Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Sunk Nuclear Subs Stir Global Worries of Ocean Pollution Study Details Extent of Submarine Accidents

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Sunk Nuclear Subs Stir Global Worries of Ocean Pollution Study Details Extent of Submarine Accidents

Article excerpt

ON Oct. 6, 1986, a fire erupted in the bowels of a Soviet nuclear-powered submarine stationed in international waters off Bermuda, armed with 32 atomic warheads.

Three of the estimated 120 sailors aboard perished. The rest were rescued before the Yankee-class submarine plummeted to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean with its nuclear arsenal and two uranium-fueled reactors.

The disaster is among only a handful of nuclear submarine accidents that have gained public attention. But such mishaps may be more common and potentially more dangerous than most people surmise, and in the wake of the cold war there's growing global interest in guarding against the lost nuclear dangers that may lie under the seas.

Last month, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging major naval powers to make a full accounting to the UN of all nuclear weapons and reactors lost on the bottom of the ocean. US congressional panels recently opened hearings on the question. And a new report by a Washington-based antinuclear group represents one of the first comprehensive attempts to catalogue undersea accidents involving some of the most lethal weapons of the world's military powers.

The study by the Center for Technology Assessment (CTA) found that between 1969 and 1989, there were at least 1,445 mishaps of varying severities involving US nuclear submarines. The group is still collecting data on the nuclear-sub operations of other nations. It expects the number of Soviet/Russian accidents to exceed those of the United States.

In addition, 19 Soviet and US reactors from damaged vessels were dumped or lost in mishaps at sea. In the same period, at least 43 Soviet and seven US nuclear weapons - missile warheads, torpedoes, and bombs - were lost at sea. The Soviet weapons were on five submarines that sank in accidents. A total of four nuclear torpedoes were believed to have been aboard the USS Thresher, which sank in 1964, and the USS Scorpion, which was lost in 1968. The rest were lost in non-submarine mishaps.

The weapons cannot explode. But what concerns many officials, environmentalists, and others are the radioactive poisons the sunken bombs and reactors may be leaking and the potential for future accidents that could create new contamination sources. Concludes the report: "Global nuclear submarine operations pose a grave danger to global environmental safety, health, and security."

"There is currently no way to secure these weapons and reactors and make them a non-threat to the environment," asserts Kay van der Horst, CTA director of defense and security policy. Mr. van der Horst calls the study preliminary. A more in-depth version will provide greater details of the mishaps, such as correlating locations with major fishing grounds, he says.

The CTA report comes amid growing calls for an international effort to assess and halt the contamination of oceans by nuclear navies. …

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