Unsafe Harbours

On the eve of Canada's military entry into the nuclear age, it is time to examine the dangers of the proposed nuclear submarines.

By Betty Brightwell | 1988-08-01 12:00:00

The most probable accident involves spillage of primary radioactive coolant. Several such accidents have already happened in the world's harbors. The B.C. government's practice of testing the water before, during, and after a visit by a nuclear-powered vessel shows their concern over possible leaks.

A senior officer of the Provincial Emergency Plan (PEP) intimated there are no procedures in place to deal with a radiation accident originating from a nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed vessel. Currently the Provincial Emergency Plan is divided into three regions, each with its own director. The directors meet regularly, attend seminars and participate in training sessions. Nevertheless, there is not even a chain of command to deal with an emergency. Moreover, PEP has no mandate to cooperate with the military. They feel the on-site Nuclear Emergency Response Team (NERTS) could cope with any military problem. At least one published report does not totally agree with PEP's premise. The Jackson- Davis report, (Nuclear Accidents on Military Vessels in Canadian Ports: Site Specific Analysis for Esquimalt/Victoria) states that NERT teams do not exist in some areas, and are only capable of dealing with very small radiation leaks. As the report adds, these teams are placed on alert only when nuclear-powered vessels, not when nuclear-armed warships, are berthed.

This year B.C. has had three visits from vessels that were either nuclear-powered or carrying nuclear weapons. There have also been regular visits by U.S. frigates, which carry nuclear-capable ASROC missiles, the oldest and least stable weapons in the U.S. arsenal. If the plutonium from one ASROC missile were evenly dispersed through the world, an estimated 500 million fatal lung cancers would result.

Defence Minister Perrin Beatty, in response to public concern over the proposed purchase of nuclear submarines, says, "Rigorous safety standards followed by other Western Navies in building and operating nuclear submarines have ensured nuclear accident-free operation. The U.S. Navy, for example, has used nuclear propulsion for 34 years without a nuclear accident. The Canadian program will draw on Western experience and the domestic nuclear safety expertise of the Atomic Energy Control Board, which is second to none."

The Minister seems to have forgotten two serious accidents at Chalk River, another at Pickering, and that the reactor on Lake Huron was closed. He also seems to be misinformed about the U.S. Navy's record. In fact they have had numerous nuclear propulsion accidents over the last 34 years. Twenty-nine such "broken arrows" have been reported by the U.S. Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco.

The most serious of these was the loss of two nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarines. In April 1963 the USS Thresher sank with 129 men on board during sea trials. The disaster was apparently caused by a seawater leak which forced the reactor to "scram," causing a loss of power. The Thresher still lies at the bottom of the Atlantic 220 miles east of Boston. In May of 1968 the USS Scorpion sank with 99 men on board. There were no survivors. The cause is listed as "unknown." The Scorpion lies near the Azores in the Atlantic.

In late January of this year, a Polaris submarine docked at Faslane in the Firth of Clyde was within minutes of a nuclear accident. The primary cooling system which transfers heat away from the nuclear power plant on board failed. The back-up system also failed when an electric motor malfunctioned. From the time the alarm sounded, the crew had seven minutes to bring the situation under control. Fortunately, two of the crew were able to start a diesel generator to activate the cooling system. As a result, the two were exposed to radiation.

The most common of all accidents involves the release of radioactive coolant. In many of these instances the crew was exposed to radiation and the surrounding waters contaminated. Loss of coolant accidents (LOCAS), are considered to be the raison d'etre for emergency planning when warships visit. Loss of coolant could result in a meltdown of the vessel's reactor.

Knowing all we do about the possible hazards of nulclear-armed and nuclear-powered vessels, it seems inconceivable that Canada should purchase nuclear submarines and extend docking privileges to the U.S. Navy in this country. If in the end the government does obtain its desired fleet, they must at least formulate a comprehensive emergency plan in the event of an accident. Dr. Jackson-Davis made these recommendations: Canada should extend emergency evacuation zones to a five kilometer radius from the accident site; formulate decontamination plans for areas affected by fallout; negotiate details of liability and indemnity between the U.S. government and Canadian municipal, provincial and federal governments to ensure the cost of cleanup is covered; and carry out an evaluation of the current emergency response institutions, procedures and documents in light of existing accident analyses.

If the government spent as much time investigating the threats these policies pose, as they have in promoting the merits of these vessels, they might find that the dangers outweigh the advantages of joining the world's military "Boys Club." p

Betty Brightwell is a member of an Ad-hoc Committee of Concerned Citizens of Greater Victoria, B.C.

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1988

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1988, page 25. Some rights reserved.

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