When military arms are close to home
Seal Beach, Calif. — Many Americans are concerned with the global buildup of nuclear weapons. For George Laine, however, the issue hits a little closer to home. Right across the street from his housing tract, to be exact.
Mr. Laine and his family live less than a mile from the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, one of three major naval weapons facilities on the West Coast, and the only one of the three located smack in the middle of a residential community.
What worries Laine - and a small group of community activists - is the possible presence of nuclear weapons on the base, and the threat they could pose to local safety. Naval officials, in compliance with Department of Defense regulations, refuse to ''confirm or deny'' such claims. But outside defense experts contend that there is little, if any, doubt that nuclear weapons are handled or stored at the base.
Seal Beach, of course, is not alone. According to a recent study by the Center for Defense Information (CDI), nuclear weapons are deployed or stored in about 34 states and three territories at approximately 100 of the almost 1,000 military installations and properties in the US and US territories.
Some are stored in bases in isolated areas; some in cities like Sacramento, Calif., and Rome, N.Y, according to CDI. In one or two instances, communities have voiced concern over nuclear weapons storage, but only in Seal Beach has the protest become a sustained movement - involving the local school board, community demonstrations, a lawsuit, and Sen. Alan Cranston (D) and the General Accounting Office (GAO).
At issue in Seal Beach, a conservative town of approximately 26,500 residents , is the question of community safety. Antinuclear activists, who have formed the Seal Beach Nuclear Action Group (SNAG), say three factors make the station a poor place to store nuclear weapons:
* The station's proximity to residential areas and a local school.
* The fact that an active earthquake fault, the Newport-Inglewood Fault, runs right through the middle of the base.
* Air traffic around the base, which involves 257,000 airplane landings per year within 10 miles of the station.
''I could live with conventional weapons at the station, if they're handled safely,'' says Ken Collins, a clinical social worker and member of SNAG. ''But because of the extreme risk involved with nuclear weapons, I want them out.''
But Dr. Robert S. Norris, a senior research analyst at CDI and author of the center's recent nuclear weapons report, says that ''to make too much of the safety issue is not useful.''
Although he notes that accidents do happen - the Pentagon has admitted to 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons since 1950 - Dr. Norris commends the military for the precautionary measures it uses in dealing with nuclear weapons. But he does chide the military for the air of secrecy that it cloaks about nuclear weapons.
The Navy's refusal to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons at the Seal Beach station has been one of SNAG's main gripes. Although the group ultimately would like to see nuclear weapons banished from the base, in the short-term they would like the Navy admit that such weapons are handled in Seal Beach - and help the city plan an evacuation program in the event of a nuclear accident at the base.
Thwarted recently in a legal attempt to prevent the Navy from storing nuclear weapons at the base until it had prepared an environmental impact report on the community (the case was dismissed in federal court), SNAG has enlisted the aid of Senator Cranston in requesting a GAO assessment of safety conditions at the base.
In a 1975 report that studied the feasibility of moving the Seal Beach station, the GAO cited safety problems at the weapons facility, ranging from the storage of high explosive magazines to transportation problems on the streets around the station. The GAO study now under way will be the first it has done exclusively on safety conditions at the station, says GAO audit manager Ray Cohen.