You could be one fender-bender away from nuclear disaster
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Your next fender-bender could involve a thermonuclear weapon.

Every day, nuclear weapons are transported on our nation’s highways by an underfunded agency with an overworked staff, ageing trucks and a desperate lack of attention from Congress.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Secure Transportation (OST) is tasked with operating a fleet of tractor-trailers, staffed by heavily armed couriers, that transport nuclear weapons and components across the nation’s aging highways — often through densely populated areas. But according to a recent report by theLos Angeles Times, the OST has been “struggling with problems of forced overtime, high driver turnover, old trucks and poor worker morale,” for years.

In other words, despite its critical mission of protecting our nuclear warheads from getting hijacked by terrorists, this little-known agency has some serious problems.

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Ralph Vartabedian and W.J. Hennigan point out in their investigation that the agency faces systematic infrastructure issues due to a historical lack of funding from Congress. At $247 million a year, the OST maintains a fleet of trucks that “is antiquated by commercial standards and well past its operational life even under the department’s own guidelines.” Indeed “about half the tractors are more than 15 years old … [and] high-security trailers used by the agency are even older, designed before the current era of terrorist threats.”

 

Unfortunately, that is only half of the problem.

As the Times found, the OST lacks sufficient personnel to meet its requirements, causing its employees to work extensive overtime hours, with many agents logging around 70 hours per week. Furthermore, because of cramped conditions and monotonous work at high-stress levels (after all, protecting nuclear warheads from terrorism, not to mention rush hour traffic, has a tendency to induce stress), agent morale is flagging within the agency.

It gets worse. According to the report:

In 2010, an inquiry by the Energy Department’s inspector general found widespread alcohol problems. It cited 16 alcohol-related incidents over a three-year period, including an agent on a 2007 mission who was arrested for public intoxication and two agents on a 2009 mission who were handcuffed and detained by police after a fight at a bar.

These statistics may not seem like a big deal in isolation, but these are not just any government employees. They are in charge of protecting nuclear warheads, many times more powerful than the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, from terrorist attacks along some of America’s busiest highways.

As Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” says: The problem with nuclear weapons is that human beings control them.

For the OST, the human element ends with its employees, but it begins with Congress.

While Congress has committed to spending $1 trillion on nuclear weapons over the next 30 years, it has severely neglected the OST and its critical role in the nuclear weapons enterprise. As the report says, “after years of lean budgets — and sometimes outright cuts — the agency requested a 19% increase in fiscal 2017, to $283 million. But Congress didn’t approve it, and the agency’s funding for this year is less than what it received in 2012.”

But these cuts, tied with Congress’s commitment to drastically re-capitalize on our nuclear arsenal, will only make the problems with the OST get worse.

Under the $1 trillion spending plan, each part of America’s nuclear arsenal will undergo a major overhaul. This will create a logistics nightmare for nuclear warhead transportation that will reverberate across the Office of Secure Transportation. Thousands of shipments will crisscross the United States, and the OST is the only office that can handle them.

Compounding this problem is Congress's reckless track record of keeping America's roads, highways and bridges safe over the last eight years. Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) grades America’s infrastructure. In 2013, the ASCE gave the U.S. a D+ rating. Congress, under bipartisan pressure, finally passed an infrastructure bill in 2015 (one that was significantly smaller than what President Obama had requested). After that infrastructure bill took effect, the ASCE maintained the D+ rating for the period from 2014-2017.

Even without the threat of terrorism, nuclear weapons traveling along bad roads in busy urban areas should be enough to keep you up at night.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE has made a massive new infrastructure spending project one of his core campaign commitments, but after conservatives balked at his proposed healthcare bill last week ... don’t hold your breath.

Luckily, there’s another solution ­ — one that can relieve pressure on the OST, give Donald Trump a serious policy win, save the U.S. billions of dollars and actually reduce the likelihood of a major nuclear incident on U.S. soil.

Cut the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

This isn’t a radical idea. The United States already possesses nearly half of the world’s nuclear weapons, and the plan to build new nuclear systems is already putting a massive strain on the budget and U.S. conventional military forces. The secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed in the 2012 Nuclear Employment Strategy Review that we could cut our arsenal by a third and still meet our deterrence requirements.

By cutting the size of our nuclear arsenal, the president can solve the nuclear transportation problem. In the short term, the OST is still going to have to move warheads in order to get them to their retirement facilities. But in the long term? Fewer bombs means fewer transport requirements. Fewer transport requirements means less overtime and driver burnout (not to mention a smaller budget). And less driver burnout means fewer chances of having a 475 kiloton nuclear weapon getting involved in a fender-bender on the freeway during rush hour.

 

Geoff Wilson is the policy associate at Ploughshares Fund, where he focuses on U.S. nuclear and military strategy.

Katherine McMullen is a research assistant at Ploughshares Fund.


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