Basing a battlewagon in Boston Harbor; Con

Joe Gerson's small, cluttered office, echoing with the sound of buses grinding their way up Massachusetts Avenue, seems an odd place to discuss the prospect of nuclear weapons at a Boston Navy base.

But every few minutes Mr. Gerson, peace secretary for the New England office of the American Friends Service Committee, reaches for his phone, answering calls requesting interviews and information from the Ad Hoc Committee for a Safe Boston Harbor, which he heads.

He talks about his opposition to plans submitted by Boston, Newport, R.I., and New York City to become home port for the battleship USS Iowa's five-ship Surface Action Group.

For economic and political reasons, Gerson says, most attention seems focused on South Boston as the group's home port, so this is where some 12 anti-nuclear groups are concentrating their efforts.

The prospect of jobs has spurred the City of Boston and the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation (many of whom voted in May for the House nuclear freeze resolution) to lobby hard to bring the Navy back to Boston. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. are leading the charge for what the Navy and the city anticipate to be some 3,000 jobs and a $143 million civilian-military payroll. Boston's Economic Development and Industrial Corporation says the cost of refurbishing the old South Boston Navy base would be $57.1 million - much less than the nearly $200 million estimated to prepare a site in New York.

Gerson disputes these figures, saying, ''It's just guessing. They've never had a Surface Action Group before, and no one can give us hard figures.''

Retired Navy Capt. James T. Bush, with the Center for Defense Information in Washington, says: ''For a number of years now, the Navy has been dangling in front of politicians various overhauls and shipbuilding contracts bringing in 'X' amount of jobs and 'X' amount of money. . . . Politicians bend over backwards to try to get those jobs. What they haven't done, in this particular issue, is look at the long-term implications of what they are asking for.''

First commissioned in 1943 and scheduled for delivery to the fleet in its modernized form in early 1984, the Iowa will initially carry 32 Tomahawk cruise missiles. These small, low-flying, subsonic missiles can travel from about 300 to 1,600 miles and can carry conventional or nuclear warheads. earlier this year , Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. noted that ultimately the Iowa will carry up to 360 cruise missiles.

As a matter of policy, Navy spoksemen refuse to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons aboard specific ships. But Gerson strongly suspects that some of the missiles will be nuclear-tipped.

''Sea-launched cruise missiles don't belong in Boston,'' Gerson asserts. ''We have to resist them any way that we can. . . . If they (the US Navy) decide to bring them to Rhode Island or New York instead, we have to work cooperatively across New England. If they decide to keep them in the South, we will have to find ways to work nationally.''

Gerson says the introduction of unverifiable sea-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads is a ''destabilizing escalation of the arms race.''

Captain Bush says that unlike MX intercontinental ballistic missiles, which would be placed in existing silos in relatively uninhabited areas, ''this is the first time a superpower has proposed putting strategic weapons in population-dense areas.''

Bush also argues that the presence of nuclear weapons in a harbor poses environmental dangers. The Navy has said it will conduct an environmental-impact study after a harbor has been chosen.

But Bush cites a March 1979 General Accounting Office study that said: ''We agree that the likelihood of a nuclear accident occurring at a military installation is low. However, if an accident did occur, the radiological release might not be entirely confined within the boundaries of the site.''

This raises the question of cooperation between the Navy and civilian agencies in the event of an accident.

''Now to say you (the Navy) are not going to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons and therefore not work with a civilian agency that would be designed to aid in any accident, is just not acceptable,'' Bush says.

But a Navy spokesman says that there ''comes a point when you have to let the state know'' there are nuclear weapons in the area.

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