
Illustration by Kirk Caldwell
There were also unsuccessful attempts to commercialize the technology for civilian ship propulsion. The United States made the first effort with the maiden voyage in 1962 of the NS (Nuclear Ship) Savannah, a cargo and passenger ship. She went around the world - a flagship for a new industry. But the ship was plagued by labor and financial problems. After eight years of service, and a $100 million subsidy from taxpayers, Congress cut off further funding.
The Savannah was followed in 1968 by West Germany's 17,000-ton nuclear-driven ore carrier, the Otto Hahn, which operated for several years but also on a subsidized basis. Then in 1974, the Japanese launched their ill-fated Mutsu, a nuclear-powered research ship, which developed a leak in its reactor system during sea trials. Japanese fishermen, concerned over the possible contamination of seafood, refused to let the ship dock, and it drifted in the waters of the North Pacific for five weeks.
All three civilian ships are now in mothballs.
Like the foreign nuclear fleets, the U.S. Navy, citing a broad range of national security concerns, is quite secretive about its Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. In Congressional testimony and a handful of unclassified reports, however, Admiral Rickover and his successors have sought to assuage any public fears. Every year for the past thirty years they have testified before Congress with statements typical of this one last year: "there has never been an accident involving a naval reactor, or any release of radioactivity which has had a significant effect on individuals or the environment." The navy tells us, furthermore, that they have accomplished this perfect record while amassing 2400 years of reactor operation and 50 million miles of steaming at sea.
Despite the Admiral's assurance, it is an open secret that the navy does in fact maintain records of what appear to be nuclear accidents, at least as you and I would use the word "accident". These events, however, are not called "accidents" by the navy. They are "incidents" and "discrepancies". And they are, in the words of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, "born classified". While accident reports are frequently released by the nuclear navy's civilian counterpart, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the navy routinely denies public access to similar reports because "there has never been an accident." The nuclear navy's principal oversight committee in Congress - the House Committee on Armed Services - has shown little inclination to question the navy's claims to such a perfect record.
Critics wary of these public pronouncements of safety point to the existence of the navy's "incident" records as evidence that the Pentagon is not being entirely forthcoming. They also stress that such an immaculate record is highly unlikely, given the long accident record of the nation's commercial nuclear plants, and the fact that most of these plants are modeled after the smaller reactors used in the navy. Both types of reactors are also largely built by the same corporations, General Electric and Westinghouse. Both nuclear establishments even use the same personnel. Admiral Rickover's elite training program has produced 50,000 men who today make up the bulk of the commercial nuclear industry's workforce. During the accident at Three Mile Island, for example, most of the reactor operators in the plant's control room were graduates of the navy's program.
Through the years, Admiral Rickover has echoed the claims of America's utility executives in championing the safety of nuclear energy. Despite these public displays, however, privately he has worried that a major accident could occur in one of his reactors, and that with the loss of a ship could go the public's acceptance of nuclear power. As a precaution, since the early days of his program Rickover tried to enforce a little known, partial ban on visits by nuclear ships to densely populated ports like New York and Boston. Before a 1960 hearing of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, he even complained that his orders to avoid these areas were being ignored. "What if something happens and you irradiate a city," he argued, "and you are called upon to prove there really was a military necessity [to go there]? What are you going to say?"
Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy has fostered what does appear to be a safety record superior to that of the commercial nuclear industry. Critics and advocates a like point to Rickover's navy as the finely tuned example of how nuclear energy can be safely managed, the model of technical efficiency for the civilian sector. Even Bill Clymer agrees that the navy is far safer. "The utilities don't know how to handle nuclear power plants," he once said. "The navy's different. They have to live with their reactors."
The navy, however, is deeply concerned about the possibility of a serious nuclear accident caused by one of its reactors and has trained shipyard workers like Bill Clymer to cope with that possibility. It has issued detailed classified manuals on the subject, and has even created a code name for such an event - "Faded Giant".
According to copies of these manuals we (see third paragraph below)
Just as the United States is happy to list the shortcomings of the Soviet Navy, the Soviets are not slow to reciprocate. Opposite: The LISS Nautilus, the navy's first nuclear-powered submarine, on sea trials near Groton. Connecticut. According to Soviet claims, "defects" in the reactor shielding ex posed the crew to high levels of radiation in 1954. The sub was supposedly docked for refitting and the crew partially replaced. (all photos courtesy U.S. Navy) have obtained, the impact of a Faded Giant would be much like a major accident at a commercial reactor, with evacuations, contamination of food and water supplies, and the spread of fallout to areas downwind. The size of the affected region could be substantial. California state officials, after meeting with the navy in 1980, planned a 31.5-square mile evacuation zone around the Mare Island Naval Shipyard near San Francisco - an area that encompasses 186,000 people.
The temperature inside a nuclear submarine on patrol is a constant seventy-two degrees. The lighting is always fluorescent. There is no sun, no wind, no rain. At this moment there are some eighty-five nuclear submarines prowling the world's oceans. They slide through cold, unfriendly waters on special intelligence missions and routine patrols. Although only about one twentieth the size of a large commercial nuclear plant, the single reactor aboard U.S. submarines enables them to travel on a single fueling for as long as thirteen years. Like Jules Verne's Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the navy has created the first true submersible, able to stay continuously under water for months at a time. Unlike Captain Nemo's sub, however, which ran on an unknown sodium "Bunsen" apparatus, today's submarine employs a pressurized water reactor.
The modem submarine ranks among the most technically sophisticated machines ever devised. A nuclear sub, as one observer put it, is a 4,000-ton Swiss watch. Cast within a tear-shaped, steel hull of some 400 feet is a maze of piping, circuitry and instrumentation that curves and bends throughout the ship. Over 7.000 pipe joints make up the saltwater system alone, all of it exposed to the enormous pressure of the sea. The navigational equipment looks like something out of Star Wars, with a complex array of gyroscopes, "accelerometers", and computers.
This precise technology reaches its highest point in the new Soviet Typhoon and American Trident submarine classes. Each sub can travel virtually undetected with a nuclear arsenal of twenty to twenty-four intercontinental ballistic missiles, each missile armed with independently targeted warheads. A single Trident or Typhoon sub is capable of incinerating nearly 200 cities. At all times these deadly vessels, along with other ballistic missile subs, are on a silent, lonely patrol in the strategic straits and seas of the world. Within ten minutes of a presidential order, the Trident can climb to a depth of about 100 feet, unleash its missiles and virtually devastate a nation 4,500 miles away. The policy of deterrence depends in large measure on the near invulnerability of these ships.
Like all creations of high technology, however, the nuclear submarine is not a foolproof machine. The United States has lost two nuclear subs at sea with their full crews; the Soviets have lost at least one. The exact causes in all three cases are unknown. It is known, though, that there have been many close calls as well. "I'm really surprised we only lost two subs," says Robert Pollard, a former senior reactor operator from the USS Sargo. "There were times when we weren't sure we were coming back."
Indeed, sometimes the nature of the job heightens the possibility that something may go awry. Nuclear submarines play a dangerous undersea game of cat and mouse, constantly testing and retesting the defenses and strategies of their opponents. A 1976 Congressional intelligence report, portions of which were leaked to the press, revealed that U.S. subs had collided with nine "hostile vessels" during the preceding decade. The submarines, which often operated "within unfriendly waters", were part of a top-secret naval intelligence operation. Five of the collisions were believed to have been with Soviet nuclear subs. The report noted that there was no lasting damage to the American subs, and that "presumably" no Soviet submarines were sunk.
How many of these events were serious is not known, but a significant number of incidents involving nuclear ships has occurred. Nuclear subs have run aground, crashed into other vessels, had fires, floods and mechanical breakdowns. They have collided with warships, tankers, and at least one whale. Forty-two of these incidents were reported in a 1977 study of nuclear weapons accidents by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. A 1983 survey of press reports and related sources by the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed eighty four more, including thirty-seven that involved the nuclear power plant. Because of the limited data available to the general public, and because of the relative openness of American society, most of the events cited involve U.S. ships. One must assume, however, that the nuclear fleets of the Soviet Union, England. France and China have had their share as well.
An interesting loophole has developed which does provide the public with an unusual look at the lesser-known aspects of the U.S. and Soviet nuclear navies. While the superpowers are unwilling to talk about the actual nuclear accidents of their own ships, they are, as it turns out, willing to release information about their opponent's fleets.
Rumors of serious nuclear accidents and of widespread radiation overexposure in the Soviet Navy have persisted for years, but only during the last year have U.S. officials finally begun releasing information about them. U.S. Secretary of the Navy John Lehman told reporters in March 1982 that Soviet "standards of safety - and crew safety - are far lower than ours in nuclear power plants. We know there have been some catastrophic health-impairment incidents. We know there are hairless sailors in old soldiers' homes." Loss of hair is a common symptom of radiation sickness.
Lehman went on to say that disabled Soviet subs have been seen being hauled back to port at the end of a three-mile tow Line, ostensibly because of radiation dangers. The Soviets, he claimed, had sacrificed safety for high-speed performance.
In June 1982, Defense Electronics reported that Danish intelligence sources confirmed widespread deaths of Soviet sailors due to radiation exposure. "Although the Kremlin has done its best to suppress the news," noted the journal", the increasing illness and resulting deaths of the sailors, and the inactivity of Soviet nuclear subs in Baltic ports, are becoming too widespread to hide".
Lehman's remarks were again reinforced by two brief official reports released later last year by the U.S. Navy detailing five Soviet reactor accidents. One report to Congress noted that crewmen from Soviet nuclear ships reportedly receive what is called "childless pay" and special treatment for radiation-related diseases. Injuries and deaths caused by overexposure occurred "particularly in earlier units", according to the report.
Together with a second document released to the author, entitled "Summary of Soviet Nuclear Incidents" (there is that word again), the report paints an ominous picture of the Soviet Navy's nuclear history. They refer to "strong evidence" that the icebreaker Lenin, the Soviets' first atomic powered ship, "suffered a reactor casualty" shortly after its refueling in 1966. Radiation from the accident apparently forced "the ship to be abandoned for over a year before work was begun to ultimately replace (its] three reactors with two."
Just what happened to the Lenin is unclear. According to naval analysts Norman Polmar and Thomas Alien, writing in their recent book Rickover, the Lenin "suffered a major radiation leak. Rumors persist that many crewmen had severe radiation exposure. She lay idle, 'too hot' to board for several years." A renovated Lenin was returned to service in
Four other accidents from 1970 to 1980, all involving submarines, are cited in the U.S. Navy reports, indicating that the Soviet Navy has not yet licked its reactor problems. One accident in 1970 involved the sinking of an attack submarine near Spain due "to a casualty in the nuclear propulsion system". The other accidents all apparently involved various power failures due to problems in the reactor systems. More than nine sailors were known to be dead and an unknown number of others seriously injured.
In its report to Congress, U.S. Naval Intelligence officials stressed the difficulty of verifying releases of radiation by Soviet ships because of tight security around ports used by the Soviet nuclear fleet. "The Soviet Union has never made public any information on its nuclear ship operations in port, occupational radiation exposures or the handling of radioactivity associated with their ships."
U.S. intelligence officials, however, have access to far more data on these and possibly other accidents. Members of Congress have received detailed briefings during closeddoor hearings on the Soviet Navy's nuclear woes. And the CIA, in a response to a Freedom of Information request by the author, recently admitted to the existence of a highly classified document issued in 1981, entitled, "Submarine Accidents: A Continuing Problem for the Soviet Navy".
Just As THE United States is happy to list the shortcomings of the Soviet Navy, the Soviets are not slow to reciprocate. 1n1968, a Leningrad press released a book that must have raised a few eyebrows among naval intelligence officers in the West. The book, entitled Proyektirovanive Atomnykh Podvodnykh Lodok ("Design of Nuclear Sub-marines"), contained a discussion and a series of tables detailing U.S. nuclear submarine accidents. Among the accidents cited were ten involving the nuclear power plant, accidents that the U.S. Navy says do not happen. The tables, judging from the references that can be checked by newspaper accounts at the time, are quite accurate. Except for a few requisite references in the text about "the adventurous policy of the Pentagon", the book's other claims do not appear to be fabricated or outlandish. Two of the accidents cited involved the release of radiation in levels that "significantly exceeded permissible limits".
The first accident occurred early in the U.S. nuclear propulsion program aboard the USS Nautilus. The Soviet authors claim that, in 1954, the year the sub was commissioned, "defects" in the shielding around the reactor exposed the crew to high levels of radiation. The submarine was docked for refitting and the crew partly replaced.
The second accident occurred in 1961 aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of the earliest ballistic missile subs. The vessel received "increased radioactivity due to incorrect disposal of radioactive waste". This operation involved "the primary circuit demineralization system". a unit that extracts radiation out of the reactor coolant and stores it in resins which themselves become highly radioactive. The submarine had to be decontaminated.
A third accident, which can be confirmed by brief press reports at the time, involved the October 1959 explosion and fire in the prototype reactor of the USS Triton at the navy's training center in West Milton, New York. One man was killed and three others seriously burned when a high-pressure air flask exploded. The navy, in response to a recent inquiry, stated, "The explosion was completely unrelated to the reactor or any of its principal auxiliary systems." However, according to sources familiar with the operation of naval reactors, the flask supplied air to operate a critical back-up system in the event of a reactor emergency.
The U.S. Navy has had other serious reactor accidents as well. During the course of its investigation into naval nuclear safety records, researchers at the Center for Investigative Reporting came across a number of striking "incidents" or "discrepancies", to use the navy's terms:
The USS Thresher, History's worst submarine disaster was apparently due to an accident directly involving the ship's nuclear reactor. The USS Thresher, the lead ship of a new class of attack submarines, was on sea trials off the New England coast when. on April 10, 1963, it sank and imploded, plunging 129 men to their death. The remains of the Thresher now lie in 8,400 feet of water.
Admiral Rickover repeatedly asserted that the accident had nothing to do with the reactor plant. But some leading naval authorities believe otherwise including Adm. Ralph K. James, then chief of the navy's Bureau of Ships. James believes that failure of a seawater pipe on board caused a violent stream of pressurized water to hit the nuclear control board initiating a "scram" (emergency shutdown) of the reactor. Because of "inadequate design of the nuclear controls for the plant" power was lost and the Thresher, already on a deep dive, continued down to "collapse depth". Among others who concur with this account is Norman Polmar, author of Death of the Thresher and for ten years U.S. editor of Janes Fighting Ships, the standard reference book on the world's navies.
The navy claims that no radiological problems resulted from the Thresher sinking. Samples taken from around the ship's debris show only minor amounts of cobalt 60. However, it is impossible to tell whether the reactor was part of the debris. According to the official account, the Thresher's reactor and its fuel somehow survived intact both the immediate implosion of the ship and the later corrosive action of seawater.
The USS Seawolf. The navy experienced a little-known set of problems with an experimental sodium-cooled reactor it developed for the second nuclear submarine, the Seawolf. The reactor was plagued by persistent leaks in its steam system. caused by the corrosive nature of liquid sodium. Also apparently a problem was the explosive property of sodium when it came into contact with water. Four years after the Seawolf was launched its reactor was replaced with a pressurized water system like those used by the Nautilus and all later U.S. ships.
Despite interest in the use of sodium as a coolant, the reactor was deemed too problematic and in 1954, it was scuttled in 9.000 feet of water off the Maryland-Delaware line. The reactor is estimated to have contained 33,000 curies of radioactivity, and is believed to be the largest single radioactive object deliberately dumped into the sea. Repeated attempts to locate it have failed.
The SL-1 Reactor. The navy's statement that it has never had a reactor accident is carefully limited to the naval propulsion program. Were it not, the navy would have to take into account its direct involvement in one of America's worst reactor accidents, the SL- 1 disaster.
SL- 1, a prototype boiling water reactor at a government facility in the Idaho desert, was being explored for use by the army and navy as a mobile energy unit for remote locations. On 3 January 1961, the reactor exploded, killing a navy electrician and two army technicians then on duty. The men were so contaminated they had to be buried in lead caskets. About 20 percent of the reactor's core melted, accompanied by a large release of radiation. Clean-up of the area took thirteen months. An NRC official later suggested in a recent interview that the accident was caused deliberately by one of the technicians in a bizarre suicide-murder plot stemming from a love triangle at the plant.
The U.S. navy's most frequent type of accident appears to be the mistaken release of primary coolant, the pressurized water used to carry heat away from the reactor core. Like the USS Puffer in Puget Sound, a host of similar reports have surfaced in other nuclear navy harbors. "All it really takes is a single valve that shouldn't have been opened," says one navy vet, "and you've mistakenly dumped hot coolant into a harbor".
The local paper of any nuclear shipyard town is likely to have a number of short stories over the years on these releases. In every reported case the navy has denied either that the accident occurred, or claimed that radiation levels released were far too low to cause injury. Some examples: The USS Proteus, a disabled submarine tender, discharged highly radioactive amounts of primary coolant water into Guam's Apra Harbor during October and November 1975, according to two former crewmen from the ship. One of the men, a retired navy technician, charged in a sworn affidavit that as a result, a geiger counter check of the harbor water near two public beaches measured 100 millirems per hour, fifty times the present allowable dose. The men also claimed that the Proteus had failed its nuclear safety inspection six months earlier.
In May 1968, Japanese scientists monitoring radiation adjacent to the submarine USS Swordfish discovered levels up to twenty times higher than normal background. The Japanese believed the radiation may have been linked to the discharge of coolant from the sub into Sasebo Harbor. The findings caused an international incident, prompting political demonstrations in the region, and causing then Premier Eisaku Sate to warn that U.S. nuclear ships could no longer call at Japanese ports unless their safety was guaranteed.
Reporters from The Day, a local newspaper near the New London, Connecticut, submarine base, discovered that on 12 December 1971, 500 gallons of reactor coolant spilled into the Thames River while being transferred from the submarine Dace to the sub tender Fulton. According to an account published in the book Rickover, the admiral himself later described the accident as " a hose broke, spilling a few gallons of pure water into one of our most polluted rivers." The navy claims that its primary coolant is safe enough to drink after being passed through the reactor's filtering system. Bill Clymer agrees, in part: "If you paid me enough," he says, "I'd drink primary coolant out of a clean plant. It depends from where in the plant, and how long it's had a chance to settle and decay.
The actual water in the primary coolant system stays radioactive only for a few seconds but the coolant system picks up bits of cobalt, chromium, and other elements that rust or break off the pipes and the reactor. When these pieces of metal become irradiated, some do not significantly decay for years.
Until the 1970s, U.S. nuclear ships and shipyards annually discharged millions of gallons of excess primary coolant and other low-level liquid wastes into harbors and coastal areas. Despite Admiral Rickover's insistence that the practice was safe, the navy has drastically cut back on the amount released in near-shore waters. Today, the navy reports that since 1973 it has discharged annually less than 25,000 gallons within twelve miles from shore. The total radioactivity present is said to be one curie, an insignificant amount.
The navy points to a series of seven radiological surveys of various nuclear ports in the United States by the EPA and the Public Health Service as proof that their releases of radiation really are minuscule. These studies, however, have been done Inconsistently. Ports such as Norfolk, Virginia, and several in California have not been surveyed by independent agencies for fifteen years. Several others appear not to have been checked at all, including the U.S. Naval Submarine Support Facility in Kings Bay, Georgia, and the U.S. Naval Shipyard and Weapons Station in Charleston, South Carolina.
The navy issues no figures on the amount of its nuclear wastes released while far out at Sea. The navy's annual reports do note, though, that this amount of radioactivity is "less than the naturally occurring radioactivity in a cube of sea water approximately 100 yards on a side". This figure excludes tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen. Tritium releases from the entire nuclear navy are below 200 curies per year, or "less than single electrical generating nuclear Power stations typically release each year".
According to informed sources, the navy Is now attempting to halt all releases of radiation while at sea. The motivation is not environmental, however, as much as strategic. Scientists on both sides of the Atlantic are apparently at work on techniques to track enemy subs by following the radioactivity emitted by their reactors. According to Military Electronics magazine, a Soviet ship in 1974 successfully tracked one of its own submerged subs this way. Official navy policy states that solid nuclear wastes are no longer disposed of at sea. However, according to Interviews the author has had with former submarine and Shipyard personnel, the navy routinely dumps overboard highly radioactive resins, which act as filters for the reactor coolant. These filters - which have the consistency of caviar - are called ion exchange resins, and are the source of accidental contaminations.
Bill Clymer remembers submarines coming to port covered with the resin beads. "Somebody would screw-up," he says, "and the wind would blow them back on the ship. They were the equivalent of a black, gunky oil filter from your car, but just loaded with radioactive crud." This is what apparently happened in 1961, when, according to the Soviet book, Design of Nuclear Submarines, the USS Theodore Roosevelt was contaminated by poorly disposed waste from the "demineralization system". The accident occurred again on the USS Guardfish fourteen years later, according to Kirk Peterson, a former navy reactor instructor then stationed on the sub. "While we were in dry-dock at Pearl Harbor during the winter of 74/75," says Peterson, "we covered one side of the hull with canvas and scraped off algae and barnacles, and carted it all away (for radioactive waste disposal). It was contaminated with resin that had flown back from a disposal at sea."
The resins and other radioactive waste retained by nuclear vessels end up at a handful of specially equipped shipyards. There are nine U.S. shipyards--three private, six government-owned-which perform the navy's nuclear work. And there are five Soviet shipyards, which according to the Pentagon, are building new nuclear subs at a rate three times faster than the United States.
How safe are the workers at these facilities? During the last five years, a highly politicized scientific debate has arisen over the effects of radiation on the health of nuclear shipyard workers. One independent study directed by Dr. Thomas Najarian, a Boston blood specialist, recently found that shipyard workers with higher exposure rates at the nearby Portsmouth Naval shipyard have a three times greater chance of contracting leukemia and other cancers. The navy has called Najarian's work "sensational" and says his findings have been refuted by a study from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). To further complicate matters, there is a third, slightly different type of study done by British researchers at a shipyard in Scotland which showed a definite link between exposure to low-level radiation and "chromosomal aberrations", suggesting possible genetic problems for the workers.
Called before a congressional committee to address the questions raised by these studies, Admiral Rickover issued his longstanding defense of the U.S. Navy's high safety standards, and repeated his claim, "No one has been injured from an accident involving radiation exposure." But for the first time he added, "I do not include the area which is of concern to this committee-the long-term effects of low-level radiation."
Despite the controversy, Rickover could still point to his well-known record of proteeting workers in the U.S. nuclear navy. According to official reports, the total amount of radiation exposure at the nation's shipyards has dramatically dropped, from a peak in 1966 to less than one-eighth that figure, despite a more than doubling of the number of ships overhauled. In the history of the navy's nuclear propulsion program. there have been only thirty-five overexposures, all before 1968.
It was an impressive record, especially when compared to the large number of over exposures at NRC-licensed civilian reactors. (There were seventy-three in 1980 alone.) But how accurate were the navy's figures?
In January 1979, (NOTE: The day Bill Clymer was arrested at PSNS; see exhibit 15) Dr. John Cobb of the University of Colorado Medical School, a member of the advisory panel for the NIOSH study, journeyed to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to evaluate the situation for NIOSH director Dr. Anthony Bobbins. Cobb, an EPA consultant and long-time professor of community health, was shocked at what he called "destructively antagonistic, even explosive relations between the union officials at the [shipyard] and the navy". Union officials believed, Cobb later wrote, "that evidentally the navy did have something serious to hide from us, that the navy would lie, cheat and do anything to cover-up their deficiencies in management."
Cobb arranged private meetings with the shipyard workers and garnered nineteen letters from them detailing conditions at Portsmouth. In those letters--which appear in Cobb's NIOSH report--and in his meetings with the workers, he was told of how conditions there encouraged high exposure rates, particularly during the early years of the shipyard. Badges that measured radiation doses were often "lost". Cobb concluded that the navy's data on early exposure rates were simply not reliable, especially during radiological "incidents" at the base. "In one case," said Cobb, "they threw away the victims' clothes, including their radiation badges. There have been plenty of accidents at Portsmouth, some with enormous exposure."
Cobb discovered that there were incentives for workers to keep their radiation exposure artificially low. To earn overtime pay they would not wear their radiation badges in "hot" areas. He was told, "that workers were led to believe that radiation exposure would not harm them," and that the navy had often issued "waivers" to keep workers in high radiation areas even after they had exceeded exposure limits.
Beyond the impact of the nation's 163 naval reactors, there are the environmental effects of a huge complex of industries that supports the U.S. nuclear fleet. As in the commercial industry, naval nuclear fuel goes through a long, complicated, and often-hazardous cycle that begins with uranium mining and ends with radioactive waste disposal. Included in the safety record of the U.S. Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, then. should be the following:
( Naval reactors. because of their high, 93 percent enriched uranium, consume over thirty times more fuel for each pound used than the commercial nuclear industry, which enriches only to 3 percent. This gives the navy an enormous stake in the nation's uranium mining industry, which has long been plagued by high rates of lung cancer and the poor disposal of over 150 million tons of toxic radioactive mill tailings.
( Since 1968, the navy's top-secret fuel processing plant in Irwin. Tennessee, has lost 234 pounds of the highly enriched uranium - which is pure enough to make a bomb out of - forcing the plant to shut down six times. Also, in 1979, an accident at the facility contaminated about 1,000 people with dust like uranium, giving them doses five times higher than they would have received normally in a year.
( The government's reprocessing plant in Idaho, which helps recycle the navy's spent fuel into nuclear weapons, is also the dump site for the navy's solid, high-level nuclear wastes. The plant has had a long history of nuclear accidents, and has raised fears among local residents that its injection of billions of gallons of radioactive wastes and raw sewage into the ground since 1952 will seriously contaminate Idaho's Snake River Plain Aquifer. The tail end of the navy's nuclear fuel cycle has not been completed, for like every other nuclear operation, the U.S. Navy has no solution to its mounting problem of nuclear waste disposal. The remains of the navy's most dangerous by-products--spent fuel--are being stored in steel holding tanks in Idaho until some means of permanent disposal are found. But that is not the only radioactive waste left by the nuclear navy.
There is the USS Nautilus, the navy's first nuclear submarine, for example. This historic ship is to be towed to its birthplace at the Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton, Connecticut, and turned into a museum, open at last for the public to see.
The Nautilus, though, is reportedly too "hot" to use as a museum. For three years, the decommissioned sub has sat idle at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard near San Francisco. Navy officials have confirmed that portions of the sub will remain so radioactive that the public will be forever barred from them.
It is not known what the Soviets plan to do with their old nuclear ships. Their decommissioned subs are reportedly still tied up at various shipyards. The U.S. Navy, however, has proposed several ways to solve its dilemma, including the eventual sinking of more than 100 of its nuclear subs, with their reactors intact, off the California and North Carolina coasts. Under this plan, the de-fueled subs would be towed out to sea at a rate of three or four per year over the next thirty years, and dumped in waters of 14,000 feet or more at locations approved by the EPA.
The navy has thrown other radioactive refuse into the oceans over the years. From 1946 to 1970, more than 89,000 barrels of radioactive waste, much of it from navy shipyards and radiation labs, were dumped in at least fifty locations off the nation's coastlines. Neither the exact number of barrels nor sites is known because record keeping at the time was notoriously poor. A check by the EPA found that one-quarter of the barrels at the heavily fished Farallon Islands dump thirty miles west of San Francisco were ruptured and leaking. The report, a 1955 survey of nuclear waste disposal practices, was finally released in 1981 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Despite government claims that only low-level waste was dumped, evidence in a recently unearthed report from the Atomic Energy Commission indicates the disposal of more than 1,000 barrels of high level waste, most of it from the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, a navy nuclear propulsion center near Pittsburgh.
The U.S. Navy's constant claims of absolute safety would be more believable if it would declassify its "incident" records and open them to public scrutiny. But the navy does not appear willing to take that risk. After all, even Admiral Rickover admitted that his nuclear plants are not foolproof. The "whole reactor game hangs on a much more slender thread than most people are aware," he once said. "All we have to have is one good accident in the United States and it might set the game back for a generation."
Certain regulatory changes would go a long way toward assuring a safer navy. As the U.S. nuclear navy stands today, we have basically one organization that researches, designs, operates, maintains and monitors Its nuclear activities. Such a condition would never be tolerated in the civilian nuclear industry, nor in any large industrial activity in the United States.
One obvious need is for more frequent checks of nuclear-ship harbors by agencies independent of the navy, such as the EPA. Another important change would be for more careful scrutiny by the relevant congressional oversight committees, rather than the almost blind acceptance with which they now view the navy's reports on nuclear safety. Another move would be for a strict directive to be issued for nuclear vessels to avoid heavily populated ports whenever possible. And certainly the navy's practice of dumping highly radioactive filter resins at sea--in direct violation of its own policy-should be stopped.
The problem, however, will not be solved by merely imposing better regulations upon the U.S. military. The increasing chances of catastrophic nuclear accidents on the high seas and in busy ports is ultimately an international one, and depends not only on the United States, but on the five major nuclear powers which are all increasing the size of their nuclear fleets. It raises questions of safety and security which can be answered only by serious arms control treaties. The ships that are being built and the ships now at sea, form an integral part of the international arms race.
Admiral Robert B. Carney recognized this thirty-five years ago, when, as a deputy chief of naval operations, he argued that a worldwide ban on nuclear powered warships should be attempted before building such a fleet. Carney believed that if the United States developed this awesome capacity, its enemies would surely follow, and history has proved him right. It is not too late, however, to limit the damage that has been done. When the diplomats sit down at those long negotiating tables, they should start counting naval reactors alongside the nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.
David E. Kaplan is a staff writer at the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco, and is editor of the Center's recent book, Nuclear California (CiRl Greenpeace, 1982). His articles on energy and defense have appeared in newspapers and magazines nationwide. This story was prepared with the research assistance of Ida Landauer, and was funded by grants from the Fund for Constitutional Government and the New World Foundation.