Ed Friedrich / The Kitsap Sun – 2010-11-30 22:59:53
BANGOR (November 27, 2010) — Hundreds of nuclear warheads are secretly being trucked between Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor and the Texas panhandle to have their lives extended.
The 100-kiloton W76 warheads are between 23 and 32 years old and need to be upgraded, according to the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
Bangor’s eight Trident ballistic-missile submarines can each carry 24 D5 missiles. Those missiles can each carry up to eight W76 warheads.
Workers at the Pantex Plant outside of Amarillo, Texas, will add about 30 years to the weapons’ lives.
The plant, which is charged with maintaining the safety, security and reliability of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, will refurbish the nuclear explosive package, the arming, firing and fusing system, and the gas transfer system, according to the NNSA.
The new fuse will allow more flexibility in setting the height of the burst, which, according to the Energy Department, would “enable W76 to take advantage of (the) higher accuracy of (the) D5 missile” and bring more targets, including hard targets, within range.
Fifty-five to 60 percent of the nation’s W76 warheads, or about 1,600 to 1,800 of them, will be modernized, said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists. Eight of the Navy’s 14 ballistic-missile submarines are based at Bangor, so about 900 to 1,000 warheads would be transported from and returned to Kitsap County in special unmarked tractor trailers.
The first W76 upgrade was completed in February 2009. The $4 billion project will continue until 2018, Kristensen said.
The trailers can carry several warheads at a time. Shipping is conducted by the NNSA’s Office of Secure Transportation. The organization has safely completed 100 percent of its shipments without compromising or losing a nuclear weapon or component, or releasing radioactive material, according to its website.
Nobody from the Office of Secure Transportation or the Navy could be reached by the Kitsap Sun for comment.
The tractor-trailers don’t travel during bad weather. Should they run into it, federal agents who drive them pull into previously identified secure shelters. Although the trucks have sleeper berths, the armed drivers can’t go more than 32 hours without eight hours of sleep in a regular bed.
The trailers protect the warheads during an accident. Even if the trailer crashed, the warheads wouldn’t be damaged, according to the Office for Secure Transportation. An operations center tracks every convoy by satellite 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Officials from the Washington State Patrol, Department of Ecology, Department of Transportation and National Guard said they werenâ€™t notified of the increased shipments and never know when they’re made. Phyllis Mann, director of the Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management, said the Office of Secure Transportation briefs local law enforcement and emergency agencies about its operations, but the shipments themselves are secret.
“I don’t want to know about the movement of a warhead,” Mann said. “It is classified information. There are some things you don’t want to know, and this is one of them. If you keep telling a secret, the next thing you know you get subpoenaed and have to tell something you donâ€™t want to talk about.”
Mann said she believes the State Patrol is the only agency with general knowledge about the shipments, but spokesman Dan Coon said troopers aren’t in the loop. “It is all military and we are not part of the plans,” he said.
Live transport of nuclear weapons is always associated with risks, Kristensen said. Thatâ€™s why the Office of Secure Transportation takes it so seriously.
“You can have all sorts of things happening,” he said. “Trucks rolling over, crashes involving fuel trucks, crazy people trying to do something even worse like terror attacks. It’s a lot of warheads and there will be a lot of traffic.”
Last week, the Energy Department inspector general’s office said it reviewed 16 alcohol-related incidents involving agents, candidate-agents and others from the government’s Office of Secure Transportation between 2007 through 2009. They included an agent arrested for public intoxication and two agents detained by police after a bar fight.
After the W76 life extension, about 150 of the Tridents’ other warheads, the W88, will be shipped back to Pantex for new fuses, Kristensen said. That will take about 2 1/2 years. Then, in 2026, they’re scheduled to return to Texas for full-blown life extensions, he said.
RELATED NEWS ON EAW
US Agents Driving Trucks with Nuclear Missiles ‘Drunk on Job’
Herald-Sun & The New York Post
(November 28, 2010) — US agents tasked with transporting nuclear weapons in trucks were drunk on the job, revealing a “potential vulnerability” in a “critical national security mission” a scathing report reveals. The report, by Department of Energy Assistant Inspector General Sandra D. Bruce, found a total 16 alcohol-related incidents between 2007 and 2009, but did not make any formal recommendations for change.
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