Wednesday, May 23, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

Nuclear Safety Concern At Bangor-- Possibility Of Accidents Prompts Secret Studies

Washington Post: Times Staff

The U.S. government, prompted by concerns of an accidental explosion, has started urgent, secret studies of the designs of two atomic warheads - one used on Trident submarines at Bangor, Wash., and the other on bombers based near Spokane, according to senior U.S. officials and weapons scientists.

The Post's sources said the safety studies were on the W-88 Trident warhead and the W-69 Short-Range Attack Missile-A, which is deployed on long-range bombers such as those based at Fairchild Air Force Base.

No nuclear weapon is known to have exploded accidentally and released radiation, but detonations of explosives around such warheads have released radioactive contamination.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, whose district includes Bangor, called the Department of Energy to request a briefing on the situation. He was meeting with Undersecretary John Tuck and with members of the House Armed Services Committee today.

``It is a problem the committee is very concerned about,'' said Dicks aide George Behan, ``but we don't know the extent of the problem yet.''

Some U.S. weapons scientists have alleged, based on computer modeling of accident scenarios, that the Trident W-88 warhead could be detonated accidentally if the propellant fuel in D-5 missiles catches fire due to mishandling during loading operations at the Trident bases at Bangor and at Kings Bay, Ga.

A powerful nuclear blast or widespread dispersal of

cancer-causing plutonium dust would result, these scientists say. They add that, in years past, the latter possibility has been taken so seriously that experts at the Lawrence-Livermore Laboratory prepared maps of potential plutonium fallout over Spokane, Wash.

Paul Taylor, assistant public affairs officer at Bangor, said base officials would not comment on the safety studies ``at this point.''

The W-69 shells could have exploded if they were struck in a sensitive spot by, for instance, a stray bullet or impact from a battlefield explosion during battle, the sources said.

They did not estimate the size of the accidental explosion that could have occurred, but the the shells were designed to carry the force of up to a 10-kiloton nuclear yield, about two-thirds the 1945 Hiroshima bomb.

In addition, the U.S. discovered and repaired defective nuclear artillery shells that could have exploded accidentally while stored in Europe. The defect was found in 1988 in the W-79 short range artillery shells deployed in West Germany, the Netherlands and Italy.

Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said changes that he could not reveal have been made to ensure the safety of the W-79. ``The point is, the weapon is safe,'' he said.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said yesterday in Brussels, Belgium, that West German authorities had been informed of the problem and that there had been no danger of a nuclear explosion.

The allegations concerning the safety of the W-88 and W-69 warheads are the subject of a bitter scientific dispute at the highest levels of the Pentagon and Department of Energy, according to some of the officials involved. The stakes are enormous, because the Trident missile system is expected to be at the heart of America's strategic deterrent force for the next three decades.

The Department of Energy is responsible for the design and production of all nuclear warheads. The Department of Defense determines warhead requirements and develops the weapons on which the warheads are deployed.

Although senior Energy and Defense officials say the risks are small, Energy Secretary James Watkins last week agreed to a secret, bipartisan congressional request that the issue be adjudicated by a panel of three independent scientists cleared to review the nation's most sensitive nuclear weapons information.

Watkins said, ``I have viewed all of the analysis, time and time again'' on the W-88, as have the directors of the three U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, ``and I'm satisfied . . . that we can continue to do the analysis we have to do on that weapon without undue concern.'' He said it meets all nuclear explosive and weapons system safety standards.

But Watkins also said ``had I been intimately involved in this process'' during key deliberations in the early 1980s, ``I would not have'' made the decision to use the warhead's current design. ``I don't think that kind of decision will ever be made again, and certainly won't be made while I'm here, and I believe with the kind of dicussions that we've had with DOD it's not going to be made again.''

At issue is the use of volatile explosive materials in the W-88 warhead that scientists say would explode in a missile fire, producing forces that could compress the nuclear core in each bomb and begin a nuclear chain reaction. The Trident missile is considered particularly vulnerable to such an accident because its multiple warheads are arranged in a circle around the propellant fuel in the missile's third stage.

The warheads on most other U.S. ballistic missiles are arranged on a platform that sits atop the final stage, allowing for the use of some form of insulating material to protect them from a missile fire.

Scientists at Lawrence-Livermore, which is under contract to the DOE, strongly protested the decision to use the volatile materials, but W-88 designers at Los Alamos National Laboratory said that using a less volatile material would not have substantially diminished the risk of an accident. The Navy also opposed the idea because the added weight of the alternate materials would have reduced the missiles' range or required the deployment of fewer warheads on each missile.

Watkins said he would have ``accepted the very modest penalties'' associated with using the less volatile material. He said ``a special task team'' has been formed to ``see what can be done'' about W-88 modifications.

Earlier this week, Watkins said ``we're not all that comfortable'' with the government's past approach to several safety issues.

-- Times staff contributed to this report.

Published Correction Date: 90/05/24 - This Article Incorrectly Stated That Trident Ii Missiles Have Been Deployed On Submarines At The Base In Bangor. The Type Of Missile, Whose Warheads Are The Focus Of Secret Safety Studies, Is Scheduled For Deployment At Bangor Within Two Years.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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