September 02, 1988

Article at The Sydney Morning Herald

FEATURE | What if?


A LARGE fire breaks out on one of the seven nuclear-capable ships taking part in next week's Bicentennial Naval Salute. Let's say it is on the guided missile destroyer USS Berkeley. The fire rages out of control, despite the best efforts of the ship's highly trained crew and port personnel.

Aboard the USS Berkeley, which will be moored off Darling Point on October 1, are an unspecified number of nuclear depth bombs. As the fire becomes progressively worse, a decision is made to tow the vessel away from Sydney Harbour.

Suddenly, one of the depth bombs - in peacetime, most likely to be stored deep within the ship - is penetrated. Highly-radioactive plutonium is oxidised by the fire and spews into the air, carried by the explosion plumes of conventional munitions, and spreads as dust in the smoke of the fire. 

Everything and everyone within a 1.3-kilometre radius of the ship are quickly contaminated. Homes from Potts Point to Darling Point are affected. Shops in Double Bay, streetwalkers in Kings Cross, crew on boats moored in Rushcutters Bay and people in apartments in Elizabeth Bay are all affected.

Within an hour, the Opera House, the Art Gallery, Macquarie Street, Hyde Park, Martin Place, Circular Quay and every room of every air-conditioned building in the central business district is contaminated with plutonium.

By the end of the day, the airborne plutonium has travelled anything from 10 to 40 kilometres, depending on the wind currents. Radioactive, cancer-producing fallout descends within that radius, settling inside the lungs of anyone unlucky enough not to have fled the city.

Emergency services cannot cope. Roads are blocked as a panicking populace fight to escape the fallout. Those contaminated can look forward to probable lung, liver or bone cancer. Radical surgery will only ever remove 25 to 30 per cent of the contaminants from their bodies. A chilling scenario.

Talk to any peace activist in Australia and they will tell you this scenario is all too likely for Sydney.

It doesn't take much to start such a fire, they claim: a collision with another ship, a crashed ship-based helicopter (some of which are equipped to carry nuclear weapons), even the act of a determined terrorist.

"I don't have enough faith in the superpowers to make warheads safe," said a spokesman for the Sydney Peace Squadron, Geoff Ash. "They're bringing into a populated Harbour weapons of mass destruction."

But if you talk to the experts, you get the impression that the chances of an accident involving a nuclear weapon are so remote they are almost non-existent.

"I think the civil tankers that go into Sydney Harbour every day of the week are much more dangerous," said the deputy head of the centre for strategic and defence studies at the Australian National University, Mr Ross Babbage.

"These guys aren't fools. They don't want nuclear warheads to be damaged or burnt and end up causing a huge accident. The systems are designed to make it just about impossible for an accident to occur.

"Some of the larger ships are designed to take kamikaze strikes, carrying full bomb loads ... they would still survive. With the smaller ones, you could split the ship in half (in a collision) and the warheads would still be intact."

However, according to peace groups, collisions involving ships with nuclear capability have occurred far too often. Nuclear experts are nonplussed and say most collisions have been minor incidents - a ship scraping the side of a wharf, for instance.

Terrorist attack is a tricky one. Peace groups say that a well-informed terrorist would easily work out where warheads would be on a ship in order to mount an attack.

For example, Tomahawk cruise missiles, the peace groups say, are strapped to the outside of a ship, within sight of a prospective terrorist wielding an armour-piercing rocket-propelled grenade (RPG).

Should the terrorist get close enough, all it would take would be one RPG hitting a nuclear-armed Tomahawk to turn metropolitan Sydney into a radioactive wasteland.

Two of the warships visiting next week are capable of carrying Tomahawk nuclear cruise missiles. One of them, the USS New Jersey, also to be moored at Woolloomooloo Bay, is capable of carrying 32.

But the scenario is unlikely in the extreme, the experts say. Less than a quarter of Tomahawk warheads produced are nuclear.

Anyway, warheads would not be in the Tomahawk missiles during peacetime, and especially not during a low-key assignment such as a friendly port visit. They would be stored deep within the vessel from where they can be deployed quickly in the event of a nuclear alert.

All seven of the ships capable of carrying nuclear arms visiting next week are probable nuclear targets, say the peace groups. A nuclear strike against just one of the vessels while it was in Sydney would wipe the city from the map. If all seven were hit, most of NSW would be laid waste.

Militarily, experts agree that Soviet satellites will probably increase surveillance of Sydney Harbour next week so they don't lose sight of their designated targets.

"But I doubt they would alter their targeting strategy," Mr Babbage said. "In the outbreak of nuclear war, the ships would not be in Sydney. Most of the action would take place in the northern hemisphere, and that's where the Soviets would concentrate.

"But should they decide to target these ships, it wouldn't take them more than an hour to rework their targeting."

Only a nuclear exchange would settle this argument.

A serious fire is the one scenario both sides worry about as it is the most likely nuclear weapons accident. There has never been a serious fire on board a nuclear-armed vessel. Nobody really knows whether the crews and port authorities would be able to control it, or how much the ship could take before the warheads would be breached.

But experts say that the vessel would take hours to burn, enough time for port authorities - concerned at the risk of plutonium release - to tow the ship out to sea.

They argue that it is hard to believe that the combined efforts of the crew, who are repeatedly trained for just such an incident; the Sydney port authority, capable of handling half a dozen fires; and the fire-fighting equipment and expertise of other naval vessels present, would be incapable of putting out such a fire.

The fact remains, however, that there have been 233 incidents involving accidental handling and misuse of naval nuclear weapons between 1965 and 1983. Sixty two of these occurred in ports.

But it is also true that nuclear warheads have withstood some incredible accidents without detonating or releasing plutonium into the atmosphere. They have crashed into the sea, collided in mid-air and fallen from high altitudes- and remained intact.

The last known case of a nuclear weapons accident leading to radioactive contamination was in 1968. In Thule, Greenland, a US Air Force B-52 bomber crashed. The weapons were breached and radioactive material spread across a wide area.

What is known is that Sydney is unprepared for such an accident. The NSW Nurses' Association asserts that few nurses would know what to do with irradiated victims, and that there are few facilities capable of handling anything like the influx of patients such an accident would bring.

One study by Nurses Against Nuclear War found that all of the advanced facilities of all the hospitals in Sydney would be capable of handling less than 20 irradiated victims.

New York City has a detailed disaster plan which provides for a 1.3-kilometre evacuation zone in the event of an accident. It provides exit routes, bus pick-up points and shelters for the surrounding population, isolation of the contaminated zone and monitoring of radioactive spread.

Many people in New York do not think this is enough. There is a push to dump the plan and implement a much tougher, wide ranging one.

Sydney has no such plan.


  • USS New Jersey - can launch 32 Tomahawk cruise missiles (more may be stored), each capable of being fitted with a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead, with a range of 2,500 kilometres. To be moored at Garden Island, opposite the Domain Baths.
  • USS Ingersoll - can launch eight Tomahawk cruise missiles (more may be stored), each capable of being fitted with a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead, with a range of 2,500 kilometres. To be moored at the Finger Wharf, Woolloomooloo Bay.
  • USS Berkeley - can launch eight ASROC Mk 116 nuclear depth bombs (more may be stored), each with a yield of one kiloton. To be berthed at Garden Island, opposite Mrs Macquarie's Chair.
  • USS Brewton - can launch eight ASROC Mk 116 nuclear depth bombs (more may be stored), each with a yield of one kiloton. To be berthed alongside the USS Berkeley.
  • HMS Ark Royal - carries an unknown number of freefall nuclear weapons launched from Sea Harrier jets. Sea King helicopters are capable of carrying nuclear depth bombs. To be moored at the Overseas Passenger Terminal, Circular Quay.
  • HMS Edinburgh - Lynx helicopters capable of carrying nuclear depth bombs. To be moored at Darling Harbour.
  • RFA Fort Grange (UK support vessel) - nuclear depth bombs and nuclear strike bombs stored. To be berthed at Pyrmont.