Weapons crew at Bangor damaged nuclear missile

A Navy crew late last year accidentally damaged a Trident I nuclear missile while offloading it from a submarine at Naval Submarine Base Bangor, according to military and civilian sources familiar with the incident.

Within weeks the Navy relieved the entire command group in charge of handling the weapons at the Strategic Weapons Facility, Pacific (SWFPAC), located at Bangor.

Sources said no radioactive material was released in the November incident, and military experts said the chances of a nuclear explosion were extremely remote.

The accident involved a Trident I C-4 missile being unloaded from a missile tube on the USS Georgia submarine, according to the sources.

The nose cone of the 34-foot missile was damaged as it was being hoisted into a protective canister by the weapons handling crew, the sources said.

Yesterday, the Navy would neither confirm nor deny that any such accident took place. However, Pamela Sims, a spokeswoman for the Navy Strategic Systems Programs Office in Washington, D.C., said that four senior Navy personnel, including three officers, were reassigned due to a "loss of confidence."

Keith Lyles, commanding officer of SWFPAC; his executive officer, Phillip Jackson; weapons officer Marshall Millett; and command master chief Steven Perry were relieved of duty, Sims said.

She said she could not comment on the reassignments, or what led to the sweeping personnel action.

"Safety is paramount in everything we do in the Navy and a primary focus for our leadership at every level of command," Sims said.

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

When contacted this week, Lyles, Jackson and others involved with incident declined to comment.

Emergency-management officials in Kitsap County say Navy protocol requires they be contacted if an accident at the base posed a health or safety threat. Phyllis Mann, the emergency-management director, said her office was not notified.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, said the congressman, whose district includes the base, has contacted the Navy and is looking into the matter.

The Trident I is an intercontinental ballistic missile armed with up to eight warheads, each with a yield of about 100 kilotons. One kiloton is equivalent to the explosive force of 1,000 tons of TNT. Safeguards built into nuclear weapons make an atomic explosion extremely unlikely.

However, a fire, the detonation of the missile's rocket fuel, or a blast involving conventional explosives inside the warhead could spread radioactive material and contaminate a wide area, according to several weapons experts.

There have been at least three other accidents — all minor — involving Trident missiles at Bangor since 1991, according to Navy documents provided to peace activist Glen Milner as part of an ongoing federal environmental lawsuit filed against the base.

Prior to the November incident, the last occurred on Nov. 2, 2001, when it was discovered that a cover on a first-stage motor of a Trident missile had been damaged.

Milner did not know if any crew members or officers were fired or disciplined as a result of the mishaps.

Dr. Sidney Drell, professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Stanford University and the former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's Panel on Nuclear Weapons Safety, said the risk of a nuclear detonation would be extremely remote because of safeguards built into the design of the weapon. Nonetheless, he said he would consider any incident damaging a missile to be "serious" and worthy of strong action by the Navy.

"It shows they're being responsible, which is what we want them to be," Drell said.

Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or rrivera@seattletimes.com

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com