Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2020-2021
By Christine Manwiller
A lawsuit against the nuclear navy in Washington State’s Puget Sound began June 19, 2012, over the safety and environmental impact of a second Explosives Handling Wharf in Hood Canal, home of Bangor Trident submarine base. The $715 million wharf, 15 miles west of Seattle, is for loading and off-loading heavy nuclear-armed missiles. The Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility brought suit against the navy’s plan for failure to consider the risks of accidental explosions at the new wharf, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Navy officials did not even “comply with the navy’s own explosives-siting regulations,” Ground Zero reports, and the military’s Explosives Safety Board flat out denied permission to build the second wharf “in part, because the navy would not study the risk of a chain reaction explosion while loading two subs,” KOMO-TV news reported. “If both full subs explode [48 missiles in all], the equivalent power is 7.44 million pounds of TNT,” the ABC News affiliate said.
Glen Milner with Ground Zero told KOMO-TV, “They’ve doubled the amount of explosives. And they’ve doubled the number of times that missiles are being handled.” The lawsuit warns of the risk of one exploding missile igniting 47 others. According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 85% of the weight of each missile is the highly explosive rocket fuel.
The lawsuit faced significant setbacks in 2012 when certain navy records were sealed after the navy claimed publication would place national security at risk. The records were sealed by the court and a gag order regarding their contents was imposed on the plaintiffs just a few days before a scheduled hearing where they were to be used as the basis of the peace group’s arguments.
In 2014, the NEPA lawsuit was dismissed by US District Court Judge Ronald Leighton, and the plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. While the Ninth Circuit shockingly ruled against the NEPA failure to assess risk claims, it struck down the gag order and the sealing of documents. Judge Leighton released the records and lifted the gag this past August 20. Another judge later ordered the navy to pay the two peace groups’ legal fees incurred to obtain the records and fight the gag order.