Washington — Some four months after a Titan II missile blew up at Damascus, Ark., the United States Air Force has concluded that the weapon is both "basically safe" and "potentially hazardous."
A report on the nation's 54 Titan II missiles ordered by Air Force Secretary Hans Mark after the Sept. 19, 1980, accident finds that they not only have been adequately maintained and kept abreast of safety requirements but that launch crews and maintenance teams have the technical knowledge and training "to ensure the safe, effective operation of the system."
But the inherently dangerous nature of the missiles, tipped as they are with nuclear warheads and fueled with toxic aerozine-50 and nitrogen tetroxide (which ignite on contact with each other) clearly worries the Air Force.
The report, released Jan. 6, contains scores of technical recommendations to improve the safety of the 18-year-old Titans. The missiles are deployed in three wings of 18 missiles apiece at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.; McConnell Air Force Base, Kan.; and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.
Declaring that "there can be no guarantee that accidents will not happen" to the aging missile system, the Air Force report maintains that "an extensive crisis management capability with effective public safety procedures" has been introduced and "further strengthened to provide an added margin of safety."
In addition, it observes that "interface with responsible public officials and the press also is being refined to assure responsiveness and candor in the event that another accident should occur."
Candor was not a hallmark of the accident at Complex 374-7 last year. According to Gen. Bennie Davis, commander of the Air Training Command, who headed the team that produced the report, the decision not to confirm or deny that the wrecked Titan carried a nuclear warhead was taken by Secretary of Defense Harold Brown.
The Air Force seems to have concluded that this obfuscation was a mistake. The report contends that future public statements "rapidly should confirm the presence or absence of nuclear weapons in the accident and frankly discuss safety features and potential hazards."
The accident at Damascus, Ark., near Little Rock Air Force Base, which killed one man and injured 21 others, was caused when an airman dropped a socket wrench 70 feet onto one of the missile's thin-skinned fuel tanks, puncturing it and spilling fuel. The ensuing explosion destroyed the missile and blew off the 750 -ton concrete door atop its silo. According to the report the accident has already led to the "tethering of tools, planned deployment of catch nets, lowering of additional work platforms, raising of protective flaps, and possible additional procedural and hardware changes.'
The report focuses on the warhead and propellant of the Titan II, a missile with a range of more than 5,000 miles and a greater load-carrying ability than any other US strategic missile.
"The warhead is the safest part of the weapons system," asserts General Davis , who insists that the chances of a nuclear explosion resulting from a Titan accident are "virtually nil."
Observes the report: "The worst . . . outcome would be a conventional, high-explosive detonation with limited scattering of warhead components. Resultant radiation and toxic hazards would be minimal."
But despite General Davis's optimism, the report states that the Titan II's nuclear warhead "does not meet modern nuclear safety criteria for abnormal environments" and recommends safety modifications. Yet it also adds that "this does not mean the system is unsafe."
The Titan's propellants constitute a more real threat, concludes the report, which lists a variety of "spills management initiatives" that could improve its safety record.
The Titan system keeps the Air Force on its toes. An accident at Rock, Kan., in 1978 killed two airmen and injured 29 others. Altogether, between 1970 and 1980 the system suffered five major accidents. And between 1975 and 1979, 125 "incident" occurred at sites in the three states. But General Davis asserts that Titan can be maintained "well into the 1990s."
"Our findings are that the Titan II weapon system is safe and supportable now and can be kept that way for the future," he says.