While the tide of protest rises in the United States over nuclear weapons, the small town of St. Mary's, Ga., appears to be taking the issue in stride. Less than a mile away, as the sea gull flies, the US Navy is planning to base 10 Trident submarines and their complement of potent strategic nuclear weapons at its King's Bay facility. These vessels represent half the projected fleet of Trident subs. The other half is to be based at Bangor, Wash.
At other times and in other places, the likelihood of nuclear weapons, strategic or otherwise, located nearby would have sparked protest. That was the case last summer as the first Trident sub, the USS Ohio, arrived at its base in Bangor. And it continues to be the case in Romulus, N.Y., where a women's peace encampment is protesting what it suspects to be nuclear weapons stored at a nearby Army base.
But among the residents here and in nearby Fernandina Beach, Fla., there appears to be little concern for the awesome weapons or the nuclear-propelled subs nearby.
St. Mary's is a small town (pop. 4,251). A tall tree, dubbed the Washington Oak, shades the main street. The tree was said to have been planted when the town heard news of President Washington's death in 1799. Fishing has always been one of the town's economic mainstays. Until the Gillman Paper Company moved in with mill jobs in the '30s, the local jest was that people's stomachs rose and fell with the tides, they ate so much seafood from the bays and marshes around the town. During its long history, St. Mary's has been destroyed by the Spanish, the British, and the Union Navy in turn. This may be one reason for the perspective local residents have on the prospect of Trident subs at King's Bay.
Today, when a visitor asks about the possibility of radiation leaks from the base, John Bailey, a St. Mary's city councilman, amateur historian, and Gillman employee, says, ''That's the first I've ever thought of it.''
He says he is wrestling with a more immediate problem of building a city park with volunteer labor and donated materials. About the King's Bay base, he notes, ''They have brought in some awfully nice people. It's going to cause changes, some good and some bad, we are just trying to make sure that it's more good than bad.''
Asked if there was an evacuation or radiation monitoring plan for Fernandina Beach, Mayor Greg Haddock says, ''I don't really know. You would have to check with Terry Griffin in the county Civil Defense office.''
The King's Bay base first took shape under the auspices of the US Army. In the 1950s, it bought a mosquito-infested marsh, dredged a channel, and built a 2 ,000-foot wharf. The base was to be a shipping point for resupplying NATO forces in Western Europe if Warsaw Pact forces invaded - an event thought at the time to be imminent. The base was taken over by the Navy in 1978 after Spain requested the US to remove its Polaris submarines from a base at Rota, Spain.
Georgia's congressional delegation worked hard to get the Polaris base. In 1978, the Navy began evaluating 60 different East Coast sites for a $1.2 billion home for the proposed Trident subs. The Georgia delegation and local leaders again swung into action. The base was expected to bring some 11,500 jobs and 21, 600 residents into an area where the economy was built around pine trees, shrimping, and tourism.
''When they had the hearings on the base, the only questions anyone raised were on the environment, where would they put the spoil from the dredging and how would it affect the wildlife,'' says Don Roberts, the head of the Fernandina Beach Chamber of Commerce for 16 years. An old town, Fernandina Beach has one of the largest historic districts in the country - 30 blocks - and its renovated Centre Street development is sprouting boutiques for vacationers visiting chic Amelia Island Plantation.
''People here worry about the things they can control, like zoning for condominiums. We are between Mayport, where the Navy bases carriers and the sub base, so if anything happened we would be gone anyhow; I guess everyone figures, 'Why worry?' '' Mr. Roberts says.
This isn't to say that no one opposes the base. When antinuclear groups staged demonstrations around the country last year, some 12 protesters showed up at King's Bay. But they came from Atlanta and nearby Jacksonville, Fla., and by most accounts, they were not warmly received by local residents.
King's Bay is currently the home of eight Poseidon nuclear submarines in Squadron 16, now fitted with the Trident I missile. The base is undergoing a huge expansion program to prepare for the arrival of its first Trident submarine in 1989. The Trident subs will carry the longer range Trident II or D-5 missile. Trade publications estimate that the missile will carry seven 600-kiloton warheads, or 14 150-kiloton warheads, and will be able to put at least half of the warheads within 90 meters (about the length of a football field) of a target after a flight of 6,000 miles.
While the Navy has spent more than $4 million to fund studies of the impact of its development, and helping the affected counties prepare to deal with it, the amount of effort put into informing the locals about possible radiation problems has been zero. Nuclear reactors power the Trident subs, and of necessity they are not shielded by the yards of concrete that larger commercial reactors use. But Navy spokesmen point out that the Navy's program has been extremely safe. In testimony before a Senate subcommittee in May 1981, Adm. Hyman Rickover testified that the Navy's nuclear program is safer in some ways than that of private industry. He asserted that no one in the Navy had exceeded the quarterly or annual radiation exposure limits since 1967.
If there were a radiation release, St. Mary's residents would depend on the Navy to tell them about it. The state of Georgia maintains 12 dosimeters around the base, along with ground-water, surface-water, and vegetation test stations. But as program chief Jim Felzer notes, the stations are only read every four to six months. There is no evacuation plan in the event of a nuclear disaster. ''The area is growing so much that it would be out of date within a few years,'' he says.
Local residents are aware of the potential for radiation hazards. ''Sure, all the nuclear stuff frightens me, but it has to go somewhere,'' says Ellen Battley , a Fernandina Beach homemaker.
The attitude of many people around the base was summed up by Mr. Haddock: ''Is there really anywhere that you would be safe? If the powers that be decide that we are going to have a war, then that's it. . . . We accept that it is there (nuclear weapons) and that it's part of our protection.''