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Friday, March 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Inslee, Dicks want Navy to be open about nukes

Seattle Times staff reporter

Two Western Washington congressmen say they will press the Department of Defense to revise its policy of never discussing its nuclear arsenal in light of a mishap that damaged an atomic-tipped Trident missile at the Naval Submarine Base Bangor late last year.

Following a closed-door briefing by the admiral in charge of the sub-based atomic-weapons systems, Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, said the Navy "needs to find a better way" to notify Congress and the public about accidents such as the Nov. 7 incident at the Strategic Weapons Facility, Pacific (SWFPAC).

Inslee and some law-enforcement and emergency-services officials in Kitsap County said they were dismayed to learn about the accident in media reports almost four months after it happened.

"There is simply no excuse to have a delay of this length in notifying Congress and the public in a secure way, as occurred in this case," said Inslee.

Inslee said he was prohibited from talking about the specifics of the incident because of the Navy's policy of never acknowledging the whereabouts, or even the existence, of its nuclear weapons.

It is that policy that Inslee and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, who was also at the briefing, say they will seek to amend.

Several sources told The Seattle Times the nose cone of a Trident I C-4 missile was gouged by a ladder as the missile was being hoisted into a protective sleeve from its launch tube on the USS Georgia.

There was at least one thermonuclear warhead atop the missile — it can carry up to eight.

The warhead was not damaged.

Inslee, who lives in Kitsap County, said yesterday the Navy convinced him there was no public-health threat.

At the same time, the congressman — whose district includes the Bangor sub base — said the incident was serious and that the Navy acted appropriately in relieving the entire command of SWFPAC and undertaking a "vigorous" review and inspection of the facility.

"It appears to me that the Navy has recognized the severity of this breach of responsibility by reviewing these procedures in intimate detail," Inslee said.

"I can't disclose the nature of what occurred," said Inslee following what he called a "detailed briefing" by Rear Adm. Charles Young, the commanding officer of the Navy's Strategic Systems Programs.

"But I can say we would be disturbed if there were failures to follow procedure involving these types of weapons," he said. "What I can tell you is that I'm disturbed."

George Behan, a spokesman for Dicks, said the congressman was satisfied there was no health threat.

Both Inslee and Dicks have said they were aware the commanding officer was relieved of duty at SWFPAC in December.

Scott Baker, Inslee's deputy press secretary, said the congressman's staff was told it was a "personnel matter" when they inquired.

Behan has said Dicks never asked.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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