Air Force: Nuke Missile Silo Fire Went Undetected

October 31st, 2008 - by admin

Associated Press & Air Force Times – 2008-10-31 10:29:18

DENVER (October 30, 2008) — A fire caused $1 million worth of damage at an unmanned underground nuclear launch site last spring, but the Air Force didn’t find out about it until five days later, an Air Force official said Thursday.

The May 23 fire burned itself out after an hour or two, and multiple safety systems prevented any threat of an accidental launch of the Minuteman III missile, Maj. Laurie Arellano said. She said she was not allowed to say whether the missile was armed with a nuclear warhead at the time of the fire.

Arellano said the Air Force didn’t know a fire had occurred until May 28, when a repair crew went to the launch site — about 40 miles east of Cheyenne, Wyo., and 100 miles northeast of Denver — because a trouble signal indicated a wiring problem.

She said the flames never entered the launch tube where the missile stood and there was no danger of a radiation release.

The fire, blamed on a faulty battery charger, burned a box of shotgun shells, a shotgun and a shotgun case that were kept in the room, Arellano said. A shotgun is a standard security weapon at missile silos.

Arellano said the battery chargers at all U.S. missile launch site have been replaced.

She said the incident wasn’t reported sooner because of the complexity of the investigation.

The damage from the fire was estimated at $1 million, including the cost of replacing damaged equipment and cleanup.

An Air Force report of the incident released Thursday found flaws in the technical orders for assembling battery charger parts, inspection procedures and modifications of the launch complex ventilation system. It was also critical of the presence of flammable materials.

Cheyenne Mayor Jack Spiker, who said he learned of the incident when contacted by a reporter Thursday, said the fire doesn’t undermine his confidence in the safety of the missile operations.

“It’s rare that they have an accident, and the accidents have never really, that I know of, amounted to much because of the safety devices that are built into the system,” he said.

The revelation was the latest in a string of embarrassing missteps involving the nation’s nuclear arsenal. In 2006, four electrical fuses for ballistic missile warheads were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan, and in 2007, a B-52 bomber was mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped missiles when it flew between Air Force bases in North Dakota and Louisiana.

The Air Force announced last week it was setting up a new Global Strike Command to better manage its nuclear-capable bombers and missiles.

Associated Press writer Matt Joyce in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this report. Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

Fire in Missile Room Not Found for 5 Days
Michael Hoffman / Air Force Times

(October 31, 2008) — A fire broke out inside the equipment room of a launch facility that houses a nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missile at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., on May 23.

No damage was done to the nuclear missile and no one was hurt at the unmanned launch facility, said Air Force Space Command officials.

The damage from the fire, which extinguished itself, was not discovered until five days after it started during a thunderstorm that temporarily knocked out power at the site, said Maj. Laurie Arellano, a Space Command spokeswoman.

An investigation board found the fire was started by a faulty battery charger that created a plume of hydrogen gas inside the facility. The gas was ignited by a spark from a loose connection inside the charger when the facility switched over to battery power during the storm.

The fire, which caused over $1 million of damage to equipment, burned through several cables that lead to the nuclear-armed ICBM. However, the fire never made it out of the equipment room and into the launch tube.

If the fire had made it to the nuclear missile, there was no risk of an inadvertent launch, explosion or release of nuclear material due to its advanced design, Arellano said. Despite the fire the missile was not once taken off alert.

A shotgun storage case also was burned, including the shotgun and the shells, but investigators found the shells didn’t explode.

Missile maintenance personnel discovered soot from the fire when they arrived to fix what they thought was a problem with the missile’s suspension, which the burned cables monitored.

Arellano said it took five days for anyone to check the missile because other priorities outweighed what appeared at the time to be a minor problem.

Since the fire, almost every battery charger has been replaced at launch facilities across the service. Duct tape on wires and the foam insulation inside shotgun cases have also been removed from the launch facilities to reduce the risk of fire.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.