September 05, 2007

Oopsie! Nuke-Equipped B-52 Flies Over Midwest Last Week

Any of you Midwestern folks out there have a funny feeling last week? You know, that something might have fallen out of the sky? Nope, no reason. Just askin'. From WIRED News:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A B-52 bomber was mistakenly armed with six nuclear warheads and flown for more than three hours across several states last week, prompting an Air Force investigation and the firing of one commander, Pentagon officials said Wednesday. The incident was so serious that President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were quickly informed and Gates has asked for daily briefings on the Air Force probe, said Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell. He said, "At no time was the public in danger."

Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the mishandling of the weapons "deeply disturbing" and said the committee would press the military for details. Rep. Edward J. Markey, a senior member of the Homeland Security committee, said it was "absolutely inexcusable. Nothing like this has ever been reported before and we have been assured for decades that it was impossible." ...

The plane was carrying Advanced Cruise Missiles from Minot Air Force Base, N.D, to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on Aug. 30, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a Defense Department policy not to confirm information on nuclear weapons. The missiles, which are being decommissioned, were mounted onto pylons on the bomber's wings and it is unclear why the warheads had not been removed beforehand.
This reminds me of an apocryphal story/urban legend I once heard regarding a nuclear near-catastrophe that supposedly occurred at Plattsburgh Air (NY) Force Base - once a strategic missile site - in the late 1980's, where a technician accidentally armed an ICBM warhead during routine maintenance. Allegedly, the error was discovered and corrected only minutes before the warhead was set to detonate.

I haven't found any independent evidence to corroborate the story, but it still gives me the willies to think what might have happened: at the time was living in Plattsburgh, barely a mile from the facility.

January 21, 2007

California Truck Crash Load Contained 4g Plutonium

If you think all the hazardous radioactive material being transported across the country is safeguarded - or at least properly packaged and prepared for shipment on public thorofares - think again. The circumstances of last Tuesday's truck crash near the Mojave National Preserve are truly frightening if they're any indication of how carelessly lethal materials like plutonium might be traveling, perhaps in a vehicle rolling alongside you. From the San Bernadino Sun:
Baking soda, bunk beds, fire extinguishers - and a drum with plutonium-238. The truck that crashed Tuesday near Needles [CA] with a load of radioactive waste was a plain old commercial truck carrying plain old products.

When emergency workers checked the truck's manifest they were surprised that radioactive material was being shipped with ordinary goods. "This, in and of itself, is very alarming," said San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty, who also directs his agency's hazardous materials unit. Government and industry officials say shipping radioactive materials by commercial carriers is a perfectly safe, perfectly routine practice. The containers, the routes and the shipping companies are all heavily regulated, and there has never been an accident that resulted in a release of radiation, they said.

The radiation emitted by the truck's amount of plutonium-238 is trillions of times more than is allowed in drinking water, Brierty said. The four grams of plutonium involved in the crash would be roughly the volume of a pencil eraser. But that amount kicks out more than 60 curies, a measure of radioactivity.
In contrast, the drinking water standard is 15 picocuries per liter, or 15 trillionths of one curie.
The truck, pulling two trailers, crashed into a guardrail on eastbound Interstate 40, rupturing the tractor's fuel tank and causing the rear trailer to overturn and split open. The driver was unhurt. Part of the freeway was shut down for 18 hours. The heavily shielded, 500-pound, 55-gallon drum with the plutonium was in the front of the damaged trailer, California Highway Patrol Officer Michael Callahan said. The entire cargo had to be unloaded to get at the drum.

The drum was undamaged, and there was no leakage of radiation. [But,] "What the hell is that doing in that truck?" said Robert Halstead, an expert in the transportation of nuclear waste. [read full article]