Tiny Pacific nation sues 9 nuclear-armed powers

The tiny Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands is taking on the United States and the world’s eight other nuclear-armed nations with an unprecedented lawsuit demanding that they meet their obligations toward disarmament under the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and accusing them of “flagrant violations” of international law.

Marshall Islands claims that the Nuclear Weapon States are in breach of Article VI of the NPT, which states: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

The island group that was used for dozens of U.S. nuclear tests after World War II filed suit April 22 in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands, against each of the nine countries. It also filed a federal lawsuit against the United States in San Francisco, naming President Barack Obama, the departments and secretaries of defense and energy, and the National Nuclear Security Administration as defendants.

The countries targeted also include Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. The last four are not parties to the NPT, which is considered the cornerstone of nuclear disarmament efforts, but the lawsuits argue they are bound by its provisions under “customary international law.”

Marshall Islands points out that the nine countries are modernizing their nuclear arsenals instead of negotiating disarmament, and it estimates that they will spend $1 trillion on those arsenals over the next decade.

The Marshall Islands were the site of 67 nuclear tests by the United States over a 12-year period, with lasting health and environmental impacts. “Our people have suffered the catas-trophic and irreparable damage of these weapons, and we vow to fight so that no one else on earth will ever again experience these atrocities,” the country’s foreign minister, Tony de Brum, said in a statement announcing the lawsuits. The country is seeking action, not compensation. It wants the courts to require that the nine nuclear-armed states meet their obligations.

“I personally see it as kind of David and Goliath, except that there are no slingshots involved,” said David Krieger, president of the California-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He is acting as a consultant in the case. There are hopes that other countries will join the legal effort, he said.

“There hasn’t been a case where individual governments are saying to the nuclear states, ‘You are not complying with your disarmament obligations,’” said John Burroughs, executive director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, part of the international pro bono legal team. “This is a contentious case that could result in a binding judgment.”

Marshall Islands is asking the countries to accept the ICJ’s jurisdiction in this case and explain their positions on the issue. In 1996, the ICJ said unanimously that an obligation existed to bring disarmament negotiations to a conclusion. Instead, “progress toward disarmament has essentially been stalemated since then,” Burroughs said, and frustration with the nuclear-armed states has grown.

Several Nobel Peace Prize winners support the legal action, including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “We must ask why these leaders continue to break their promises and put their citizens and the world at risk of horrific devastation,” Tutu said in the statement announcing the legal action.

– edited from The Associated Press, April 24, 2014
PeaceMeal, May/June 2014

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Commanders fired in nuclear missile cheating scandal

WASHINGTON — The Air Force took the extraordinary step on March 27 of firing nine mid-level nuclear commanders and announcing it will discipline dozens of junior officers at the Malmstrom, Mont., nuclear missile base, responding firmly to an exam-cheating scandal that spanned a far longer period than originally reported. A 10th commander, the senior officer at the base, resigned and will retire. Air Force officials called the discipline unprecedented in the history of America’s intercontinental ballistic missile force.

In an emotion-charged resignation letter titled “A Lesson to Remember,” Col. Robert Stanley, who commanded the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom, lamented that the reputation of the ICBM mission was now “tarnished because of the extraordinarily selfish actions of officers entrusted with the most powerful weapon system ever devised by man.” Stanley, seen as a rising star in the Air Force, had been nominated for promotion to brigadier general just days before the cheating scandal came to light in January. The cheating involved unauthorized passing of answers to exams designed to test missile launch officers’ proficiency in handling emergency war orders involving the targeting and launching of missiles.

Nine key commanders below Stanley were fired, including the commanders of the 341st Wing’s three missile squadrons, each of which is responsible for 50 Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles. None of the nine was directly involved in the cheating, but each was determined to have failed in his or her leadership responsibilities. Also sacked were the commander and deputy commander of the 341st Operations Group, which oversees all three missile squadrons as well as a helicopter unit and a support squadron responsible for administering monthly proficiency tests to Malmstrom’s launch crews and evaluating their performance.

A total of 90 missile launch crew members at Malmstrom were involved in the cheating. Eight of those involve possible criminal charges stemming from the alleged mishandling of classified information. Of the remaining 82, an estimated 30 to 40 are eligible to be retrained and returned to duty on the missile force; the rest face unspecified disciplinary action that could include dismissal from the Air Force, officials said.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told a Pentagon news conference that a thorough review of how testing and training are conducted in the ICBM force has produced numerous avenues for improvements. James had promised to hold officers at Malmstrom accountable once the cheating investigation was completed and the scope of the scandal was clear.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, commander of Air Force Globe Strike Command, said investigators determined that the cheating began as early as November 2011 and continued until November 2013. Wilson is responsible not only for the ICBM force but also the B-52 and B-2 bombers that are capable of launching nuclear attacks.

Separately, another of the Air Force’s nuclear missile units — the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. — announced that it had fired the officer overseeing its missile squadrons. It said Col. Donald Holloway, the operations group commander, was sacked “because of a loss of confidence in his ability to lead.”

Together, the moves reflect turmoil in a force that remains central to U.S. defense strategy but has been rocked by disclosures about security lapses, safety violations, poor discipline, low morale and drug use that raise disturbing questions about the security of U.S. nuclear weapons. The force of 450 Minuteman 3 missiles is primed to unleash nuclear devastation on a moment’s notice, capable of obliterating people and places halfway around the globe.

– edited from The Associated Press, March 28, 2014
PeaceMeal, March/April 2014

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Nuclear bomb enhancement violates reducing the role of nukes

The former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, confirmed in January that the B61-12 nuclear bomb planned by the Obama administration will have improved military capabilities to attack targets with greater accuracy and less radioactive fallout. In a $1.6-billion program, the bomb will be equipped with a new tail kit to guide it to a target with greater accuracy.

Increasing accuracy makes the bomb more effective against underground targets that require ground burst and cratering to inflict damage by the shock wave. Cratering targets is dirty business because a nuclear detonation on or near the surface kicks up large amounts of radioactive material. With the increased accuracy of the B61-12, the war planners would be able to use a lower yield and still achieve the same or worse damage to an underground target, while significantly reducing the radioactive fallout after an attack.

Confirmation of the enhanced military capability of the B61-12 contradicts the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which pledged that nuclear warhead “Life Extension Programs…will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.” Confirmation also complicates the political situation of the NATO allies that currently host U.S. nuclear weapons because their governments will have to explain to their parliaments and public why they would agree to increase the military capability. Enhancing the nuclear capability also contradicts U.S. and NATO goals of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in defense and would appear to signal to Russia that it is acceptable for it to enhance its tactical nuclear posture in Europe as well.

Such considerations ought to be far behind us more than two decades after the end of the Cold War, but continue to tie down military planning and political posturing.

– PeaceMeal, March/April 2014

New nuke scandal triggers top-level Pentagon review

WASHINGTON — In a stunning setback for a nuclear missile force already beset by missteps and leadership lapses, the Air Force disclosed on January 15 that 34 officers entrusted with the world’s deadliest weapons have been removed from launch duty for allegedly cheating, or tolerating cheating by others, on routine proficiency tests.

The alleged cheating at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., was discovered during a previously announced probe of drug possession by 11 officers at several Air Force bases, including two who also are in the nuclear force and suspected of participating in the cheating ring. Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said one launch officer at Malmstrom was found to have sent one or more text messages to 16 other launch officers with answers to their test, and that further questioning at Malmstrom determined that 17 other launch officers “self-admitted to at least being aware of material that had been shared.”

Welsh said he knew of no bigger cheating scandal or launch officer decertification in the history of the intercontinental ballistic missile force, which began operating in 1959. Last spring, the Air Force decertified 17 launch officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., for a combination of poor performance and bad attitudes. At the time, the Air Force said it was the largest-ever, one-time sidelining of launch officers.

Malmstrom is home to the 341st Missile Wing, which is responsible for operation of 150 nuclear-armed Minuteman 3 ICBMs — one-third of the entire ICBM force.

A “profoundly disappointed” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, the service’s top civilian official, told a hurriedly arranged Pentagon news conference that the entire ICBM launch officer force of about 600 was being retested that week.

The cheating scandal is the latest in a series of Air Force stumbles with nuclear weapons reported in recent months, including deliberate violations of safety rules, failures of inspections, breakdowns in training, and evidence that the men and women who operate the missiles from underground command posts are suffering burnout.

In October, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, who was commander of the nuclear missile force, was fired for engaging in embarrassing behavior while leading a U.S. government delegation to a nuclear security exercise in Russia, including heavy drinking and cavorting with suspicious women. Just days earlier, another senior nuclear officer, Navy Vice Adm. Tim Giardina, was relieved of command at U.S. Strategic Command amid allegations linked to the use of counterfeit gambling chips.

 With public trust and safety at stake, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered immediate actions a week later to define the depth of trouble inside the nation’s nuclear force. It was the most significant expression of high-level Pentagon concern about the nuclear force since 2008, when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the top uniformed and civilian officials in the Air Force following a series of mistakes that included an unauthorized flight of nuclear-armed cruise missiles across the country.

Hagel summoned top military officials to a Pentagon conference, to be held within two weeks, to “raise and address” any personnel problems infesting the nuclear force. He ordered that an action plan be written within 60 days to explore nuclear force personnel issues, identify urgently needed remedies, and put those fixes into place quickly. Personnel issues are crucial because ICBMs are kept on alert every hour of every day, and the potential for human error is ever-present.

Not at issue is the Obama administration’s commitment to keeping the bulk of the current U.S. nuclear force, which is comprised of ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-capable bombers in addition to the Air Force’s fleet of 450 Minuteman 3 ICBMs. But with an eye toward avoiding further surprises, Hagel’s planned Pentagon summit meeting, as well as other actions announced January 23, include participation by Navy officials responsible for their portion of the nuclear arsenal. The Navy has not suffered any recent reported lapses or failures within its nuclear submarine force, but Hagel believed it would be imprudent for him not to examine the entirety of the arsenal.

On January 30, Air Force Secretary James announced that 92 officers — half of the nuclear missile crew at Malmstrom AFB — were involved in cheating on the tests designed to ensure proficiency in handling emergency war orders to launch their missiles.

– edited from The Associated Press and AirForceTimes.com
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2014

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Nuke missile troubles run deep; key officers “burned out”

Trouble inside the Air Force’s nuclear missile force runs deeper and wider than officials have let on. An unpublished study for the Air Force cites “burnout” among launch officers with their fingers on the triggers of 450 weapons of mass destruction. Also, evidence of broader behavioral issues across the ICBM force, including sexual assaults and domestic violence.

The study, provided to The Associated Press in draft form following a Freedom of Information Act request, says that court-martial rates in the nuclear missile force in 2011 and 2012 were more than twice as high as in the overall Air Force. Administrative punishments, such as written reprimands for rules violations and other misbehavior, also were higher in those years. These indicators add a new dimension to an emerging picture of malaise and worse inside the ICBM force, an arm of the Air Force with a proud heritage but an uncertain future.

Out of concern, the Air Force directed the think tank RAND Corp. to conduct a three-month study of work conditions and attitudes among the men and women inside the ICBM force. It found a toxic mix of frustration and aggravation, heightened by a sense of being unappreciated, overworked, micromanaged and at constant risk of failure.

Based on confidential small-group discussions last winter with about 100 launch officers, security forces, missile maintenance workers and others who work in the missile fields — plus responses to confidential questionnaires — RAND found low job satisfaction and workers distressed by staff shortages, equipment flaws and what they felt were stifling management tactics.

It also found what it termed “burnout” — feeling exhausted, cynical and ineffective on the job, according to Chaitra Hardison, RAND’s senior behavioral scientist. She used a measurement system of that asked people to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how often in their work they experience certain feelings, including tiredness, hopelessness and a sense of being trapped. An average score of 4 or above was judged to put the person in the “burnout” range.

The 13 launch officers who volunteered for the study scored an average of 4.4 on the burnout scale, tied for highest with a group of 20 junior enlisted airmen assigned to missile security forces. One service member said, “We don’t care if things go properly. We just don’t want to get in trouble.” Hardison said, “People who are even top performers, who are exceptionally good at their jobs, fear that they are going to make one mistake and that’s going to be the end of their career.”

Being a missileer has always been considered hard duty, in part due to the enormous responsibility of safely operating nuclear missiles, the most destructive weapons ever invented. Today the nuclear threat is no longer prominent among America’s security challenges. The Cold War arsenal has shrunk in size and stature, and the Air Force struggles to demonstrate the relevance of its aging ICBMs in a world worried more about terrorism and accustomed to 21st-century weapons such as drones. This new reality is not lost on the young men and women who in most cases were coercively “volunteered” for ICBM jobs.

Every hour of every day, 90 launch officers are on duty in underground command posts that control Minuteman 3 missiles. Inside each buried capsule are two officers responsible for 10 missiles, each in a separate silo, armed with one or more nuclear warheads and ready for launch within minutes.

They await a presidential launch order that has never arrived in the more than 50-year history of U.S. ICBMs. The duty can be tiresome, with long hours, limited opportunities for career advancement, and the constraints of life in frigid, remote areas of the north-central U.S., like Minot Air Force Base, N.D.

The Air Force’s top general, Mark Welsh, said he is confident that the ICBM force is on solid ground and performing as expected. But the RAND study and interviews with current and former members suggest a disconnect between the missile force members and their leaders.

– edited from The Associated Press, November 20, 2013
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2013

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

No. 2 U.S. nuke commander suspended amid gambling probe

VAdm Tim Giardina.jpg (3316 bytes)WASHINGTON — The No. 2 officer at the military command in charge of all U.S. nuclear war-fighting forces is suspected in a case involving counterfeit gambling chips at a western Iowa casino and has been suspended from his duties, officials said. Navy Vice Adm. Tim Giardina has not been arrested or charged, but an Iowa state investigation is ongoing.

Giardina, deputy commander at U.S. Strategic Command located at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb., was suspended on September 3 and is also under investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Giardina is still assigned to the command but is prohibited from performing duties related to nuclear weapons and other issues requiring a security clearance.

Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, who heads Strategic Command, has recommended to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Giardina be reassigned. Giardina is a career submarine officer and previously was the deputy commander and chief of staff at U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agents stationed at the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa, discovered the counterfeit chips. Special agent David Dales would not say when the discovery was made or how much in counterfeit chips was found, only that “it was a significant monetary amount.” Council Bluffs is located across the Missouri River from Omaha.

Strategic Command oversees the military’s nuclear fighter units, including the Navy’s nuclear-armed submarines and the Air Force’s land-based nuclear missiles and nuclear bombers.

The suspension is yet another blow to the military’s nuclear weapons establishment. Last spring, the nuclear missile unit at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., pulled 17 launch-control officers off duty after a problematic inspection and later relieved of duty the officer in charge of training and proficiency. In August, a nuclear missile unit at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., failed a nuclear safety and security inspection; nine days later an officer in charge of the unit’s security forces was relieved of duty.

– edited from Huffington Post, September 28, 2013
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2013

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

U.S. bloated nuclear weapon spending comes under fire

At Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a seven-year, $213 million upgrade to the security system that protects the lab’s most sensitive nuclear bomb-making facilities doesn’t work. Those same facilities, which sit atop a fault line, remain susceptible to collapse and dangerous radiation releases, despite millions more spent on improvement plans.

In Tennessee, the price tag for a new uranium processing facility has grown nearly sevenfold in eight years to upward of $6 billion because of problems that include a redesign to raise the roof. And the estimated cost of an ongoing effort to refurbish 400 of the country’s B61 nuclear bombs has grown from $1.5 billion to $10 billion.

The National Nuclear Security Administration has racked up $16 billion in cost overruns on 10 major projects that are a combined 38 years behind schedule, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports. Other projects have been cancelled or suspended, despite hundreds of millions of dollars already spent, because they grew too bloated.

Virtually every major project under the NNSA’s oversight is behind schedule and over budget — the result, watchdogs and government auditors say, of years of lax accountability and nearly automatic annual budget increases for the agency responsible for maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Critics say the nuclear program — run largely by private contractors and overseen by the NNSA, an arm of the U.S. Energy Department — has turned into a massive jobs program with duplicative functions.

The retired head of one of those contractors, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, told Congress this spring that the absence of day-to-day accountability and an ineffectual structure at the NNSA pose a national security risk. He described a “pervasive culture of tolerating the intolerable and accepting the unacceptable.”

DOE and NNSA officials agree there are problems. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in early September that addressing the cost overruns, and also embarrassing security breaches at some facilities, is a top priority. But these issues at the NNSA are nothing new. The agency, along with the Defense Department and programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, is cited regularly in a GAO report of agencies considered “high-risk” due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste and mismanagement or because they are most in need of broad reform.

In addition to being over budget at times, the NNSA also has been forced to abandon several projects on which money has already been spent. Last year, Congress suspended for five years additional spending on a $6 billion plutonium research laboratory at Los Alamos that critics say duplicates a facility in Tennessee and is an unnecessary attempt to expand the nation’s nuclear bomb-building mission. The lab has been on the drawing board for 20 years, with millions spent on design plans.

Also being cut is a program at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel. The plant is $3 billion over budget, now costing an estimated $7.7 billion, and is three years behind schedule, according to the GAO.

 A congressionally appointed panel, co-chaired by Augustine recently began studying a potential overhaul of the NNSA. Members of the panel, made up of retired military officials, former lab officials and former members of Congress, declined requests for interviews. Critics, however, deride the panel’s work as a futile exercise that repeats past reviews.

And one panel member, former U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., has herself become a target of government auditors for work related to the national labs. The Energy Department’s inspector general reported in June that Wilson collected nearly half a million dollars for no-bid consulting work from nuclear lab contractors. The report found the contractors could not document what work Wilson had actually performed. The contractors — Lockheed Martin, Bechtel and other companies — have since reimbursed NNSA most of the $464,203 that was paid to Wilson, but an investigation continues.

– edited from The Associated Press, September 13, 2013
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2013

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Have nuke, will travel
On the trail of the big rigs that transport nuclear warheads on America’s interstates

Adam_Weinstein.jpg (2528 bytes)Adam Weinstein

As I drive west on South Carolina’s Highway 125, my wife leans forward in the passenger seat and points to an 18-wheeler cannonballing toward us. “Is that it?” she asks. It has a pristine-looking cab and a blue-on-white license plate that reads US GOVERNMENT. The big rig speeding away from the Savannah River Site nuclear facility could be any other truck on official business. Or it could be driven by armed federal agents guarding a payload with enough destructive power to level a small city. You’d never know.

And that’s the way the Office of Secure Transportation (OST) wants it. Nearly 350 couriers employed by this secretive agency within the Department of Energy use some of the nation’s busiest roads to move atomic cargo wherever it needs to go — from military bases, labs, and reactors to places like the Pantex bomb-disassembly plant in Amarillo, Texas, and the Savannah River Site, where nuclear materials are processed and stored. Most of the shipments contain bombs or weapon components; some have radioactive metals for research or fuel for nuclear submarines. The nuclear truckers are constantly on the move, camouflaged by a fleet of ordinary-looking yet heavily armored Peterbilt tractor-trailers.

OST’s operations, which cost around $250 million a year, are an open secret, and much about them can be gleaned from unclassified sources in the public domain. Proponents of the program say that the interstate highway system, developed as a national defense infrastructure during the Cold War, is the most efficient and reliable way to transport nuclear weapons. Yet hiding nukes in plain sight and rolling them through major metropolises like Atlanta, Denver, and Los Angeles raises a slew of security and environmental concerns, from theft to radioactive spills. “A transport is inherently harder to defend against a violent, guns-blazing enemy attack,” acknowledges Matthew Bunn, a nuclear weapons expert at Harvard who advised the Clinton White House on nonproliferation.

Likely that’s why the agency seeks to hire military veterans, particularly ex-special-ops guys. OST recruiting materials note that besides contending with “irregular hours, personal risks, and exposure to inclement weather,” agents “may be called upon to use deadly force” to defend their payloads. At a small Army training camp in Fort Smith, Arkansas (the same one, as it happens, where GI Elvis Presley got his famous haircut), prospective agents are instructed in close-quarters combat, tactical shooting, and the art of maneuvering a tractor-trailer.

Though recruits must undergo background checks and get security clearances, a few loose cannons have slipped into the ranks. OST inspectors identified 16 alcohol-related incidents between 2007 and 2009, including one in which an agent was arrested for public intoxication, and another in which two drivers who had stopped for the night with their cargo were detained by police after an incident in a local bar. In 2006, an OST agent in Texas was charged with selling an array of weapons and body armor intended for government use only.

And then there are the hazards of the open road. In 1996 an OST driver flipped his nuclear trailer on a two-lane road in Nebraska after a freak ice storm, sending authorities scrambling to secure two bombs. (Al Stotts, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees OST, clarified that the truck “slowly rolled over.”) In 2003 government trucks operated by private contractors had rollover accidents in Montana and Tennessee while hauling uranium hexafluoride, a highly corrosive compound used to produce nuclear bomb components and fuel for nuclear reactors. In 2004, near Asheville, North Carolina, a motorist spotted a truck bound for the Savannah River Site leaking liquefied yellowcake uranium. An emergency official told a local newspaper that “something less than a pint” came out after the highway patrol pulled the truck over.

None of these incidents posed significant dangers, according to federal records. Nonetheless, a DOE study from 2002 determined that a “reasonably foreseeable accident scenario” could lead to cancer deaths and that an attack on a truck with a “state-of-the-art anti-tank weapon” could kill 18,000 people and cost upwards of $10 billion to clean up. Stotts declined to discuss specific safety and security concerns for “national security reasons.”

Anyone targeting one of OST’s vehicles would face a formidable challenge. “The trucks have all sorts of goodies, the details of which are mostly secret,” Bunn says. The cabs are fitted with composite armor and ballistic glass. Drivers can disable their trucks so that they can’t be moved or opened, OST officials claim, and the rigs are even designed to defend themselves if the drivers can’t, though exactly how is unclear.

The mystery surrounding the nuke truckers has given rise to conspiracy theories. In May 2008, locals near Needles, California, reported seeing a fiery blue-green UFO crash. At the supposed crash site, Las Vegas TV reporter George Knapp stumbled upon a convoy of OST agents. After some wangling, they gave Knapp a glimpse of their operations. “They're a little bit 007, with maybe a dash of Rambo, but maybe the smarts and technology of a Tom Clancy hero,” he told his viewers. The truckers denied any connections to UFOs but confirmed that they spend a lot of time working around the DOE’s Nevada Test Site adjacent to the fabled Area 51.

Anti-nuclear activists have dubbed the nuke trucks “the axles of evil.” “Anytime you put nuclear weapons and materials on the highway, you create security risks,” says Tom Clements, a nuclear security watchdog formerly with Friends of the Earth. To highlight those risks, FOE and Georgia-based Nuclear Watch South have made a pastime of pursuing and photographing OST convoys.

If ever there were a place to spot a nuke trucker inside the Savannah River Site, it’s a tiny roadside park with a historical marker commemorating the town of Ellenton, which President Truman ordered to be leveled for the nuclear complex. Signs along the highway running through the 200,000-acre base display terse warnings: NO STOPPING OR STANDING FOR NEXT 17.3 MILES and DO NOT LEAVE HIGHWAY. Visits to the park are permitted, but only during daylight hours and just for a few minutes. Within a moment of parking our car, a red tractor-trailer pulling a rust-colored shipping container plows by, trailed by two dark Ford Excursions. “O.S.T.” is painted on the truck’s door.

Another five miles down the road, we reach the town of Jackson. At the gas station on the comer of Atomic Road, I ask the attendant if she’s ever seen the nuke truckers around. “I wouldn’t know anything about that,” she says, shedding her polite smile. “Here's your receipt.”

– edited from Mother Jones, May/June 2012
PeaceMeal, July/August 2013

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Air Force sidelines 17 nuke officers for ‘marginal’ performance

The Air Force in April stripped an unprecedented 17 officers of their authority to control — and, if necessary, launch — nuclear missiles after a string of unpublicized failings, including a remarkably dim review of their unit’s launch skills. The group’s deputy commander said it was suffering “rot” within its ranks.

The tip-off to trouble was a March inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., which earned the equivalent of a “D”' grade when tested on its mastery of Minuteman III missile launch operations. The group’s overall fitness was deemed so tenuous that senior officers at Minot decided an immediate crackdown was called for.

“We are, in fact, in a crisis right now,” the commander, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, wrote in an internal email obtained by The Associated Press and confirmed by the Air Force. Sen. Richard Durbin, chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, expressed outrage, saying the AP report revealed a problem that “could not be more troubling.”

The officers were removed from the highly sensitive duty of standing 24-hour watch over the Air Force’s most powerful nuclear missiles, the intercontinental ballistic missiles that can strike targets across the globe. Inside each underground launch control capsule, two officers stand “alert” at all times, ready to launch an ICBM upon presidential order. The 91st Missile Wing is one of three that operate the U.S. fleet of 450 Minuteman III missiles; the two others are at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., and Warren Air Force Base, Wy.

In addition to the 17 officers benched for at least 60 days for “marginal” performance, possible disciplinary action is pending against one other officer at Minot who investigators found had purposefully broken a missile safety rule in an unspecified act that could have compromised the secret codes that enable the launching of missiles. Officials said there was no compromise of missile safety or security.

The trouble at Minot is the latest in a series of setbacks for the Air Force’s nuclear mission, highlighted by a 2008 Pentagon advisory group report that found a “dramatic and unacceptable decline” in the Air Force’s commitment to the mission, which has its origins in the Cold War standoff with the former Soviet Union. In 2008, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates sacked the top civilian and military leaders of the Air Force after a series of stunning blunders by other elements of the nuclear force, including an August 2007 incident in which an Air Force B-52 bomber flew from Minot to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., without the crew realizing it was armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

Bruce Blair, who served as an Air Force ICBM launch control officer in the 1970s and is now a research scholar at Princeton University, said in an interview, “Minuteman launch crews have long been marginalized and demoralized by the fact that the Air Force’s culture and fast-track careers revolve around flying planes, not sitting in underground bunkers baby-sitting nuclear-armed missiles.” Blair is co-founder of Global Zero, an international group that advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons.

– edited from The Associated Press, May 8, 2013
PeaceMeal, May/June 2013

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Queen Noor presses U.S. to reduce nuclear stockpile

Insisting “every nuclear weapon is a catastrophe waiting to happen,” Queen Noor of Jordan said on March 5 that President Barack Obama must make good on a pledge he made in Prague in April 2009 to reduce the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. The queen said it was incumbent on the United States to work in concert with Russia to reduce both countries’ nuclear arsenals in a process that could then coax other nuclear states to begin to disarm as well. “If we do not seize this moment, it may be impossible to rein in the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world,” Queen Noor said in an interview.Queen Noor is the American-born widow of King Hussein, who ruled Jordan from 1952 until his death in 1999, and the leader of Global Zero, an international organization working to eradicate nuclear weapons around the world.

The queen acknowledged that the nuclear ambitions of states like North Korea and Iran complicated Global Zero’s mission. But she said she was “profoundly concerned” at the prospect of the U.S. taking military action to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. President Obama has refused to rule out military action to stop Iran’s nuclear capability, even as the U.S. has imposed crippling sanctions to pressure Iran to end its ambitions.

– edited from Yahoo News, March 6, 2013
Peacemeal, March/April 2013

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Nuclear black market extant in former-Soviet Georgia

Desmond Butler

BATUMI, Georgia – Despite years of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars spent in the fight against the illicit sale of nuclear contraband, the black market remains active in the countries around the former Soviet Union. The radioactive materials, mostly left over from the Cold War, include nuclear bomb-grade uranium and plutonium, and dirty-bomb isotopes like cesium and iridium.

The extent of the black market is unknown, but a steady stream of attempted sales of radioactive materials in recent years suggests smugglers have sometimes crossed borders undetected. Since the formation of a special nuclear police unit in 2005 with U.S. help and funding, 15 investigations have been launched in Georgia and dozens of people arrested.

Six of the investigations were disclosed publicly for the first time by Georgian authorities. Officials with the U.S. government and the International Atomic Energy Agency declined to comment on the individual investigations, but President Barack Obama noted in a speech earlier in 2012 that countries like Georgia and Moldova have seized highly enriched uranium from smugglers. Four of the previously undisclosed cases, and a fifth — an arrest in neighboring Turkey announced by officials there — occurred in 2012. One from 2011 involved enough cesium-137 to make a deadly dirty bomb, officials said.

Also, Georgian officials see links between two older cases involving highly enriched uranium, which in sufficient quantity can be used to make a nuclear bomb. There’s no plausible reason for looking for black-market uranium other than for nuclear weapons.

The arrests in the casino resort of Batumi stand out for two reasons: They suggest there are real buyers, while many of the other investigations involved stings with undercover police acting as buyers. And they suggest that buyers are interested in material that can be used to make a nuclear weapon.

“Real buyers are rare in nuclear smuggling cases, and raise real risks,” said nuclear nonproliferation specialist Matthew Bunn, who runs Harvard’s Project on Managing the Atom. “They suggest someone is actively seeking to buy material for a clandestine bomb.”

Georgia’s proximity to the large stockpiles of Cold War-era nuclear material, its position along trade routes to Asia and Europe, the roughly 225 miles of unsecured borders of its two breakaway republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the poverty of the region may explain why the nation of 4.5 million has become a transit point for nuclear material. Georgian officials say the radioactive material in 2012’s five new cases all transited through Abkhazia, which borders on Russia and has Russian troops stationed on its territory.

Russia maintains that it has secured its radioactive material — including bomb-grade uranium and plutonium — and that Georgia has exaggerated the risk because of political tension with Moscow. But while the vast majority of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and radioactive material has been secured, U.S. officials say that some material in the region remains loose.

U.S. efforts to prevent smuggling have prioritized bomb-grade material because of the potential that a nuclear bomb could flatten a U.S. city. But security officials say an attack with a dirty bomb — explosives packed with radioactive material — would be easier for a terrorist to pull off. And terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, have sought the material to do so. A study by the National Defense University found that the economic impact from a dirty bomb attack of a sufficient scale on a city center could exceed that of the September 11, 2011, attacks on New York and Washington.

The U.S. government has been assisting about a dozen countries believed to be vulnerable to nuclear smuggling, including Georgia, to set up teams that combine intelligence with police undercover work. The Batumi investigation started after the arrest of two men in the city of Kutaisi in February 2011 with a small quantity of two radioactive materials stolen from an abandoned Soviet helicopter factory, according to Georgian officials.

The Georgian smuggling cases suggest that the trade in radioactive materials is driven at least in part by poverty and the lingering legacy of Soviet corruption in a hardscrabble region. Georgian officials say that because of U.S. backed counter-smuggling efforts, organized crime groups seem to have concluded that the potential profit from trade in these materials doesn’t justify the risk. But individuals sometimes conclude they can make a quick buck from radioactive material.

For instance, in one newly disclosed case last year, authorities arrested two Georgian men with firearms, TNT and a lethal quantity of cesium-137. One was a former Soviet officer in an army logistics unit, who told police that at the end of his service in the early 90s, he had made a second career stealing from the military.

Poverty and corruption also appear to have played into three smuggling incidents in 2003, 2006 and 2010 that involved bomb-grade highly enriched uranium. The two smugglers in the 2010 case were Sumbat Tonoyan, a dairy farmer who went bankrupt, and Hrant Ohanian, a former physicist at a nuclear research facility in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. In separate interviews, each man talked of financial hardship. Ohanian said his daughter needed urgent medical care that he couldn’t afford, and Tonoyan said a bank had seized his house after his dairy factory collapsed.

The men also claimed they believed the material they were selling was to be used for scientific work, not nefarious purposes. Ohanian said a Georgian contact, who was also arrested, told him relations with Moscow were so bad that Georgian scientists could not get the uranium they needed from Russia on the open market.

The men are serving sentences of 13 and 14 years at a prison about 25 miles outside Tbilisi.

– edited from The Associated Press, December 9, 2012
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2013

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Reducing the threat of nuclear Armageddon
President Obama should heed calls for deeper cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal

President Obama achieved a major foreign policy goal in 2010 when he concluded the New START treaty committing the U.S. and Russia to reduce the size of their long-range nuclear arsenals by a third within six years, to 1,550 warheads on each side. But as the president made clear in remarks at the time, even those cuts didn’t go far enough. The world, he said, wouldn’t be safe from the threat of these genocidalweapons until they were eliminated entirely.

It was to be expected that Mr. Obama’s critics in Congress would dismiss such views as either wishful thinking or as dangerously naive. Yet the president got a powerful endorsements of his belief in May when Gen. James E. Cartwright, a retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the former commander of all U.S. nuclear forces, joined those calling for even deeper cuts in U.S. nuclear warheads than those required by the New START treaty.

“The world has changed, but the current arsenal carries the baggage of the Cold War,” The New York Times quoted General Cartwright as saying. “There is the baggage of significant numbers in reserve. There is the baggage of a nuclear stockpile beyond our needs. What is it we're really trying to deter? Our current arsenal does not address the threats of the 21st century.”

The general, whose long experience in this area lent added credibility to his argument, went on to list some of the reasons why sustaining an enormous arsenal of nuclear weapons we hope never to use can actually undermine rather than strengthen U.S. national security. The threat of a major nuclear exchange with Russia or China, he suggested, has receded to the point where a war with either of them is now more likely to start by accident than as the result of a deliberate attack. Thus, having thousands of weapons on hair-trigger alert would only compound such a mistake, with devastating consequences for both sides. The U.S., he argued, can safely deter those countries with far fewer long-range warheads on alert, on the order to 400 to 500 rather than the 2,200 deployed today.

Moreover, the size of our current arsenal makes it harder for us to persuade smaller nuclear powers, such as Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea, to restrain their weapons programs. It strains the credibility of our arguments that states like Iran should unilaterally give up their purssuit of a suspected nuclear weapon program when we insist on maintaining huge stockpiles of our own. And it makes our efforts to prevent the spread of such weapons, at a time when the most immediate threat to our security comes from the possibility of a nuclear device falling into terrorists’ hands, appear hypocritical and self-serving.

Mr. Obama clearly would like to be remembered by history as the president who led the world a step closer to the ultimate goal of complete nuclear disarmament. That goal may not be achievable today. Yet while we work toward it, humanity’s future hinges on managing the existing risks posed by these terrible instruments of death and destruction, which for the first time in history have given our species the power to annihilate itself and all life on the planet. Any significant progress the president can make toward mitigating that danger would go far toward justifying the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded soon after taking office.

Mr. Obama made a start toward fulfilling the Nobel Committee’s high expectations when he followed up the New START treaty with a thoroughgoing revamping of American nuclear strategy, announced in April, that substantially narrows the conditions under which the United States would use nuclear weapons. If he truly wishes to be remembered as a peacemaker, sharply reducing the number of such weapons in the U.S. arsenal — thereby leading other countries to do the same — should be one of the first orders of business for the remainder of his term in office.

– edited from an editorial in The Baltimore Sun, May 20, 2012
PeaceMeal, July/August 2012

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)