The Secret Story

By William M. Arkin and Joshua Handler

Until recently, the safety record of the world's nuclear navies has been by all accounts exemplary. Dozens of nuclear-propelled ships and submarines, many carrying nuclear warheads, routinely travel the oceans and visit ports, apparently without incident. The tragic explosion abord the USS Iowa, and the explosion, fire and eventual sinking of the Soviet Mike class submarine near Norway last April perhaps have raised concerns about the perilous nature of maritime military activities. But they have not shaken the general sense of nuclear safety at sea. In 1988, Greenpeace and the Institute for Policy Studies bagan to look into the Navy's record. Using public documents and Freedom of Information Act requests, we have discovered that in addition to the hundreds of minor collisions, fires and other mishaps that have become part of the public record, there is another log of incidents, a secret history, that has remained hidden. The recent spate of accidents, it appears, is not unusual. Rather, they are the latest in a long line of nuclear-related mishaps that goes back to the 1950s, when naval nuclear propulsion and weaponry first became widely used.

Overall, the study shows, the world's navies have experienced at least 1,200 major accidents, which have resulted in dozens of ship sinkings, hundreds of explosions and fires, costly repairs and loss of life. The accidents have occurred in shipyards and ports, in harbors and coastal waters and on the high seas throughout the world. And they have left an astounding by-product: 50 nuclear war heads and nine nuclear reactors lying on the ocean floor. It could be said that the world's sixth largest nuclear "power," after the United States, the Soviet Union, France, the United Kingdom and China, is the deep blue sea.

Gathering this material has been difficult. The world's nuclear navies are not eager for their mishaps to become public knowledge. This reticence is part political calculation and part hubris. Contrary to popular belief, it is not designed to thwart geopolitical rivals. Indeed, anyone familiar with the intelligence apparatus of the superpowers knows that each is fully aware of the military successes and failures of the other.

Rather, it is directed at allies, neutral nations and the public. The reason is simple and significant. Insofar as the world perceives the five nuclear navies as dangerous and unstable, their freedom of movement and the continued generosity of their respective governments is compromised.

At stake for the rest of us is something far more important. With major naval accidents occurring at the rate of roughly one each week since the dawn of the nuclear age, it is remarkable that a major disaster involving large populations has not occurred. Nuclear-armed and propelled ships of all flags are in dozens of ports around the world simultaneously.

It is a tribute to the care taken by the managers of these precarious technologies that no real catastrophe has yet occurred. In fact, they are publicly quite confident about their ability to maintain a safe record. On the other hand, they are equally fearful that a full airing of their record would reveal some of the other costs we pay for living in a noclearized world, namely the profound lack of openness and public debate about naval nuclear issues.

Rather than repudiate the critics, the fourdecade record of nuclear near-disasters at sea underscores the lengths that nuclear navies will go to deceive both allied and domestic polities and raises significant questions about the public trust. A case in point:

The Belknap Disaster

On November 22, 1975, during night exercises, the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy collided with the cruiser USS Belknap in rough seas 70 miles east of Sicily. The collision caused major damage to both ships, with the Belknap's superstructure wedged underneath the overhanging flight deck of the carrier. The carrier's fuel lines were ruptured, raining gasoline over the deck of the Belknap. A raging fire punctuated with explosions lasted for more than two hours.

The collision is one of the best-known naval accidents ever, but in all the documentation, no mention has ever been made of the nuclear weapons present aboard both ships, or the grave danger the Navy believed the nuclear warheads aboard the Belknap faced as a result of the fires.

Minutes after the incident occurred, the commander of Carrier Striking Forces for the Sixth Fleet sent a secret nuclear weapons accident message, a "broken arrow," to the Pentagon, warning of the "high probability that nuclear weapons aboard the Belknap were involved in fire and explosions." He had good reason for concern. Much of the firefighting equipment aboard the Belknap was destroyed by the collision, and the aluminum superstructure of the ship actually caught fire, melting and running "like hot butter" in the words of one U.S. Navy journalist. Fortunately for a large area of Italy and the Mediterranean, the fire was brought under control a scant 30 feet from the missile magazine.

The reason for the secrecy was highly political. It relates to the U.S. Navy's policy of "neither confirming nor denying" the presence of nuclear weapons aboard its ships. If they had admitted that the Belknap and the Kennedy were carrying nuclear warheads, the Navy would be forced to deal with the controversy, if not the restrictions, that could accompany port calls at nations that are not eager to have nuclear weapons introduced into their territory. For these reasons, the U.S. Navy has never before confirmed the presence of nuclear weapons aboard the ships.

According to the record, the nuclear weep ons were aboard both ships as they patrolled the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Soon after the collision, the nuclear weapons aboard the Belknap were transferred to the USS Mount Baker, a munitions ship that promptly departed for courtesy calls to Italy and then Toulon, France, before returning to the United States.

Was the Belknap a unique and isolated incident? Hardly. The record shows that it was perhaps the most dramatic of an otherwise commonplace event. In fact, one of the ships that steamed to the aid of the Belknap, the nuclear-capable frigate USS Bordelon, also collided with the USS John I: Kennedy a year later, 75 miles north of Scotland. The ASROC container, where nuclear weapons would normally be held, was nearly crushed. And that same morning, incidentally- a U.S. Navy Tomcat fighter rolled off the Kennedy's flight deck and sank in the North Sea.

The USS Ticonderoga

In 1981, the Department of Defense admitted there had been a nuclear weapons accident 15 years earlier. The entire confession read as follows: "At Sea, Pacific: An A-4 aircraft loaded with one nuclear weapon rolled off the elevator of a U.S. aircraft carrier and fell into the sea. The pilot, aircraft and equipment were lost. The incident occurred more than 500 miles from land."

What actually happened is far more politically explosive. In December 1965, the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga left bombing operations off the coast of North Vietnam and headed for Yokosuka, Japan, where crew and officers would get a rest. On December 5, an A4-E Skyhawk attack jet rolled off an elevator and sank, with the pilot and one B43 thermonuclear bomb, into 16,000 feet of water. The ship was indeed 500 miles from land—mainland China. In between the accident site and the Chinese mainland, however, lay miles of open ocean and one of the Pacific's most adamantly antinuclear nations, Japan. The nearest point of land, part of the Ryukyu island chain, was a scant 80 miles away.

The Navy kept the true details of the accident a secret not only because it would demonstrate its disregard for the policies of foreign governments (Japan prohibits the "introduction" of nuclear weapons into its territory), but because of the questions the incident would raise about the presence of nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War. Even as the revelations convulsed Japan and prompted it to demand an official explanation from the United States, the Pentagon was downplaying the story, declaring it "old news." They even argued initially that the ship was in fact steaming toward Vietnam, and therefore Japan's anti-nuclear stance had not been violated.

The "neither confirm nor deny" (NCND) policy hangs like a cloud over naval history. The tragic sinking of the U.S. Navy attack submarine USS Scorpion, for example, in which 99 crewmen died, is described in full by the Department of Defense this way: "Spring 1968/At Sea, Atlantic: Details remain classified." However, it is well known that the Scorpion sank 400 miles southeast of the Azores in more than 10,000 feet of water. What the Navy is trying to hide is that the ship carried two nuclear torpedoes.

Nuclear accidents of this kind are common enough, according to our research, to be of real concern. On August 18,1959, for example, the aircraft carrier USS Wasp had a major fire that required flooding the forward ammunition stores. Foam was pumped through the flight deck, and the crew prepared to flood the nuclear weapons storage spaces. But the commanding officer never gave the command, as the fire was finally brought under control.

On January 19, 1966, a W45 nuclear warhead separated from a Terrier surface-to-air missile during loading aboard the cruiser USS Luce and fell eight feet, dented but unbreached. This incident made it onto the "Chronology of Nuclear Accident Statements" released by the Department of Defense in 1968, but it sank from view soon thereafter and was conspicuously absent from a register of nuclear weapons accidents released in April 1981. The list goes on.

The Uncontrollable Fire

By 1983, when the Fund for Constitutional Government published a report by David Kaplan entitled "The Nuclear Navy," the U.S. Navy prepared a response that stated,

"there has never been an accident in the history of the U.S. Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program....The safety of the Navy's nuclearpowered warships is on the record .... The Navy stands unequivocally behind that record." This statement is repeated annually in the Navy's testimony before the U.S. Congress. "As of spring of 1989," the service declared recently, "the Navy has had over 3,500 reactor years of operation without a reactor accident."

Not so. On April 21, 1973, the nuclearpowered attack submarine USS Guardfish leaked its primary coolant while running submerged about 370 miles south southwest of Puget Sound, Washington. The submarine, according to records recently uncovered, "surfaced, ventilated, decontaminated and repaired the casualty [accident] unassisted." Four crew members were taken to the Puget Sound Naval Hospital for radioactive monitoring. The event was never reported in the media, and other official documents about the Guardfish do not acknowledge that an accident occurred. Even the deck log reports nothing unusual, indicating that it was falsified at the time of the accident.

How many other reactor leaks have occurred and remained unreported? The U.S. Navy admits to only one: a primary coolant leak aboard the USS Nimitz on May 11, 1979. According to our research, however, the attack submarine USS Swordfish suffered a propulsion "casualty" of unknown cause on November 24, 1985. There are enough rumors of other mishaps to seriously question the Navy's claim of a nearly unblemished record.

The United States has no qualms, however, about lambasting the accident record of the Soviet Union—and with good reason. Although the record of Soviet naval accidents is far more difficult to uncover than that of the United States, the information that is available indicates that they are far more accident-prone than we are.

The spectacular Soviet sub sinkings of the '80s—a Yankee I class nuclear-powered submarine that exploded and sank 500 miles east of Bermuda in 1986 and a Mike class attack submarine that burned and sank this April—are only the most recent in a long series of Soviet nuclear disasters at sea. Five Soviet submarines in all are known to have sunk, carrying at least 40 nuclear missiles with them to the ocean floor.

The most serious Soviet reactor accident involved the Lenin, a three-reactor icebreaker that was launched in September 1959. According to the U.S. Navy, "There is strong evidence that this ship experienced a nuclearrelated casualty in the 1960s, requiring the ship to be abandoned for over a year before work was begun to replace the three reactors with two."

Reactor accidents or other serious mishaps also are known to have occurred aboard a Hotel class ballistic missile submarine in 1961 and again in late February 1972, an Echo II cruise missile submarine in August 1978, an Echo class attack submarine in August 1980, and the icebreaker Rossia in 1988.

Despite this harrowing list of mishaps, the real tally is even higher. The former Director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John L. Butz, testified before the U. S. Congress in 1986 that "since the early 1950s, the Soviet submarine force has experienced numerous serious submarine casualties."

Accidents Will Happen

There is one common element in naval accidents: human fallibility. The influence of human error can not be overstated, particularly in the case of naval forces, where vessels, constantly on the move and in often difficult circumstances, are bombarded with information from a proliferation of sensors, all the while attempting to monitor a host of perceived "enemies." The only conclusion one can draw from the record is that accidents will happen, and no amount of engineering or mechanical fixes will eliminate the failures that accompany the operation of complex machinery. It is clear that being part of a nuclear navy does not exempt one from any of the laws, physical or behavioral, that govern other nautical pursuits.

This situation would perhaps be tolerable in a non-nuclear world. Unfortunately, and despite the secrecy, it is generally conceded that the U.S. Navy and the Soviet Navy, and to a lesser extent the British, French and Chinese navies, routinely operate warships and submarines with nuclear weapons aboard. All five also have nuclear-powered vessels (India has one as well), and they all routinely carry their nuclear cargoes into ports around the world.

The casual integration of nuclear weaponry and nuclear propulsion into the day-today operations of naval forces has become far more controversial since 1984, when New Zealand denied a port visit to a U.S. Navy vessel suspected of carrying nuclear weapons. In an effort to inoculate other nations against the anti-nuclear "Kiwi disease," the United States retaliated by severing the long-standing military relationship with New Zealand. Despite the bluster, the international aversion to nuclear weapons has not abated, as the ongoing controversy over the presence of U.S. bases in Spain and the Philippines clearly shows. The uproar in Japan this May over the news that a thermonuclear bomb lay on the sea floor 80 miles offshore and that the United States routinely violates its anti-nuclear principles is also testimony to the heated political climate.

Nuclear secrecy has become so ingrained and knee-jerk within the nuclear "club" and its military establishments that it seriously inhibits open debate. But the question of secrecy should not divert us from the real problem. The issue is the nuclear weapons themselves. The presence of 50 nuclear warheads and nine reactors on the ocean floor demands more than just an accounting of the hazards they might pose to the marine environment. Science cannot provide a definitive answer. What needs to be questioned are the military practices that put the bombs and reactors there in the first place.

Ultimately, society must determine whether the costs are greater than the benefits nuclear weapons supposedly provide. Revealing the secret history of nuclear weapons accidents, of which this report is only a small beginning, is a significant threat to those who support the status quo. A full accounting of not just the accidents but of nuclear testing and research, nuclear diplomacy, nuclear strategies and of the nuclear materials and waste that have been strewn about the land and sea would, we suspect, significantly shift the public's tolerance for business as usual in the nuclear age. "

William M. Arkin is the director of the National Security Programs at the Institute for Policy Studies. Joshua Handler is research coordinator of Greenpeace's Nuclear Free Seas Campaign.

Close Calls

In 1965, a pilot, a plane and a nuclear warhead pitched off the deck of the USS Ticonderoga only 80 miles from antinuclear Japan. Water pressure broke apart the plutonium warhead a few minutes later, but it took 24 years for the news to reach Tokyo.

The 1975 collision between the USS Belknap and the USS John F. Kennedythreatened to scatter plutonium across southern Italy, Sicily and beyond.

The USS Guardfish suffered a reactor accident in 1973. Four sailors were contaminated.


March 10, 1956: A U.S. Air Force B-47 bomber carrying two capsules of nuclear materials for nuclear bombs en route from Florida to Europe, fails to meet its aerial refueling plane over the Mediterranean Sea. Presumed lost.

April 18, 1959: The U.S. Navy dumps reactor vessel and reactor plant components of the USS Seawolf into 9,000 feet of water, about 120 miles off the Maryland coast.

June 4, 1962: A nuclear test device atop a Thor rocket booster falls into the Pacific Ocean near Johnston Atoll after malfunctioning. Part of the United States' first high-altitude atmospheric nuclear test attempt.

June 20, 1962: A second attempt to detonate a nuclear device in the atmosphere fails when a Thor booster is destroyed over Johnston Atoll, and the nuclear device falls into the Pacific Ocean.

April 10, 1963:The nuclear-powered USS Thresherimplodes and sinks 100 miles east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in approximately 8,500 feet of water, killing all 129 aboard, including 17 civilian observers.

May 27, 1968: The USS Scorpion sinks 400 miles southwest of the Azores in more than 10,000 feet of water, killing 99 crewmen. Two ASTOR nuclear torpedoes aboard.

April 11, 1968: A Soviet Golf class ballistic missile submarine with three SS-N-5 missiles and probably two nuclear torpedoes sinks in the Pacific, about 750 miles northwest of the island of Oahu, Hawaii.

April 12, 1970: A Soviet November class nuclear-powered attack submarine experiences a nuclear propulsion casualty and sinks while operating in heavy seas, approximately 300 nautical miles northwest of Spain. At least two nuclear torpedoes aboard.

October 6, 1986: A Soviet Yankee I class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine with 16 SS-N-6 missiles and probably two nuclear torpedoes catches fire and explodes, sinking 600 miles northeast of Bermuda.

April 7,1989: Nuclear-powered Mike class submarine with at least two warheads aboard sinks 300 miles off the coast of Norway, 150 miles south southwest of Bear Island.


In 1981, when U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) officials first reported the loss of a nuclear bomb off the deck of the USS Ticonderoga, they said it was lost 500 miles from land. After Greenpeace and the Institute for Policy Studies revealed in May that the accident occurred only 80 miles from Japanese held islands in the Ryukyu chain, DOD insisted that the initial report was not in error: it was 500 miles from land—the Asian mainland—and in any case, the nearest Japanese landfall was only "a very small island in that chain,' according to DOD spokesman Dan Howard. Does that mean, one reporter attending the May 9 press conference remarked, "if we lose [a bomb] in Manila Harbor, you are going to say it's 3,000 miles from San Francisco?"

Inquisitive reporters also asked whether the Ticonderoga, the ship that lost the bomb, was bound for Japan: "Wasn't the carrier en route to Japan? And wouldn't that have violated Japanese law [against nuclear weapons in its territory]?" Howard replied that "the carrier was en route to Vietnam . . . at the time"

But Howard evidently cannot tell bow from stern. According to the ship's logs, which were obtained by Greenpeace, the ship was sailing from Vietnam to Japan. And the ship, minus one of its nuclear weapons, subsequently docked in Tokyo Bay.

Besides misrepresenting the ship's location and direction, the Pentagon also proved reluctant to part with information about the bomb. Howard told reporters that the loss of a one-megaton bomb containing five pounds of plutonium posed "no danger to anyone" But the Japanese were not reassured and asked U.S. officials to prepare a report, which was delivered four days later.

This time, DOD admitted that the intense water pressure would have imploded the bomb before it reached bottom (some 16,000 feet at the site of the accident), "exposing nuclear material to the hydrosphere" The question arises, at what depth did the deadly plutonium begin dispersing? 500 feet? Without elaborating, DOD maintains. there would be "no environmental impact"