Wednesday, March 10, 2004

A U.S. Navy strategic missile was damaged during a mishap at a submarine base last year, nearly striking a nuclear warhead, according to defense officials.

The incident occurred at the Navy’s Strategic Weapons Facility, Pacific, known as SWFPAC, in Washington state on Nov. 7.

A crane lifting a Trident I C4 missile out its tube aboard the nuclear-missile submarine USS Georgia caused the damage, according to officials familiar with the incident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

As the missile was lifted out of the sub, its nosecone struck a ladder that had been mistakenly left inside the tube, the officials said.

The impact left a 9-inch gash that came within inches of hitting one of the missile’s multiple nuclear warheads beneath the metal shroud.

Officials said there was no danger that any type of lifting accident could have triggered a nuclear blast, noting the warhead is protected from accidental detonation by locking devices.

However, the warhead has a plutonium pit surrounded by high explosives. The radioactive element could have potentially been released into the water or dock area if the accident were severe enough.

The submarine was undergoing routine maintenance at a covered pier at the submarine base near Silverdale, Wash. The facility is involved in extremely sensitive work related to nuclear-weapons maintenance and storage. It is standard practice for submarines returning from patrol to remove and inspect two of the 24 missiles aboard.

The commander of SWFPAC, Capt. Keith Lyles, was fired in December as the result of what the Navy said was a “lack of confidence” in him. Officials said the dismissal was the result of the mishap.

Pam Sims, a spokeswoman for the Navy’s Strategic Systems Program office in Washington, declined to comment on the missile incident.

“We can’t discuss the presence or absence of nuclear weapons aboard our installations,” she said. “Therefore, it would be inappropriate to discuss any nuclear weapons-related incidents at SWFPAC.”

Miss Sims said “safety is paramount in everything we do in the Navy and a primary focus of our leadership at every level of command.”

“Navy leadership is continuously engaged in the performance of all commands, their missions and those responsible for the performance of those missions,” she said. “When necessary, appropriate actions are taken to ensure that the highest Navy standards are upheld.”

Other defense officials confirmed details of the incident, first reported on the Internet by former Navy officer Walter Fitzpatrick. Mr. Fitzpatrick, who lives near the base, said he learned details of the incident from employees at the base.

The damaged Trident missile is one of 24 deployed on the Georgia, an Ohio-class submarine. The missile is a three-stage, solid-fuel system and is armed with multiple, independently targeted nuclear warheads. It has a range of up to 4,600 miles.

The base, officially known as Naval Submarine Base Bangor, is located near Puget Sound and is the Navy’s major strategic submarine base on the West Coast, as well as the home port for eight ballistic-missile subs.

The Georgia is slated to be converted from a nuclear-missile submarine to a non-nuclear cruise-missile model in 2005. The subwas commissioned in 1984. It is 560 feet long and weighs 18,750 tons. It has a crew of 154 sailors.

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