Nuclear Weapons on a Highway Near You
Big rigs with bombs are secretly cruising America's interstates. But how safe are they from terrorists or accidents?| Wed Feb. 15, 2012 3:00 AM PST
In 2010, DOE inspectors were tipped off to alcohol abuse among the truckers. They identified 16 alcohol-related incidents between 2007 and 2009, including one in which agents were detained by local police at a bar after they'd stopped for the night with their atomic payload. After several agents and contractors were caught bringing unauthorized guns on training missions in Nevada between 2001 and 2004, DOE inspectors determined that "firearms policies and procedures were systematically violated." One OST agent in Texas pled guilty in 2006 to trying to sell body armor, rifle scopes, machine gun components, and other assault gear he'd pilfered on the job.
There have also been accidents. In 1996, a driver flipped his trailer on a two-lane Nebraska hill road after a freak ice storm, sending authorities scrambling to secure its payload of two nuclear bombs and return them to a nearby Air Force base. In 2003, two trucks operated by private contractors had rollover accidents in Montana and Tennessee while hauling uranium hexafluoride, a compound use to enrich reactor and bomb fuel. (DOE apparently uses some contractors for "low-risk" shipments, while high-security hauling is reserved for OST truckers). In June 2004, on I-26 near Asheville, North Carolina, a truck bound for the Savannah River Site leaked "less than a pint" of uranyl nitrate—liquefied yellowcake uranium, which can be used to produce bomb components.
None of these incidents resulted in significant danger to locals, according to DOE records. Still, officials in Nevada, raising concerns in 2002 about possible federal shipments of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, cited the DOE's own study stating that a "reasonably foreseeable accident scenario" could cause cancer-related deaths. And a bomb or rocket attack on a truck, DOE had projected, could kill 18,000 people and cost $10 billion to clean up. Such concerns led some activists to dub nuke truckers "the axles of evil.""The trucks have all sorts of goodies, the details of which are mostly secret."
Al Stotts, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees OST, declined to comment specifically on any measures taken to increase safety or security. "While we routinely acknowledge that OST's mission is to transport national security cargoes—nuclear weapons, components and special nuclear materials—we don't discuss routes, route timing, destinations or specific cargoes of convoys," he said in an email. "I'm sure you also realize that for national security reasons we do not discuss vehicle tactical roles and capabilities, trailer system details, or operational force numbers and capabilities."
If a terrorist attempted to attack or take over one of OST's vehicles (not only 18-wheelers, but also fleet trucks, vans, and even dune buggies), they would have to contend with a lot more than just the specially trained agents manning them. "The trucks have all sorts of goodies, the details of which are mostly secret," Bunn says. The cabs are fitted with custom composite armor and lightweight armored glass, as well as redundant communications systems that link the convoys to a monitoring center in Albuquerque. A driver has the ability to disable the truck so it can't be moved or opened, and the truck is designed to defend itself, OST officials claim. How so remains unclear, though its parent agency, the DOE, contracted in 2005 with an Australian weapons company called Metal Storm to develop a robotic 40-millimeter gun that could "distribute large quantities of ammunition over a large area in an extremely short time frame."
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Nuclear Weapons on a Highway Near You