'Cover-up' fury after US nuclear sub is grounded

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The Independent Online

An American nuclear-powered submarine ran aground last month off the north coast of Sardinia. The 7,000-ton USS Hartford hit the rocky Mediterranean floor with such impact that rudders, sonar and other electronic equipment were severely damaged.

The vessel, 362-ft long and carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles, possibly with nuclear warheads, had left its Sardinian base at La Maddalena and was sailing east past the island of Caprera soon after midnight on 25 October when it ran aground. The US Navy kept the accident secret, but it leaked in America this week after relatives of crew members on the Los Angeles class submarine learnt that the ship's six-month tour was to be cut short, only a month after it started. After temporary repairs, the Hartford will sail back across the Atlantic to the naval dockyard in Norfolk, Virginia, for a full refit.

The US Navy says there was no damage to the Hartford's nuclear reactor and no injuries. But the severity of the incident was clear from the fact that both the captain, Commander Christopher R Van Metre, and his squadron commander, Capt Greg Parker, who was also on board at the time, were summarily sacked. When another US submarine, the USS Oklahoma City, hit a Norwegian merchant ship east of the Straits of Gibraltar a year ago, the captain was only relieved of his duties two weeks later.

A spokeswoman for the US Sixth Fleet, which is based in Gaeta, near Naples, said yesterday that the two officers were immediately removed from their posts because their commander, Rear Admiral P Stephen Stanley, "no longer had confidence in their ability to command". Six other crew, including two officers, have also been disciplined.

There was furious reaction to the accident within Italy, as much because of the cover-up as because of what actually happened. In Parliament a Green Party MP, Mauro Bulgarelli, said: "It's the umpteenth demonstration not only of the grave risks to which the civilian population is exposed ... but also of the culture of silence that invariably covers military activities in Sardinia."

He continued: "Our country was denuclearised nearly 20 years ago, due to the wish of the overwhelming majority of the Italian population. It is unacceptable that, thanks to American troops based in our territory, the nuclear risk should be reintroduced. In another age that would be called colonisation."

The Minister of the Environment, Altero Matteoli, conceded that it was "a serious incident" and said an official had been sent to investigate. But "first reports did not mention environmental problems".

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