Lawmakers are seeking to overturn a Dinkins-era ban on nuclear-powered Navy ships entering New York Harbor. Some are attributing to the ban the record-low ship count for this year's Fleet Week, which started yesterday, and with the Navy switching most of its fleet to nuclear-powered ships, Fleet Week may be smaller for years to come.
"We put our young American servicemen and servicewomen in submarines and aircraft carriers, and we put them out to sea for eight or nine months at a time," state Senator William Larkin, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, said yesterday in an interview. "Why would we be putting our members on board these ships and then say it's not safe? I wouldn't have any problem with it."
The last non-nuclear aircraft carrier in the Navy fleet, the USS Kitty Hawk, is expected to be decommissioned by 2009, and the conventionally powered USS John F. Kennedy, which docked in the city during past Fleet Weeks, was decommissioned just last year. Their phasing-out means that new aircraft carriers, such as the USS George H.W. Bush, christened in 2006, will be unable to dock in the city. Port cities such as Seattle and San Diego routinely host nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.
The unwritten ban on nuclear-powered ships dates back to a dispute over a plan in the early 1980s by President Reagan's Navy secretary, John Lehman, to create a series of "strategic home ports" that would spread America's fleet around the country. One of the locations selected to house a new home port was Stapleton, on Staten Island. While Mayor Koch and Governor Cuomo supported the idea, the Staten Island site sparked fears that mayhem could result if nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered ships had an accident in one of America's most densely populated areas.
These arguments swayed Mayor Dinkins, who announced after taking office in 1990 said he would oppose the presence of any ships armed with nuclear weapons, because they constituted a risk to New Yorkers' health and safety. Mr. Dinkins and a group of New York congressional representatives asked Vice President Cheney, who was then secretary of defense, to halt construction on the Staten Island port, which was never completed. The Navy took the flap to mean that nuclear reactors and weapons are not welcome in New York's harbors.
Mr. Dinkins could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Nearly 20 years later, the unwritten ban has never been lifted. According to a spokeswoman for the Navy, "nuclear propulsion, by itself, does not prohibit visiting New York Harbor." Nuclear-powered ships have nonetheless honored the unofficial arrangement and avoided the city, as Naval officers assume that these ships are not welcome without an explicit invitation from the city's mayor.
Some security experts believe that the policy has outlived its usefulness. While some might point to post-9/11 security threats as a cause to maintain the ban, a partner at security consulting firm PJ Sage Inc., Tim Connors, said yesterday that such concerns are likely overblown.
"When Fleet Week happens there's going to be a lot of security involved," Mr. Connors said in an interview. "I don't lose sleep thinking, 'Gee, somebody's going to be able to penetrate the security measures put in place and attack an aircraft carrier.'"
The director of GlobalSecurity.org, John Pike, said the Navy boasts an "impeccable record" when it comes to safety on its nuclear vessels.
The president of the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research, Arjun Makhijani, an opponent of nuclear power, said terrorism concerns were a legitimate concern.
"I think nuclear and New York City, especially after 9/11, should not be mixing," Mr. Makhijani said in an interview.
He suggested that if the Navy eventually brought nuclear-powered vessels into the city, it should first inform local officials of the potential consequences of a worst-case scenario accident so a response can be planned.
The only Navy vessel ever named after the city was a nuclear submarine, the USS New York City, which was decommissioned in 1997 before ever visiting New York waters. A battleship named after the state, the USS New York, participated in the first hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, and became so radioactive that the Navy sunk it for target practice shortly afterwards.
The Navy recently completed another USS New York, which was forged using steel from the former World Trade Center site. Because the San Antonio class of amphibious transport ship is diesel-powered, it is free to visit New York City.