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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

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

Nuclear trucking routes in the US: Jeff Berlin

These Are the Routes for All US Military Nuclear Weapons Trucks

You are looking at the map of the routes followed by the nuclear trucks—plain-looking, high-tech trailers that travel America's busiest highways carrying nuclear bombs, material for atomic weapons, radioactive metals and nuclear fuel for the US Navy.
Called Armored Tractors (ATs), these 18-wheelers are heavily shielded, continuously tracked, and loaded with security measures. Nothing differentiates them from other commercial trucks save for a few antennas and their special architecture. That and a "US GOVERNMENT" license plate. And the fact that they're loaded with stuff capable of destroying a few cities, for course.
As you weave through interstate traffic, you're unlikely to notice another plain-looking Peterbilt tractor-trailer rolling along in the right-hand lane. The government plates and array of antennas jutting from the cab's roof would hardly register. You'd have no idea that inside the cab an armed federal agent operates a host of electronic countermeasures to keep outsiders from accessing his heavily armored cargo: a nuclear warhead with enough destructive power to level downtown San Francisco.
That's the way the Office of Secure Transportation (OST) wants it. At a cost of $250 million a year, nearly 600 couriers employed by this secretive agency within the US Department of Energy use some of the nation's busiest roads to move America's radioactive material wherever it needs to go—from a variety of labs, reactors and military bases, to the nation's Pantex bomb-assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas, to the Savannah River facility. Most of the shipments are bombs or weapon components; some are radioactive metals for research or fuel for Navy ships and submarines. The shipments are on the move about once a week.
These Are the Routes for All US Military Nuclear Weapons Trucks
But don't worry. The DoE's Office of Secure Transportation is taking good care that nothing happens to all these nuclear trucks constantly on the move. The fleet is operated by 600 special agents from the Department of Energy with a $250 million a year budget.

The OST's operations are an open secret, and much about them can be gleaned from unclassified sources in the public domain. Yet hiding nukes in plain sight, and rolling them through major metropolises like Atlanta, Denver, and LA, raises a slew of security and environmental concerns, from theft to terrorist attack to radioactive spills. "Any time you put nuclear weapons and materials on the highway, you create security risks," says Tom Clements, a nuclear security watchdog for the nonprofit environmental group Friends of the Earth. "The shipments are part of the threat to all of us by the nuclear complex." To highlight those risks, his and another group, the Georgia-based Nuclear Watch South, have made a pastime of pursuing and photographing OST convoys.

"Is that it?" My wife leans forward in the passenger seat of our sensible hatchback and points ahead to an 18-wheeler that's hauling ass toward us on a low-country stretch of South Carolina's Highway 125. We've been heading west from I-95 toward the Savannah River Site nuclear facility on the Georgia-South Carolina border, in search of nuke truckers. At first the mysterious big rig resembles a commercial gas tanker, but the cab is pristine-looking and there's a simple blue-on-white license plate: US GOVERNMENT. It blows by too quickly to determine whether it's part of the little-known US fleet tasked with transporting some of the most sensitive cargo in existence.
DOE Nuclear Material Transport Truck

The Department of Energy has been using tractor trailers to transport fissile and other nuclear materials for years, from what I have been told each vehicle carries armed guards, the driver, who also has access to a weapon and a “chase vehicle” which also carries armed employees of the DOE.
The idea of nuclear weapons being carted around in our highways, cities and neighborhoods doesn’t really put one’s mind at ease. However, the government has been transporting seriously dangerous stuff like enriched uranium and plutonium secretly without public warning. Through the Freedom of Information Act has forced the Department Of Energy to release color photos of the trucks used to transport weapons. According to FOE, these are the first of such pictures that have been released in many years.
Tom Clements, Southeastern Nuclear Campaign Coordinator with Friends of the Earth in Columbia, South Carolina made the following statement about the importance of the release of the photos.

“The trucks carrying nuclear weapons and dangerous materials such as plutonium pass through cities and neighborhoods all the time and the public should be aware of what they look like. Release of these photos will help inform the public about secretive shipments of dangerous nuclear material that are taking place in plain view.”

Check out the original article at Mother Jones. It's fascinating—and somehow terrifying—that this happens every single day without anybody noticing. [Mother Jones and Sandia National Labs via Public Intelligence]

Contributing sources:
Mother Jones
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