US nuclear ships may conceal accidents

Issue 

A secret US Navy document instructs commanders that they may not need to contact all the relevant authorities, like foreign governments, when a nuclear-powered vessel has an accident in a foreign port.

The document, "OPNAVINST 3040.5B, Nuclear reactor and radiological accidents; procedures and reporting requirements for", is issued by the chief of Naval Operations and is labelled "For Official Use Only Special Handling Required, Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals". A copy has been submitted to the New Zealand Special Committee on Nuclear Propulsion by a local academic, Dr Peter R. Wills.

Wills says that the document makes nonsense of the assurances made by the US government in the "Standard Statement on the operation of U.S. Nuclear Powered Warships in Foreign Ports", another document which the US government refuses to release to the public. (Wills made this document public in a submission to the New Zealand parliament five years ago.)

The Standard Statement says "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".

However, the Navy instruction leaves commanders free to use their "judgment as to the nature and extent of an accident". If a commander judges that panic and stoppage of vital services may have more serious consequences than exceeding specified levels of public exposure to radiation, then civilian authorities need not be notified.

"Public reaction" is noted as a specific factor for consideration in relation to deciding what actions should be taken.

The US Atomic Energy Act forbids officials discussing information about nuclear accident contingency planning, and the US Navy refuses to release any details of plans to deal with a nuclear reactor accident. After a three-year inquiry, the Australian Senate concluded that "there is a total lack of knowledge of the contingency procedures that the US authorities would implement in the event of a reactor incident". It is this information which Wills has made available to the New Zealand government-appointed committee.

Before a nuclear-powered warship is allowed to visit a foreign port, the chief of Naval Operations makes a "reactor safeguards evaluation" and issues a clearance. The criteria used in making this evaluation are secret; even the title of the document describing them is classified. "Whatever they are up to when they send a nuclear-powered warship into a foreign port, it is much more secret than spying on foreign governments", said Dr Wills.

In the event of an accident, the release of information would be limited to that required for public safety, and there would be no discussion of the reasons for the accident. In any case, a loss of radioactivity from a warship does not constitute a "radiological accident" until projected public exposure to radiation reaches some

The Navy may determine that no public notification is necessary. In such a case, the government hosting a visiting nuclear-powered warship is also unlikely to be informed.

If it is judged that immediate protective actions are recommended for the local population, ships' captains are authorised to notify civil authorities and to offer an assurance that every possible precaution has been or is being taken to reduce the hazard. However, notification is more likely to come later from a fleet commander.

At the first sign of an accident, radioactivity surveys would be ordered by the captain within the ship and its immediate vicinity. On this basis, he would assess whether or not an "accident situation" existed. If so, the captain would notify his superiors and dispatch a radiological monitoring team ashore to survey the downwind situation.

Once results of the onshore monitoring became available, they would be reported to an "area commander" at Fleet Headquarters. It is the responsibility of the area commander to arrange for a radiological assistance team to be dispatched, but this would not be done until he had decided that an "accident situation" existed.

It would take time to carry out the measurements and assessments of the radiological hazard. Initial measurements might produce results falling below the criteria which determine the first "Emergency Action Level", and then civilian authorities would receive no immediate notification.

Beyond the actions which a ship's captain could take to monitor and control an accident, the mobilisation of personnel and resources would be directed from a remote "emergency control centre" set up by the area commander.

The area commander is also responsible for deciding whether or not a ship should be moved. The views of local authorities would not be sought, not even to confirm that they coincide with the judgments of the US Navy.

"The standing instructions to US Navy commanders usurp the authority of those responsible for public safety and are irreconcilable with assurances offered to foreign governments in the Standard Statement", said Dr Wills after analysing the secret papers.