Nukes at Nanoose? No Thanks!

By Norm Abbey | 1999-07-01 12:00:00

Ottawa tried 36 years ago to put nuclear-tipped Bomarc missiles in British Columbia. They were later removed in response to overwhelming public opposition. Now Prime Minister Chretien wants to expropriate Nanoose Bay so U.S. submarines can bring nuclear weapons into Georgia Strait.

In May , federal and provincial negotiators had signed a compromise on the explosive Nanoose controversy. British Columbia agreed to continue leasing the provincially-owned weapons test range to the Department of National Defence (DND) if U.S. Navy warships (the main users) would leave their nukes at home.

The Pentagon, however, quickly reminded Canadian Fisheries Minister David Anderson and Defence Minister Art Eggleton that the U.S. Navy will "neither confirm nor deny" nuclear weapons on board their ships, and no one tells them what to do - even when they're operating in Canada. So, with B.C. Premier Glen Clark standing firm to uphold B.C.'s Nuclear-Weapons-Free legislation (passed by a vote of 51 to 1 in 1992), Anderson and Eggleton overturned the signed agreement. On May 14, they launched the first hostile expropriation of provincial territory in Canadian history.

Many - but not all - of those warheads were "generally" removed from Los Angeles class subs and the surface fleet. However, at least three "Trident" Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) subs have also used Nanoose, last in 1995. Trident subs have 24 ICBM silos, each fitted with up to eight independently targetable nuclear warheads: i.e. 192 bombs per boat. The LA. class subs, which "generally" don't carry nuclear warheads, are nuclear-powered and pack as much radionucleides in their reactor cores as several nuclear bombs. Hence their nickname: Floating Chernobyls.

Nanoose is basically "branch-plant" of the U.S. Navy's Undersea Warfare station at Keyport, Washington, and makes Canada part and parcel of U.S. nuclear weapons strategy - including "first use." U.S. submarines have been using Nanoose Bay since 1965, when they moved north from the more densely populated waters of Puget Sound. Residents of urban centers like Seattle didn't want the nuclear safety hazards, and Ottawa obliged by signing the "Canada-U.S. Nanoose Agreement" in 1965. That gave Nanoose to the U.S. Navy for ten years, and was rubber-stamped without public debate for a further ten years in 1976, and again in 1986. The renewal was left unsigned in 1996, amid growing opposition. The Pentagon and Canada's government have now set September as their deadline to complete the expropriation.

Ottawa has few qualms about operating nuclear warships in the Georgia Basin, and has exempted the U.S. Navy from Canadian environmental laws. U.S. warships don't have to report oil spills. And when a U.S. sub fires a torpedo at the Canadian Forces Experimental and Test Ranges (CFMETR), as Nanoose is officially called, it emits toxic metals into prime salmon habitat. Canada has exempted U.S. warships from that law as well. The U.S. Navy has felt secure behind CFMETR's barbed wire fences and friendly cabinet ministers - a welcome respite from their experience in Okinawa, New Zealand, Scotland, Subic Bay near Manila, Spain, and Italy, all of which have closed down U.S. Navy outposts. Today Nanoose is the only site outside the United States where American nuclear subs still operate routinely.

Although DND claims CFMETR is essential to our "National Security" and "NATO commitments," Canada hasn't fired a torpedo in anger since 1945. Community groups cite environmental, social, economic, and legal reasons for ending all weapons testing in Georgia Strait. These concerns persuaded B.C. Premier Glen Clark to cancel DND's lease in 1997. DND's in-house environmental study in 1995 admitted that 30 years of torpedo testing has dumped 93,000 kms of copper wire and 2,200 tons of lead, lithium batteries, and other toxic materials on the sea bed at Nanoose. The Navy insists the soft mud bottom at Nanoose can absorb these toxins, and their press release even states that military activities at Nanoose actually "benefit certain species of fish." (Translation: fishboats tend to avoid areas where nuclear subs are test-firing torpedoes.) However, no independent scientists have been allowed on the range to verify the findings.

The DND study "specifically does not include the matter of nuclear-powered or nuclear capable vessels entering British Columbia." Canada has no ability to respond quickly to a nuclear emergency, and no ability to salvage sunken nuclear wrecks. University of California nuclear policy analyst Jackson Davis found in 1987 that latent cancer fatalities alone from a mishap involving a nuclear warhead or the on-board nuclear propulsion unit "would range from 15 to 3413," plus "prompt fatalities, fatalities from severe genetic defects, or fatalities from habitation of contaminated urban regions." Davis also predicted that "air and ground contamination would remain well above the (U.S.) Nuclear Regulatory Commission limits up to 50 km from the accident site, and beyond." In contrast, DND's in-house nuclear emergency plan paints a far rosier picture, defining a worst case as one in which radiation wouldn't spread farther than 550 meters from the accident site. Since neither DND nor the Provincial Emergency Plan has a realistic nuclear emergency plan for Nanoose, the three million down-wind inhabitants of the Georgia Basin can only hope our government's blind faith is correct. There are no designated evacuation routes, no stockpiles of potassium iodide pills, no brochures with emergency instructions.

David Anderson says that economic benefits from CFMETR outweigh these risks, and that CFMETR puts $10 million into the local economy in the form of wages and related spin-offs. Local pub owners do like to sell beer to visiting U.S. submariners, but according to researcher Dr. Jack Ruitenbeek, Nanoose is anything but a good deal for taxpayers. His cost benefit analysis of CFMETR in 1996 found that the overall taxpayer subsidy to Nanoose totals over $18 million a year, i.e. a net loss of over $8 million. He also found that alternate non-military uses CFMETR could generate 300 jobs as opposed to the roughly 60 civilians presently employed at CFMETR.

No Economic Benefits

Nor did Ruitenbeek include the cost to local fishers and boaters who have to cope with submarine traffic in Georgia Strait's increasingly busy shipping lanes. In 1991 fisherman Mirko Tolje was tending his gillnets when he noticed the LA class submarine USS Omaha approaching at 17 knots. The Omaha snagged his gillnet and Tolje only kept his boat from being pulled under by fast action with a sharp knife cutting his nets loose. North Vancouver sailor Jory Lord wasn't as lucky three years later when his yacht "Moonglow" was smashed and sunk by a Chilean sub - invited to Nanoose as a guest of the U.S. Navy. Although the Chileans fished Lord out of the water, they denied the collision, and cited "diplomatic immunity" just in case. Chile has yet to pay Lord a peso in compensation, despite an order from the B.C. Supreme Court.

That kind of military arrogance comes as no surprise to people of the Nanoose First Nation, who for thousands of years have lived on the site now occupied by CFMETR. "Naturally it (the expropriation) bothers us," said Nanoose chief Wilson Bob. "We were at the table with them and they didn't inform us about anything. The nuclear thing concerns us because we're just across the bay." The Nanoose First Nation, which in 1996 concluded stage three of a five-stage land claim negotiation, has not been consulted regarding the expropriation. Defence minister Art Eggleton simply says, "I am told that there is no claim. Our government lawyers have looked at it, and that is not an issue."

Nevertheless, a legal challenge by the Nanoose First Nation may yet throw a monkey wrench into Eggleton's expropriation plans. The Supreme Court of Canada's landmark "Delgamuukw" ruling in 1997 means that national and provincial governments must consult with aboriginal people before making decisions that affect them. Vancouver lawyer Stuart Rush was lead counsel in that case, and while he acknowledged federal claims to "security" and "national defence," he also adds that: "Those interests don't trump the aboriginal interest. There has to be an accommodacontinued on page 12 tion, a way of co-existence between these two apparently competing uses."

The U.S. Navy's nuclear outpost at Nanoose Bay may violate international law as well. The International (World) Court of Justice ruled in 1996 that the use or even the threat of nuclear weapons is contrary to International Humanitarian Law, and CFMETR is part and parcel of that threat. On April 21, 1999, Dr. David Suzuki, SPEC president David Cadman, Environmental activist Elizabeth May, and Nanoose Conversion Campaign director Dr. Michael Wallace formally asked Prime Minister Chretien for an advisory opinion from a Canadian court on the legality of CFMETR. Chretien's staff responded merely that the request was "interesting," and had been forwarded to Art Eggleton.

In 1992 the entire B.C. legislature voted 51 to 1 for a full public (independent) review of the environmental impacts at Nanoose. Ottawa simply ignored that request. In fact the feds have never allowed any public input on Nanoose in almost 35 years.

A broad spectrum of groups and individuals are now organizing a campaign to stop the expropriation of Nanoose Bay. Eighteen B.C. and national organizations, including labor unions, church and environmental groups, have formally objected. SPEC, which was instrumental in successfully opposing uranium mining in BC in the 1970s (and a proposal to build six nuclear reactors), is again working with this broad coalition to encourage massive participation in scrapping this terribly misguided plan. We are also demanding that Prime Minister Chretien immediately hold a full, wide ranging public inquiry into all aspects of CFMETR at Nanoose Bay.

Norm Abbey is a B.C. environmentalist.

Peace Magazine Summer 1999

Peace Magazine Summer 1999, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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