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?
"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.
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, 350 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 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.
Proponents say that the most efficient and reliable way to transport nuclear weapons and components is via the interstate highway system—a legacy of President Eisenhower, who pushed to build it as a national defense infrastructure during the Cold War in the 1950s. But Dr. Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor who advised the Clinton White House on how to keep nuclear materials secure, acknowledges that nuclear convoys carry risks. "A transport is inherently harder to defend against a violent, guns-blazing enemy attack than a fixed site is," he says. Moreover, in recent years the OST's nuke truckers have had a spotty track record—including spills, problems with drinking on the job, weapons violations, and even criminal activity.
The OST doesn't employ your typical truck-stop 18-wheeler jockeys; the agency seeks to hire military veterans, particularly ex-special-operations forces. Besides contending with "irregular hours, personal risks, and exposure to inclement weather," agents "may be called upon to use deadly force if necessary to prevent the theft, sabotage or takeover of protected materials by unauthorized persons." At a small outpost in Ft. Smith, Arkansas—the Army base where Elvis was inducted and got his famous haircut—the prospective agents are trained in close-quarters battle, tactical shooting, physical fitness, and shifting smoothly through the gears of a tractor-trailer.