The massive explosion that destroyed a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile in its silo last week did not destroy its nuclear warhead or result in any release of radioactive material, US Secretary of Defense Harold Brown asserted yesterday.
Appearing on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," Mr Brown added that there was "never a time when the warhead was outside the security control of the Air Force," which suggests that the warhead was quickly discovered and concealed both from curious local inhabitants and any Soviet spy satellites that might have been in the vicinity of the 308th Strategic Missile Wing's complex 374-7, as the silo was known.
The defense secretary's comments came amid reports that the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are gathering information about the incident, although no hearings have yet been scheduled.
But senators and congressman from the states of Kansas, Arizona, and Arkansas have called for a full congressional investigation into the 54 Titans, which are evenly divided among their states.
The Titan Ii missile exploded in a fireball at its Damascus, Ark., silo Sept. 19, after leaking fuel caught fire. the blast killed one airman and injured 21 others.
The accident appears to have occurred after an airman performing "routine maintenance" inside the silo Thursday dropped a three-pound wrench socket from scaffolding 70 feet above the first stage's 10,000-gallon fuel tank, rupturing its thin aluminum skin.
Despite emergency measures, the fuel exploded, blowing off the 750-ton sliding door atop the silo and hurling pieces of the shattered missile into neighboring fields. The accident forced the evacuation of 1,400 residents.
By some accounts the Titan's nine-megaton nuclear warhead, 750 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, was blasted several hundred feet away into a wood. Although defense Department officials have confirmed that the Titan carried a nuclear warhead, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) has doggedly refused to confirm or deny that the missile was so armed, a standard policy, a SAC spokesman explains.
The warhead on the 103-foot long Titan II ICBM, which can lob the nation's largest hydrogen bomb a distance of 6,300 miles, first requires a conventional explosives went off, possibly damaging the warhead and permitting radioactivity to leak.
Air Force Secretary Hans Mark has claimed that there is no radioactive debris in the area and that the Titan II's warhead is in no danger of exploding because of a fail-safe device attached to it.
Brown says there will be a detailed investigation of the accident, which is by no means the first to occur to a Titan missile. In August 1979 a metal rod was dropped onto an electric circuit breaker in a Titan silo near Heber Springs, Ark., causing a fire that nearly destroyed the missile. A leak of highly toxic fuel from a Titan II in Rock, Kan., in 1978 killed two airmen and injured 29 others. But the worst accident occurred in 1965 and 53 civilians were killed after a welder's torch ignited its fuel.
The fuel used in the Titan II is highly corrosive. According to the Air Force, there have been 125 leaks between 1975 and 1979.
The Titans account for roughly one-third of the throw weight ofthe US's 1,054 land-based ICBM's. They are considered useful only against so-called "soft" targets such as cities and industrial complexes.
The Titan II was first tested in 1961 and declared operational two years later. It was scheduled to be replaced in 1971 in favor of the safer, solid-fuel Minuteman missiles. But the Titans remained after Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in SALT I negotiations in 1972 offered to scrap the Titan force in exchange for a reduction in the number of mammoth Soviet SS-9 ICBMs. But the Soviets refused.