Up in Arms

Published — April 10, 2015

A nuclear weapons courier threatens his colleagues

The National Nuclear Security Administration prepared this map of their main routes for routinely transporting nuclear materials and weaponry in 2008. National Nuclear Security Administration

Repeated misconduct by a squad commander who ferries nuclear bombs and explosives around the country escaped the attention of Energy Department managers, an audit states


A key job requirement for federal agents ferrying nuclear weapons around the United States —no surprise here— is that they shouldn’t have “anger management” issues.

Incidents of “hostility or aggression toward fellow workers or authority [or] uncontrolled anger” represent rules infractions that must be reported to top officials overseeing the nuclear couriers, according to the government’s personnel manual for them.

But the commander of a nuclear courier squad based in Oak Ridge, Tennessee – where the uranium portions of H-bombs are fabricated, stored, and periodically moved to other federal sites – allegedly threatened to kill one of his colleagues two years ago, and senior officials did not learn about it for five months, according to a recent inspection report by the Department of Energy’s top auditor.

Moreover, the commander in question repeatedly engaged in related misconduct, without more senior officials being promptly informed, the report said. “Each of the seven incidents” described by the commander’s colleagues during the auditor’s investigation “involved physical or verbal altercations,” the report said. The misconduct began as long as a decade ago, but it wasn’t reported up the chain of command.

“Additionally, we found that other [courier] agents engaged in unsuitable, reportable behavior,” said the November 2014 account by Energy Department deputy inspector general Rickey R. Hass. His report was initially declared “Official Use Only” by the Energy Department, but was publicly released in recent days in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by a trade publication known as Greenwire.

The commander in question was not named, and he denied “the threat allegation,” the report said. But when senior officials eventually were informed, he was suspended, and today he remains on administrative leave. (A spokesman for the department declined to make him available for an interview.) The report noted that on two other occasions, in 2004 and 2008, the commander got into physical altercations with couriers, according to the accounts of those who worked with him, but senior officials said these also were not properly reported.

The alleged misconduct is embarrassing for a group of military and special forces veterans that arguably performs one of the nation’s most sensitive tasks – securely transporting nuclear bombs and weapons-usable nuclear materials among several dozen government factories, storage sites, and military installations nationwide, such as missile and bomber bases and submarine ports.

The stated mission of the little-known courier group, the Office of Secure Transportation – an entity within the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)— is to “defend, recapture, recover” the bombs or explosives they transport. The unit is proud of never having lost an H-bomb to accident or theft – not even one. A plutonium-carrying truck rolled onto its side in a 1981 Colorado icestorm, and a truck carrying two warheads rolled onto its side in a 1996 Nebraska icestorm, but neither accident released radiation or blew anything up.

The roughly 700 agents that perform this mission generally try to stay under the public’s radar. Highly-trained in small arms and military tactics and sometimes carrying 80 pounds of specialized gear and weaponry, they nonetheless move around without identifying uniforms or telltale signage on their armor-plated vehicles.

The office’s effort to avoid attracting attention has not been terribly good for its budget, however. Funding hasn’t kept up with the group’s needs , according to Energy Department reports that have criticized the department’s deferral of new vehicle purchases and its heavy use of overtime to compensate for recurrent staff shortages. One exception was the office’s purchase a few years back of two Boeing 737’s to complement a fleet of smaller airplanes.

But a long-range planning report by the office in 2012 bemoaned “antiquated facilities” and “deferred maintenance.” And an earlier, 2010 account by Energy Department auditors revealed the existence of 16 “alcohol-related incidents within OST involving current Agents and Agent Candidates” between 2007 and 2009.

Two incidents occurred during transport missions, while the agents lodged at hotels along their routes, the report said. In one, a courier was arrested for being publicly drunk, and in the other, local police wound up handcuffing two couriers who had been drinking at a bar. It said that managers took “what appeared to be appropriate action” in response to these and other incidents ­– they banned kegs at parties in an Arkansas dormitory for candidate agents, among various new rules.

But the report added that “alcohol incidents such as these, as infrequent as they may be, indicate a potential vulnerability in OST’s critical national security mission.” A similar warning appears in the new Inspector General’s report, which states that without better oversight and the prompt reporting of rules infractions, “there is an increased risk that unsuitable individuals could be allowed to protect nuclear weapons, weapon components and special nuclear material, raising possible national security concerns.”

In a written response to the latest audit report, NNSA administrator Frank G. Klotz said he concurred with these recommendations and that his agency is “in the process of implementing corrective actions.” A spokesman for Klotz, Shelley Laver, added that “OST has and will continue to have very strict politices regarding alcohol use or abuse,” and that it recently began making new tractors to carry nuclear bombs.

This story was co-published with The Daily Beast.

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