Air Force Unit's Nuclear Weapons Security Is 'Unacceptable'
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2008; A03
The same Air Force unit at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota that was responsible for mishandling six nuclear cruise missiles last August failed key parts of a nuclear safety inspection this past weekend, according to a Defense Department report.
The 5th Bomb Wing was given an "unacceptable" grade in security of nuclear weapons, according to the review by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. In another category, management and administration, it received a grade of "marginal," based on deficiencies in recording changes that affected the operational status of nuclear cruise missiles and gravity bombs.
Those are two areas where failures last summer allowed a B-52 at Minot to be loaded with six air-launched cruise missiles and flown to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana without the pilots, air or ground crews knowing they contained nuclear warheads.
Among the problems found during last week's inspection: Internal security forces did not go to assigned defensive areas during an exercise that involved an attempt to steal a nuclear weapon; security guards failed to search an emergency vehicle that entered and left the nuclear storage area during that exercise; a security guard used his cellphone to play video games while on duty; and guards were unarmed at traffic control points along the route where nuclear weapons were to travel.
While 5th Bomb Wing units received passing grades in the remaining eight categories, agency inspectors concluded that security forces' lack of knowledge of their duties represented "a lack of supervision" and a "lack of training," according to the report.
The test failure was first reported yesterday by Air Force Times.
Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, who has seen the report, said yesterday that "this certainly requires a closer look than we have so far, because these are serious issues."
Maj. Thomas Crosson, spokesman for Air Combat Command, which supervises the 5th Bomb Wing, said yesterday that he would neither confirm nor deny the contents of the defense agency's report. He said they would not be released.
"There are areas identified as needing improvement," Crosson said. He said 5th Bomb Wing units will be reinspected in 90 days by the command's inspector general. In the interim, however, he said the wing will not lose its certification to handle nuclear weapons.
Col. Joel Westa, who took over the wing after last summer's incident, had warned his subordinates that the inspection would be tough. On Thursday, in a commentary on the Minot Air Force Base Web site, he praised two units of the wing that received good grades but made no mention of the poor ones.
After investigations that followed the August incident, the 5th Bomb Wing lost its certification, and personnel at every Air Force base with nuclear weapons had to go through retraining. Five officers, including the 5th Bomb Wing commander, lost their jobs along with some noncommissioned officers.
The Minot unit was recertified two months ago, after increased training and several practice runs.
A day before he is scheduled to visit Reno, presidential candidate John McCain is trying to fool Nevada voters and back off of his longtime support of making Nevada the nation's nuclear waste dump.
McCain, who has consistently voted for the Yucca Mountain project while in the Senate, today said in Denver, "I would seek to establish an international repository for spent nuclear fuel that could collect and safely store materials overseas that might otherwise be reprocessed to acquire bomb-grade materials. It is even possible that such an international center could make it unnecessary to open the proposed spent nuclear fuel storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada." [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/27/AR2008052701367.html]
McCain did not explain how this international repository would work, and it is a disingenuous 180-degree turnaround for the Arizona senator. Not only has McCain voted for the Yucca Mountain dump, but he also admitted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal last May that, if Nevadans are voting for president based on his or her support of Yucca Mountain, then McCain might lose voters in the state.
McCain said, "Well, if that's their defining issue then I certainly understand why they wouldn't." ["Nevada's Litmus Test: Scrutiny increases on Yucca," May 7, 2007, Las Vegas Review-Journal]
He also said in the article, "I think we have to have a place to store the waste. I think that nuclear power has got to be a vital part of our effort to be independent of foreign oil, and I think it's (Yucca Mountain) a suitable place for storage."
An article in last week's Huffington Post also revealed that one of McCain's top media consultants in his current presidential campaign headed up a nationwide push in 2002 to pressure Senators to vote in favor of the nuclear waste dump in Nevada. [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/05/23/mccains-ethical-dilemma-c_n_103216.html]
"John McCain is an unabashed supporter of Yucca Mountain, despite the dire safety concerns associated with the dump. Every time McCain has had an opportunity to make Nevada the nation's nuclear waste dump, he has taken it, with no concerns that Yucca Mountain endangers Nevada's groundwater, or that it would force the unsafe trucking of toxic nuclear waste through communities around the country," said Kirsten Searer, deputy executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party.
"McCain has apparently just realized that his support of Yucca Mountain might cost him a critical swing state, and now he's trying to flip flop," Searer said. "But Nevadans won't let John McCain forget that he has a very clear record of supporting Yucca Mountain."