Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear-Safety Secrets Endanger Public

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Our most destructive weapon is the nuclear bomb. Rigorous procedures for care and storage make the complicated weapon difficult to maintain safely.

To protect the nation and set an example for the world, the United States should publicize safety records for nuclear weapons. It should do so as the inventor of the atomic bomb, as the leader in weaponry and to set a verifiable safety standard for the few countries that have nuclear bombs.

The Pentagon has done the opposite.

In March, the office of Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued an instruction to classify the results of nuclear inspections, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.

The new policy will make certain that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, the U.S. will maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear stockpile,” said the Joint Chiefs’ spokesman, Navy Capt. Greg Hicks.

Nonsense. With the people of the U.S. blocked from knowledge of the military’s nuclear-safety performance, they will have no facts — no leverage — to use when imploring their representatives, senators and president to protect them from dangerous stockpile practices.

WITNESS

History shows the need for keeping the public’s eye on nuclear-weapon safety.

In 1980, a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile exploded in its underground silo outside of rural Damascus, Arkansas. A crew member working on the missile dropped an eight-pound socket for a wrench. It fell 80 feet before hitting the missile’s fuel tank and puncturing it. Fuel spewed in an incendiary cloud of vapor. Poor communication and disjointed decision-making delayed repair efforts. The missile exploded 8½ hours later. Its 9 megaton nuclear warhead flew 600 feet and landed 100 feet from the compound’s gate. One Air Force member was killed and 21 were injured. In 1978, a large cloud of toxic oxidizer escaped the same silo and drifted over U.S. Highway 65.

In 2011 at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a promotional effort broke one of the cardinal rules of nuclear safety. Los Alamos Lab created the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb. Despite that history and the deep knowledge of many at the lab, technicians lined up eight plutonium rods side-by-side for a photograph. Such rods must always be kept apart to avoid spontaneous fission that can result in a lethal flash of radiation. Thankfully, a supervisor stumbled across the photo shoot and put a stop to it. However, the manner in which the display was dismantled increased the danger. The lab halted its handling of plutonium in 2013 to retrain its workers on safety standards.

In June, Los Alamos Lab shipped weapon-related nuclear material to California and South Carolina by air transport, reported the National Nuclear Safety Administration. Such shipments should be sent by ground transport to avoid loss of containment. In 1994, an Army depot in California sent plutonium to the lab by FedEx air shipment. In 2005, a FedEx package sent by a Los Alamos Lab researcher to a Pennsylvania lab resulted in radioactive contamination from the americium within.

Many reports about nuclear-weapon materiel not under military control remain open to the public because of oversight by separate governmental agencies. The Pentagon should understand that forthright safety information benefits the public and leads to improved security.

INDEPENDENT STUDY

Many more examples of dangerous circumstances at nuclear-weapon stockpiles and laboratories have been documented. The Pentagon’s secrecy effort will blind the public to future risks.

“Trust and confidence of the people is the coin of the realm for leaders and nations,” former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the AP. “That requires an openness, even on sensitive issues. Certain specifics must always stay classified for national-security reasons but should be classified only when absolutely necessary. When you close down information channels and stop the flow of information, you invite questions, distrust and investigations.”

In 2014, problems with nuclear-weapon safety led Hagel to order an independent study to find solutions.

Despite Hagel’s warnings against secrecy, the new policy classifying safety results has a connection to the study he commissioned.

In conjunction with the study, the Pentagon recommended in 2014 that the Air Force “adopt the Navy’s policy” of classifying the results of nuclear-weapon inspections, said Hicks, the Joint Chief’s spokesman.

Besides Hagel, who commented on governmental secrecy generally, the AP spoke with an independent expert.

“The new policy fails to distinguish between protecting valid secrets and shielding incompetence,” said Steven Aftergood, who specializes in governmental secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. “Clearly, nuclear-weapon-technology secrets should be protected. But negligence or misconduct in handling nuclear weapons should not be insulated from public accountability.”

The Pentagon knows that classifying the results of nuclear-weapon-safety evaluations protects no information of value from enemies. It only averts the eyes of those it serves: the people of the United States. In military parlance, this is a CYA maneuver.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Dunford should order all military nuclear-weapon-safety results to be made public.

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