Nuclear carrier accident calls into question Navy's willingness to notify the public

by Laura Hunter

n November 30, 1999, an accident occurred involving the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in San Diego Bay. According to a report in the Union Tribune, the Navy had to conduct an emergency shutdown of both nuclear reactors on the USS Stennis. The shutdown was caused when the ship's steam condensers were fouled with sediment stirred up by the ship propellers, interfering/preventing the intake of cooling water from the Bay. This left the ship without power for five minutes, according to the report.

When asked, the Navy stated that the incident was not nuclear-related and that there was no danger to crew or residents. However, full information on this incident is yet to be released. This event underscores the urgent need and prudence of adequate emergency and notification plans for neighboring communities of Naval Air Station, North Island.

There are a number of troubling aspects about this unplanned shutdown of the nuclear reactors on the USS Stennis, not the least of which is that the public was not notified through any formal process. Through a pure coincidence, the accident was learned of by non-Naval personnel who reported it to the newspaper and by a conversation about "grounding" of the USS Stennis that was overheard on the boating radio traffic by a recreational boater. This is not the notification that public deserves or expects of accidents that involve the nuclear reactors at Naval Air Station, North Island.

This intake of sediment and the resulting unplanned shutdown of the reactors was an accident -- an accident to which it appears the Navy responded quickly and correctly. Nevertheless, any time there is a loss of cooling water function to a nuclear reactor system, it is a potentially serious situation. One analysis, provided to Environmental Health Coalition by a former Navy officer who is familiar with naval nuclear reactors, stated that the Stennis uses a very sophisticated nuclear propulsion system and anything that affects the operation of that nuclear propulsion system is, in fact, nuclear related. In the reactor design used by the Stennis, very high-temperature (600° F) water is circulated through the reactor's core as primary coolant and is routed to turn nonradioactive feed water into steam that produced the electricity for the ship. The steam then travels to a condenser where sea water is used to cool the steam back into feed water.

In the Stennis accident, once the sea water flow was lost, heat could no longer be transferred from the primary coolant to the steam generator. When this happens, the nuclear reactor core immediately starts to overheat. It is worth noting that the Three Mile Island nuclear accident started when feed water flow to the steam generator was inadvertently stopped, causing the steam generator to boil dry, and the reactor core partially melted due to overheating. A similar stoppage of sea water cooling happened at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on March 10, 1980.

The Navy has been providing analysis of the impacts of homeporting up to three nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in two Environmental Impact Statements it has prepared in the past five years. These documents are supposed to consider and evaluate the impacts from worst-case and credible accident scenarios. The Navy has repeatedly assured the public that if there is a problem with one of the carrier nuclear reactors, the other reactor would be operational and would provide propulsion for the ship. There is no accident in these documents that contemplated that both reactors would be down and the ship would be without power or steering. But, that is exactly the accident that did happen and within the first year and half that the USS Stennis has been located in San Diego Bay. EHC has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Naval Reactors and will share all information obtained with the public.

Environmental Health Coalition and hundreds of San Diego region residents have been calling on the Navy to provide full information about its accident record to the public. We have called on the Coastal Commission to require that the Navy produce emergency response and notification plans for community neighbors to the nuclear base. The Navy continues to refuse to disclose information and to provide adequate emergency and notification plans for the public.

There is one last opportunity for the public to demand prudent planning and disclosure about these impacts. The California Coastal Commission will meet in San Diego on February 15 and will consider these issues. The hearing will be held at the Quality Resort in Mission Valley at 875 Hotel Circle South, San Diego.

Please join the many San Diegans that are expected to testify at this hearing. The meeting will begin at 9am. It is your chance to come and be heard. Demand that the Coastal Commission make the Navy accountable for the risks that it presents to our communities. We need adequate emergency planning, notification systems, independent monitoring for downwind communities, and full disclosure from the Navy about its accident record. Call Humberto at EHC at (619) 235-0281 or email for more information.