Mystery: Did the Navy Dump Nuclear Waste off the Northwest Coast?

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USS Long Beach

Years ago, I stumbled onto the disturbing possibility that the Navy had dumped spent nuclear material in the ocean off the coast of Washington and Oregon. Over the past five decades, the story has played out in fascinating ways for me, however well-known the truth may be to the Navy, Members of Congress, and — as I relate here — unexpected others.

The tale begins when I worked as a legislative aide for Senator Warren G. Magnuson (D-WA) from 1968 through 1971.  Magnuson was very high ranking, and also a member of the Senate’s Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. All funding for the U.S. military went through him and his subcommittee colleagues.

One day in early 1970 Magnuson received a letter from the editor of the Long Beach, California newspaper.  The editor’s father had been Magnuson’s press secretary years before.  The letter said, in essence, “Although the attached letter from a sailor on the USS Long Beach was sent to us at the paper because the ship is named after the city, since the content pertains to the State of Washington I thought we should send it on to you for whatever action is warranted.”

The letter was a whistleblower complaint.  It asserted that on such-and-such a date, at such-and-such a latitude and longitude off the coast of Washington, the nuclear powered cruiser USS Long Beach had disposed of spent nuclear fuel rods by dumping them in the sea.

Magnuson gave me the letter to deal with. Troubled, I still handled it the usual way:  I walked down the hall and gave it to the Navy’s Congressional Liaison, who maintained his office in a niche between the offices of Magnuson and Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, Washington’s junior senator.  It would be the Navy Liaison’s job to get back to Magnuson’s office about it. Twenty minutes later, my secretary said, “Admiral Rickover is on the line for you.”  I laughed – she was always such a prankster.  But it actually was Admiral Rickover!  The formidable “Father of the Nuclear Navy” began shouting at me, a 21-year-old staffer, in his characteristic high-pitched squeaky voice. I gulped and burst into sweat.

Admiral Rickover

What Adm. Rickover shouted was this: “Yes, it’s true.  And not just on that date, and not just at that location, but off the coast of Oregon, too, and not just from the Long Beach but from other U.S. Navy vessels too.  Now, what are you going to do about it?  Hand the Rooskies a propaganda victory?  You tell Maggie he’d better drop this or he’s going to get his tit caught in a wringer.”  Click.  End of conversation.

I was shaken. I went to Magnuson, confident my beloved boss would take serious umbrage at the dumping, and certainly at Rickover’s threatening him, and that I was about to see a memorable display of focused anger. I thought that Magnuson would come down on Rickover like the proverbial ton of bricks. I told Magnuson what Rickover had shouted, dramatizing his “tit-in-a-wringer” threat, and waited expectantly for his response.  Magnuson thought for a moment, then said simply, “Well, let’s leave this one to Scoop [Senator Jackson].  He’s good buddies with Rickover.” 

Later, when I’ve told this story to friends who served on nuclear submarines and knew Admiral Rickover personally, they insisted I must be making it up, and that the Navy would never have dumped spent fuel rods off the coast of Washington and Oregon.  Since I am definitely not making it up, I’ve thought perhaps they were thinking, “We never dumped spent fuel rods off SUBMARINES.”  Maybe they’d be right.  But Rickover did say “and other U.S. Navy vessels.”  And the Long Beach was not the Navy’s only nuclear-powered surface ship.

I never pursued the story further, and years passed without any additional confirmation or disproof of the story — to my knowledge at least. After the Soviet Union fell, I worked in Russia as a lawyer for a former Soviet aerospace institute and also to help restructure the Russian electric power sector.  One day in 1995, Sergei Chernyshev, an aerospace scientist friend, called to say a Russian politician, a member of the Duma, Sergei Stankevich, wanted me to be his guide in the U.S. Senate for two days of meetings on Capitol Hill. 

Chernyshev explained that the 41-year-old Stankevich belonged to the liberal pro-democracy movement; that he spoke perfect English and had written his academic thesis on the Nixon Administration; and that he’d read my 1973 book The Dance of Legislation, which recounts the suspenseful Congressional odyssey of a Magnuson health bill that Nixon almost vetoed back in 1970.  Naturally, I was flattered and excited.

I jumped on a flight to Dulles, and the next morning I began accompanying Stankevich on his rounds through the Senate.  I was in my late 40s, but it had been decades since I’d worked in the Senate, and the time with Stankevich was quite an experience for me.  We met with Senators Carl Levin of Michigan and Bill Bradley of New Jersey on the first day.  They both greeted Stankevich as an old friend and let me sit in on their fascinating discussions about Russia’s future and its relations with the U.S. While we were in Sen. Bradley’s office, an aide came in and handed him a note.  Bradley read it and said to Stankevich, “Senator Strom Thurmond has asked you to come by his office for a meeting as soon as you’re done here.”  Bradley looked at me and chuckled, sharing among two Americans the ludicrous improbability of this new development.

Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican, was then 93 years old (he was born in 1902) and had just become chairman of the Armed Services Committee.  As we walked to his office, a bemused Stankevich asked me, “What can I possibly talk with him about?”  I quipped, “You could ask him about his personal recollections of the Russian Revolution, since he must have some and you don’t.”  (The Russian Revolution had taken place 78 years earlier, in 1917, when Thurmond was already 15.)

We got to Thurmond’s office and were ushered in to sit across the desk from the superannuated senator.  Thurmond explained that he’d asked to see Stankevich because South Carolina was big Navy state, with the Charleston Naval Shipyard and all (blah blah blah), and now that the U.S. and Russia were good friends, Thurmond wanted Stankevich to tell the Russian government that Thurmond, as Armed Services Committee chairman, would like Russia to start doing Navy business in South Carolina.

Like millions of Americans, I detested Thurmond, the most racist of the Southern racists during my time in DC a generation earlier, and a virulent Cold Warrior as well.  In 1964, Thurmond had famously wrestled another senator to a hallway floor to prevent Magnuson from assembling a quorum in his committee to send the Public Accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act to the full Senate. (Getting this law enacted over a Southern filibuster was perhaps Magnuson’s most skillful and under-recognized legislative achievement.) 

Thurmond oozed charm on this occasion, and to my surprise he was quite coherent, speaking in complete sentences without notes.  Stankevich was pleasant and diplomatic in return, oozing charm equally in his own way.  None of it had significance, it seemed to me.  Russia wasn’t about to have its Navy ships refitted in Charleston.

I was about to discover, in T.S. Eliot’s words, that I’d “had the experience but missed the meaning.”  An aide came to Thurmond’s desk and told us the U.S. Navy Bureau of such-and-such wanted to meet with Stankevich as soon as possible.  The senator didn’t seem surprised.  He urged us to make haste; his staff had a taxi waiting for us; and off we went to a large Navy facility on the Potomac River across from National Airport. There Stankevich was greeted ceremoniously by uniformed Navy brass and other Navy personnel in civilian suits.  After a flowery welcome, several of them took us to a conference room and explained why they’d asked to see Stankevich, whom they treated with great courtesy.  By now I was starting to realize that Thurmond’s office and the Navy must have worked together on whatever was about to happen.

The Navy told Stankevich this:  The U.S. Navy had a contract with Russia, to be paid for by the U.S. government as post-Soviet foreign aid, under which the U.S. Navy would clean up discarded Soviet Navy nuclear reactors, scuttled Navy nuclear ships, and sunken nuclear fuel rods off the coast of Novaya Zemlya (an archipelago in the Russian Arctic ocean), all concentrated in a particular deep area of the sea.  Getting the money for performing that contract was described as vital to this particular Navy bureau to keep its personnel and capabilities intact. 

But there was a glitch, they said:  A particular Russian admiral, by the name of So-and-So, was adamantly blocking U.S. Navy access to the site, resulting in a complete stalemate.  As a result, funds could not flow to the U.S. Navy for the work, nor could the work begin.  What the Navy now asked of Stankevich was that he take steps in Moscow to see that the Russian government would either reassure the Admiral or ease him aside so that work could begin and money could flow.

Stankevich recognized the Admiral’s name and mentioned a few facts about him.  He took out his notebook and wrote down details of the contract, the schedule, the amounts of money involved, etc.  The meeting concluded with Stankevich agreeing to look into the matter when he returned to Moscow — he’d see what he could do.  The Navy folks were clearly grateful to have this powerful and well-connected Russian elected official promising to help them.  (Stankevich was still a rising star in Russia in 1995; things got bumpy for him later)

Riding in a taxi back to downtown DC, I turned to Stankevich and said, “I was really surprised when Senator Thurmond, that old Cold Warrior, wanted to see you and asked for your help to get Russian Navy business for South Carolina.  But if anyone had told me that one day I’d be sitting with an elected Russian official listening to the U.S. Navy ask for help in getting a Russian admiral to allow our Navy to begin cleaning up scuttled Soviet nuclear material off the coast of Novaya Zemlya – well, I simply wouldn’t have believed it.”

And Stankevich – this young Russian politician – turned to me and said slyly:  “Yes, it is ironic, but also rather presumptuous of them, considering that only a few decades ago your own Navy was dumping its spent nuclear fuel rods off the coast of Washington and Oregon.”

All this came to mind recently because Andrea Pitzer has written an acclaimed new book, Icebound, a gripping tale of survival following an ill-fated late 16th century voyage by Dutch explorer William Barents and his crew, whose ship became trapped in the ice off the coast of remote Novaya Zemlya (a/k/a Nova Zemba) and had to be abandoned.  I promptly bought the book, just for the adventure tale.  Then I contacted the author.  I had a more recent tale to tell about Novaya Zemlya, I said, and would she like to hear it?

After I told author Pitzer everything I’ve written above, she became curious and did some online research.  She found a fascinating official statement:  There has been no authorized dumping of nuclear material at sea by the U.S. Navy “since 1970.”  A friend in Honolulu also found a nearly identical statement elsewhere.

Since 1970?  That was the year of the whistleblower’s letter from the USS Long Beach.  Even though Admiral Rickover could yell at a young Senate aide and threaten a powerful senator, once he held that sailor’s letter in his hand he must have known the game was up.  I bet he called in his subordinates, waved the letter at them, and squeaky-shouted, “Well, that’s over.” 

Assuming that’s basically what happened – we’ll probably never know for sure – we can draw two conclusions.  That young whistle-blowing sailor bravely did something good.  And the “Rooskies” knew all along.

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Eric (Ric) Redman, a Seattle lawyer and climate consultant, is the author of the nonfiction bestseller, "The Dance of Legislation," and the forthcoming murder mystery, "The Bones of Hilo."

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