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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 6:00 AM EST

Truck: Aleksandr Volodin/istock; missile: simplesample/shutterstockTruck: Aleksandr Volodin/istock; Missile: simplesample/shutterstock

The mystery surrounding nuke truckers has given rise to conspiracy theories. In May 2008, several locals near Needles, California, reported seeing a fiery blue-green UFO crash. Intrigued by the UFO story, Las Vegas investigative TV reporter George Knapp traveled to the alleged crash site—and stumbled upon a convoy of OST agents.

After some wangling, the agents offered Knapp a look at their trucks and 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 involvement with a UFO, but they confirmed that they spend a lot of time training in and hauling materials out of DOE's Nevada Test Site—adjacent to the fabled Area 51.

As sophisticated as the vehicles apparently are, problems have also cropped up with planning and equipment. A 2007 DOE safety report found that the trucks' emergency checklists in many cases recommended smaller-than-advisable quarantine areas around an accident site, potentially putting bystanders and first responders at risk. In 2002, the DOE approved a plan to haul plutonium parts from Rocky Flats, Colorado, to Savannah River and the Lawrence Livermore nuclear lab in California—using 45-gallon cans that had failed government crush tests. According to internal documents, several DOE engineers worried that if a truck carrying the radioactive cans were "hit by a train" or "hit from behind by a large, heavy vehicle, the crush environment may occur." The plan was scrapped after California anti-nuclear activists obtained copies of the documents through a FOIA request.

Ellenton monument park.: Adam WeinsteinEllenton monument park Adam Weinstein

The stretch of Highway 125 that runs through the middle of the 200,000-acre Savannah River Site is surrounded by a marshy, piney wildlife preserve with periodic gated pull-offs. Occasionally, a massive alien-looking pipeline crosses the roadway, just high enough to let tractor-trailers pass under it. Westbound, beyond the crest of a small hill, steam rises from the site's network of uranium, plutonium, and tritium plants. A series of roadside signs display terse warnings: NO STOPPING OR STANDING FOR NEXT 17.3 MILES, and DO NOT LEAVE HIGHWAY.

There is one sanctioned place to stop midway through the complex—but only during daylight and just for a few minutes, according to the signs. The tiny park has a historical marker commemorating where Ellenton, South Carolina, once existed, before President Truman ordered the town leveled in 1950 for the nuclear site. If ever there was a place to spot a nuke trucker, this is it. Within a moment of parking our car, a red tractor-trailer with a rust-colored shipping container plows by, trailed by two dark Ford Excursions. On the truck's door is painted "O.S.T." It's quickly gone. "Conducting a truck-spotting operation is a big undertaking from a personnel time standpoint," Clements, the nuclear watchdog, had told me before I embarked on the recon.

The Ellenton marker is next to the road, so when the next truck cruises by about 20 minutes later, I snap a picture of the monument with the big rig in the background. Shortly thereafter, a tan pickup truck with government plates pulls out of the guard tower area and up to the empty intersection next to the park. The driver idles and watches us for a long moment before turning and heading up the road.

Another five miles or so west, beyond side roads leading to the 3 Rivers Solid Waste Authority complex and the Wackenhut Security headquarters, we reach the other side of the nuclear complex, and Jackson, South Carolina. Highway 125 becomes "Atomic Road" in the middle of town.

At the BP gas station on the corner of Atomic Road and Silverton Street, I ask the twentysomething cash-register attendant if she's ever seen the nuke truckers or their rigs around town. She sheds her polite smile, giving us and our car out the window a second look. "I wouldn't know anything about that," she says, declining to give her name. "Here's your receipt."

This story had been updated since initial publication. Map production by Tasneem Raja. Sources: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Federation of American Scientists (PDF), Office of the Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Nuclear MattersNuclear Energy Institute, United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, United States Navy.

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