US nuclear sub was met by protests

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The US Navy’s nuclear-power submarine USS New Mexico tied up at a civilian harbour just outside Tromsø in Northern Norway on Monday, to a warm welcome from Norwegian defense forces and protests by angry local residents. The latter fear such sub berthings will make their home a target in the event of war, and that there’s little preparedness for a nuclear accident.

The US nuclear powered submarine USS New Mexico docked here at Tønsvik northeast of Tromsø early Monday afternoon. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Helene Sofie Thorkildsen

“I’m here to show our opposition to what’s happening here now,” one demonstrator, Brage Skrede Kyllo, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “I’m worried about those who live around here.”

Norwegian naval vessels escorted the submarine to its berth at the Grøtsund industrial harbour at Tønsvik, deemed to be the most “suitable” harbour in Northern Norway. The Norwegian military set up a so-called “security zone” spreading out 500 meters from the submarine that sailed into the Tønsvik harbour early Monday afternoon. Authorities also closed air space over the area until midnight on May 12.

NRK reported that representatives of the Norwegian defense forces tried to talk with the demonstrators at the site, even offering them coffee and pastries, but they were rebuffed. Protests over the arrival of the American submarines, which will use the harbour for changing crews and taking on provisions before heading out on Arctic patrols, have gone on for months, to no avail.

Local objections overruled
Local politicians and residents who opposed the dockings have been overruled by national defense and government officials eager to please the Americans and offer safe habour for their most important NATO ally. Elisabeth Eikeland, spokesperson for the defense deprtment operative headquarters, told NRK she and her colleagues understand that some Norwegians are skeptical about letting non-Norwegian military vessels, and nuclear-powered ones at that, use Norwegian venues on an ongoing basis.

Asked whether the Norwegians have been given any guarantees that there are no nuclear weapons on board the submarine, Eikeland cited the Bratteli Doctrine from 1975, which states that Norway has let allies know that they’re not supposed to bring nuclear weapons into Norway. “We have had that (as a premise) for more than 40 years,” Eikeland said. “The USA is our closest ally, we have close and good cooperation that’s based on mutual confidence between our countries. We expect that our closest allies respect the doctrine.”

The Grøtsund Harbour here at Tønsvik was viewed as best suited to serve submarines and other allied vessels. Defense officials note that Norway’s defense is based on support from its allies during times of crisis and war, and that allied forces must be allowed to train and operate in Norway and its northern areas, where Russian forces have become increasingly active. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Jan Harald Tomassen

It’s been reported earlier, however, that Norway has no guarantee against the presence of nuclear weapons on board, and that’s what particularly bothers local residents. NRK reported on its national nightly newscast Monday that Russian defense experts warn the presence of American nuclear subs in Norway will indeed make Norway a target. One also said that it was “a given” that nuclear weapons were on board.

Norwegian defense officials stress that a nuclear accident was “improbable,” and that the government would never have allowed dockings in the area if the risk was high. The military noted on Monday that the Norwegian Navy, Army, Home Guard and Air Force had prepared for the sub’s visit. Several civilian agencies have also been involved including the local county governor, the local police, local political leaders and the state directorate for atomic security (DSA). That has not satisfied Bjørnar Moxnes, a Member of Parliament and leader of the Reds Party.

“The defense minister both underestimates and downplays the consequences of an accident with these nuclear submarines,” Moxnes told NRK. “This increases the risk that Tromsø will be a bombing target in a conflict between Russia and the USA.”

It’s the first known visit of a nuclear-powered submarine to Norway in 13 years, but such visits were common during the Cold War, with as many as 10 to 12 a year, according to the defense department. French and British submarines also called at Tromsø on a routine basis.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund