.News Update 11/14/08

Wyoming Missile Silo Fire Exposes Oversight Problems

November 14, 2008

The U.S. Air Force recently released a report concerning a previously unannounced fire that took place in a Wyoming missile silo on May 23, 2008, but went undiscovered until May 28th. According to an Air Force spokesperson, the fire, which was started by a faulty battery charger and caused $1 million in damages, burned out after an hour or two and posed no threat to the public of radiation or of an accidental launch of the missile. However, the fire was only discovered five days later when a repair crew visited the remotely managed missile silo in order to investigate a signal that indicated a wiring problem.

The missile silo, located about 42 miles east of Cheyenne, Wyoming, was monitored remotely from a control facility several miles removed from the site of the silo. The silo contained the Minuteman III, a warhead containing plutonium, beryllium and uranium and which had the explosive power of more than 30 of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.

Incidentally, one of the largest nuclear-related disasters that occurred in the U.S. was a fire in a Titan missile silo in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1980. Fire ignited the liquid-fueled booster and blew the silo's 750-ton door a quarter mile away. The accident injured 20 people and killed one.

The incident in Wyoming furthers concerns over sloppy activity on the part of the Air Force in safeguarding nuclear weapons. The report of the incident, which was released only recently, indicates flaws in the technical orders for assembling battery charger parts, as well as in the inspection procedures and modifications of the launch-complex ventilation system. The report was also critical of the presence of flammable materials, such as duct tape, being used within the silo. John Pike, a nuclear expert with GlobalSecurity.org, commented, "You also have to wonder if you have this sloppy activity that is revealed by a fire, how much other sloppy activity has not been detected."

Several previous incidents have raised similar concerns about the Air Force's oversight of their nuclear weapons. In 2006, electrical fuses for nuclear warheads were accidentally shipped to Taiwan. In 2007, the Air Force found out that a B-52 bomber had mistakenly been armed with six nuclear missiles on a cross-country flight from an Air Force base in North Dakota to one in Louisiana.

These mistakes and accidents are hardly reassuring in regards to the safety of storing such powerful and potentially dangerous missiles. Since the 1960s, such missiles have been kept on hair-trigger alert, ready for launch within minutes of a presidential order.

With numerous mistakes suggesting that the Air Force is not entirely in control of their nuclear weapons and materials, citizens are concerned about their personal safety. Kennette Benedict, publisher of the "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist," said, "I think what it suggests is there is a laxness about nuclear weapons that's creeping into our military. If we're keeping the missiles on such a high-launch readiness we need to ensure we're keeping them secure and safe."

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