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Cheney Says “No Danger” of Accidental Explosion of Nuclear Shells

May 23, 1990

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said today there were problems with U.S. nuclear artillery shells in Europe, but he said they have been fixed and there was never any danger of an accidental nuclear explosion.

A published report said some experts feared a possible accidental nuclear explosion if the problems were not solved.

″It is important here not to over-dramatize the nature of the problem,″ Cheney said. ″I will simply say that ... there was no danger but that the shells in question did not meet the very high standards that we have. I don’t believe there was any cause for concern.″

He declined to go into details of what was done to correct the problems, saying such matters were classified.

Cheney, speaking at a news conference after wrapping up a two-day session with NATO defense ministers, was responding to a story in today’s editions of The Washington Post. It said the United States was repairing artillery shells and examining the design of two kinds of missiles because of the possibility of an accidental nuclear explosion.

Cheney said he was not certain at what point the German government had been informed of potential problems with the artillery shells.

Maj. Gen. Dieter Wellershoff, West German chief of staff who briefed West German reporters in Brussels, said the U.S. had told Bonn of ″technical changes″ on the nuclear warheads. Spokesman Klaus Naumann said the West German military was informed before and after these technical changes were completed.

Defense Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg said he saw no reason to demand immediate withdrawal of the nuclear artillery. But he said the government hoped that ″a situation would come soon whereby the nuclear artillery could be scrapped.″

In the Netherlands, where some U.S. nuclear weapons are based, Defense Ministry spokesman Martijn Verbrugge said, ″We are always informed when the Americans are planning maintenance″ on warheads stored there. He refused to say whether or when Dutch officials were told about the problems reported by the Post today.

U.S. troops in Europe were warned not to move the shells until they are fixed, the paper said.

The problem with the W-79 shell, designed for eight-inch howitzers, was one of three found recently by Energy Department experts, the newspaper said.

A special committee will be appointed to review the W-88 warhead atop the new D-5 missile being deployed on Trident submarines this year, the Post said.

And it said special flight restrictions have been instituted pending review of the W-69 warhead on the short-range SRAM-A missile carried by some bomber aircraft.

The W-88 and W-69 warheads use the same volatile fuel that experts feared could explode in certain accidents and set off the conventional explosives that trigger the nuclear explosives.

Those conventional explosives surround a mass of plutonium and compress it from all sides to the point where the nuclear chain reaction begins and proceeds to cause a nuclear explosion in a split second.

The artillery shell problem was discovered by special computer studies using new, more powerful computers in 1988, the Post said.

Those studies raised the possibility that a bullet striking the conventional explosive could set off part of it, dispersing the highly toxic plutonium, though not necessarily causing a chain reaction. At least a dozen such accidents are known to have occurred in the nuclear age.

But if the bullet hit while the shell were in the artillery piece, the barrel of the weapon might reflect even neutrons back into the plutonium to cause a nuclear explosion, according to the experts’ thinking as described by the Post.

The W-88 was feared to be vulnerable to an accidental nuclear explosion, but the W-69 threat was dispersal of plutonium, the newspaper said.

An unidentified senior military official was quoted as saying, ″For a while, we were worried that these things might go off if they fell of the back of a truck and landed in a certain way.″

Special teams early in 1989 installed ″safing mechanisms,″ and the shells are being modified, the Post said.

Energy Secretary James D. Watkins, though declining to discuss specifics or confirm all details, was quoted as saying in an interview, ″Without any question, safety has been preserved″ for the artillery shell.

″I can confirm that the admiral was concerned about nuclear weapons safety,″ said M.J. Jameson, the energy secretary’s spokeswoman. As to details, ″I’m not at liberty to talk about that.″

Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., D-S.C., chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on defense nuclear facilities, confirmed that the subcommittee had called for an inquiry by a panel of non-governmental physicists into the safety and security of U.S. nuclear forces.

Spratt’s office released a letter sent to Watkins on May 3 advising him of the planned inquiry, along with Watkins’ reply agreeing to cooperate. Spratt said in the letter that the subcommittee knew the department was already taking action but believed that ″an independent assessment will be as valuable to the department as it will be to Congress.″

When Watkins arrived at DOE last year, he learned of several ″highly visible″ safety problems. He started investigating and at some point he recommended the creation of a subcommittee of the nuclear weapons council, a joint DoE-DoD body, which was done, she said.

″He felt that the secretary of energy should place a greater emphasis on nuclear weapons safety,″ she said.

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