Monday, January 21, 2008

From the Big Kahuna

United States Navy has had nuclear incidents
Monday, January 21, 2008

I wish to take issue with Rep. Gene Taylor's assertion that the United States Navy has, in the words of The Mississippi Press' Jan. 18 editorial, "been using nuclear power for decades without incident." In making this statement, both Rep. Taylor and The Mississippi Press are in error. The actual list of "incidents" includes:
  1. In 1961, the USS Theodore Roosevelt was contaminated when radioactive waste from its demineralization system blew back onto the ship after an attempt to dispose of the material at sea.
  2. On Dec. 12, 1971, approximately 500 gallons of radioactive coolant water was spilled into the Thames River near New London, Conn., during a transfer from the submarine USS Dace to the submarine tender USS Fulton.
  3. In 1975, the nuclear-powered submarine USS Guardfish was contaminated with radioactive waste from its reactor coolant water system during disposal at sea.
  4. Sometime during October to November of 1975, the submarine tender USS Proteus discharged radioactive coolant water into Apra Harbor, Guam, contaminating two of the harbor's public beaches with radiation 50 times the allowable dose.
  5. On May 22, 1978, the nuclear-powered submarine USS Puffer mistakenly released up to 500 gallons of radioactive water near Puget Sound, Washington.

This list does not include the losses of the nuclear-powered submarines USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. While their losses were unrelated to nuclear propulsion, their reactors are still sitting on the ocean floor, making it a matter of time before radioactive material is released. This list also doesn't include accidents involving nuclear weapons or incidents at shore-based facilities.


Finally, Rep. Taylor's assertion does not take into account the U. S. Navy's policy of not releasing information on incidents involving nuclear power. For example, OPNAVINST 3040.5B instructs naval commanders they "may not need to contact all the relevant authorities" if an incident occurs in a foreign port. This is in direct contradiction to the U. S. government's "Standard statement on the operation of U.S. nuclear powered warships in foreign ports" which states, "the appropriate authorities of the host government will be notified immediately in the event of an accident involving the reactor of the warship, during a port visit." In other words, knowledge of any "incidents" may not be in the public domain.


It is true that the U. S. Navy has operated nuclear-powered vessels for over 50 years (beginning with the USS Nautilus in 1954) without a reactor meltdown or a catastrophic release of radioactive material. This is due in large part to the design of their reactors and the rigorous training of their personnel. It is also a wise strategy to legislate the next generation of surface combatants be nuclear-powered to reduce our navy's vulnerability to disruptions in the oil supply. But it is misleading at best to declare U.S. naval operations involving nuclear power have been without incident.


Rep. Taylor should know better than to make such a statement and The Mississippi Press should know better than to repeat it without verification.


Bo Alawine

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