Court to rule on hazards of nuclear sites

Should communities near nuclear weapons storage sites be told about the potential hazards they face and be allowed to take part in emergency planning? This is the key question in a case before the United States Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Government officials and critics say the decision could have considerable impact on national defense planning and operations.

At issue is the US Navy's plan to expand the weapons storage capability at West Loch, Hawaii, a site just outside Pearl Harbor and only a mile from the aircraft approach course to Honolulu International Airport. While federal agencies will neither confirm nor deny the location of nuclear weapons or materials at any government installation, it is generally acknowledged that West Loch is being made "nuclear capable" and that the site will be used to store atomic weapons (such as boombs and missiles, or warheads for those weapons), if it isn't being so used already.

Catholic Action (a Hawaiian organization) and the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York are suing the US Defense Department to force the Navy to conduct a formal environmental impact study on the West Loch project.

They contend that the possibility of an aircraft crash on a nuclear weapons storage site and the detonation or release of radioactive materials in a heavily populated area ought to be fully and openly considered. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), they note, requires an environmental impact statement (including public hearings and reports) whenever "major federal action significantly [affects] the quality of the human environment."

The Navy did its own "environmental impact assessment" of the West Loch project and determined that it "will have minimal effects on the environment." Therefore, Navy officials reason, NEPA does not apply and a public environmental review is not necessary.

The federal district judge who first heard the case in Hawaii disagreed, finding that the West Loch project indeed constitutes "major federal action" requiring formal environmental studies. However, the judge also determined that such an investigation would conflict with security provisions of the Atomic Energy Act and military classification restrictions and that, in this case, defense secrets take priority.

As the case now reaches its second round in the federal court, Navy officials are trying to convince the public that nuclear weapons storage are designed so that they cannot accidentally explode, they insist, and even in those few cases where military aircraft carrying nuclear weapons have crashed there have been no detonations.

Lawyers for Catholic Action and the Center for Constitutional Rights, on the other hand, note that there have been aircraft accidents near West Loch, including crashes of jet fighters loaded with bombs and rockets. When a B-52 carrying nuclear weapons crashed in Greenland in 1968, they point out, there was radioactive leakage.

Should courts require an environmental impact statement, serious questions could be raised about the many other nuclear weapons storage facilities in the US.

"I think the impact could be considerable," said Martin Green, US Justice Department attorney representing the Defense Department in the case.

Local officials already are concerned about nuclear weapons stored near their communities. A "hazard analysis" prepared by the City and County of Honolulu found that, "relative to military installations, particularly on [the island of] Oahu, the threat of blast is a distinct possibility. . . . Radiation accident is a significant possibility. . . . The storage of any nuclear weapons is a real concern."

The federal General Accounting Office last spring reported that local officials are less informed about potential radiological hazards around military nuclear facilities than commercial power plants and, therefore, are less prepared to respond to emergencies. The GAO recommended that the commanders of such installations work more closely with local officials.

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