The US Moves Nukes in Booby Trapped Tractor Trailers Straight Out Of An Action Movie
The special trailers, with defenses such as sticky goo and electrified handles, unfortunately belong to a troubled agency.
On July 25, 1991, drivers traveling south along Highway 83 past Bismark, North Dakota came across an odd sight, a seemingly innocuous tractor trailer truck stopped along the road, guarded by police and heavily armed federal agents and leaking smoking goop. What local residents didn’t necessarily know – and the Department of Energy wouldn’t tell them at the time – was that they had seen a specialized truck for discreetly carrying nuclear weapons and other radioactive cargoes. These tractor trailers are booby trapped with countermeasures such as immobilizing foam and self-destruct systems, which all sound right out of a Hollywood blockbuster. They belong to the Office of Secure Transportation (OST), which has a checkered record of safety and disciplinary issues.
OST traces its history specifically to 1975, when the Energy Research and Development Administration created the Transportation Safeguards Division. This eventually became OST, now part of the larger National Nuclear Security Administration, who continues to be in charge of moving America’s most dangerous weapons and other hazardous nuclear material “of strategic amounts” safely around the country. Before that, there were a variety of different organizations that handled disparate nuclear transportation operations.
“There are several things going on where the truck is and we’re looking at that area,” was the cryptic response Ben McCarty, a Department of Energy spokesperson, gave the Bismark Tribune when they asked for answers following the 1991 incident. “We have operational responsibility for the vehicles and we’re checking it thoroughly.”
Given the sensitivity of the cargo, which remains classified, McCarty no doubt wouldn’t or couldn’t divulge much else. According to a heavily redacted declassified version of the official incident report, he was also speaking in such vague language in no small part because no one exactly knew what had happened initially. Martin Pfeiffer, a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico researching nuclear weapons, obtained a copy of the record and graciously posted it online.
The Department of Energy’s internal review says all that was immediately clear to the guards at the scene was that the truck’s elaborate protective features had gone off inadvertently. Everyone was in such a hurry to get the classified cargo out of the area that they sealed everything up, got it mobile, and rushed it off to nearby Minot Air Force Base for further evaluation.
OST teams train to rapidly extract their cargo, which can include nuclear warheads, from any potentially hazardous situation. An official Department of Energy video, seen below, actually shows personnel almost comically throwing mock nuclear warheads from a truck during a training exercise in their haste to get it to safety. Of course, the design of these devices is such that they are supposed to survive plane crashes and other hazards, so the danger in this tactic is probably less serious than it might appear.
The specialized tractor trailers are only one part component of OST convoys, as well. These will also include additional unmarked support vehicles, usually a combination of dark sport utility vehicles or vans outfitted with satellite communications equipment and modified suspensions, cargo pods, and heavy duty bumpers, that carry additional security and support personnel with other weapons and equipment to help respond to emergencies.
The exact specifications of the trailers themselves are highly classified, but thanks to the details included in the declassified review, an in-depth investigative report on the OST by the Los Angeles Times in March 2017, and other official documents, we have a good idea of its basic configuration. The very real feature list reads like a cross between one of James Bond’s cars and a G.I. Joe play set.
Together with their unique trucks, OST's personnel are “a little bit 007, with maybe a dash of Rambo, but maybe the smarts and technology of a Tom Clancy hero,” George Knapp, a reporter and local TV news icon with Las Vegas' CBS Channel 8, told viewers. "OST won't say what kind of firepower each convoy carries, but it is considerable. There are high tech surprises inside the vehicles."
The Safe Secure Trailer, or SST, was the initial design, which was involved in the 1991 incident in North Dakota, and had “enhanced structural supports and a highly reliable tie-down system to protect cargo from impact; heightened thermal resistance to protect the cargo in case of fire; [and] deterrents to protect the unauthorized removal of cargo,” according to one Department of Energy report. The included dispensers on the interior walls that release a sticky, adhesive-like foam that would immobilize intruders, an emergency braking system to halt the vehicle, a set of explosive bolts to sheer the axles and prevent thieves from towing it away, and a means of filling the rear compartment with choking tear gas.
The empty SST, which looks like a standard dry freight semi-trailer on the outside, weights 40,000 pounds. The maximum loaded weight is 55,000 pounds, including nearly two pounds of explosives. Inside, the cargo itself would sit within another armored container that further impedes any attempts to steal the contents.
A specially modified and armored Marmon Motors tractor towed the whole arrangement and contained additional communications and tracking equipment to keep the driver and guards on board in constant, secure contact with the rest of the vehicles in the convoys, OST headquarters, and other federal and state authorities. The cab contained controls to activate the various deterrent countermeasures remotely.
It’s likely that what witnesses saw was the foam leaking from the trailer’s walls and the tear gas seeping out of the cargo compartment. The OST security force commander later gave a similar description of the situation to the Department of Energy reviewers. The foam is reportedly of limited toxicity, but we can’t comment on this without knowing what’s in it.
According to public news reports, first responders built a dam of gravel around the pool, a common procedure for containing hazardous materials. Still, possibly due to concerns about latent radioactivity, a HAZMAT team from Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico subsequently arrived to properly secure and dispose of the material.
Thankfully, the incident appeared to be minor and did not pose a public health threat. Still, the investigation collected a series of relatively damning notes about shoddy quality control in the basic design and manufacture of the trailers in the first place.
In particular, after poring over the incident, investigators found a fault in one part, called the MA-157, which had gone unnoticed since the first trailers rolled off the conversion line more than a decade earlier. Censors redacted what this part is exactly, but it appears to be part of the circuitry that controlled the defensive countermeasures.
“Potential spurious output by the MA-157 units was an unknown failure mode prior to the testing and analysis that followed the July 25, 1991, premature activation,” the subsequent review explained. “This premature output could be a function of the age of these units.”
OST began receiving the SSTs in the 1970s. However, this explanation seemed unlikely.
“The original drawings of the MA-157s contain errors (such as a resistor values), which were not detected until the July 26, 1991, activation,” the report continued. “The problem stems from inadequate configuration control, verification of accuracy, etc. during the design process.”
These inaccurate drawings meant that even if the original components had arrived assembled as intended, maintenance crews had likely been inadvertently repairing and reinstalling them wrong ever since. It might’ve seemed a wonder that there hadn’t been more accidents, except that there had been, even just in 1991.
A month before the breakdown in North Dakota, another convoy driving through Kansas saw two of its three SSTs suffer a malfunction in their emergency braking system. One of these trailers was the same one that broke down near Bismark.
On July 26, 1991, the day after the incident under review, the braking units in yet another trailer went off prematurely. Technicians linked that failure to a missing resistor in the MA-157.
The Department of Energy concluded that the root cause of the incident was “less than adequate” quality assurance and risk assessments in the development and design of the SST’s electrical components. The unclassified recommendations included the need for a full review of the state of the existing trailers, higher and more consistent maintenance standards, and processes to prevent these sorts of mistakes in the future.
It ultimately cost the Department of Energy $800,000 to recover the cargo from the trailer, clean it out and refurbish it, and dispose of the apparently hazardous waste material from the three phase recovery process. Afterwards, the SST went back into service.
We don’t know how many of the investigations final recommendations the Department of Energy implemented or how thorough the processes were in the end. In the 1990s, OST did begin getting new trailers to replace the aging SSTs. These new trailers were dubbed Safeguards Transporters, or SGTs. New tractors were also added.
From what we know, the SGTs have many of the same features as the older SSTs, which are still there "to deter, surprise, and delay even the most aggressive adversary," according to the official OST film presentation. A system to deliver electric shocks appears to have replaced the older tear gas countermeasures, but the foam-filled walls are still a component of the newer design, according to the Los Angeles Times report. There are likely other systems we don't know about as well.
As with the SSTs, the outward appearance of the trailers, as well as their new Peterbilt armored tractors, are designed to be unassuming and not draw much attention. Sandia National Laboratories converted the first Peterbilt in 2000 and they were a good addition, since Marmon went out of business in 1997 and those tractors are a rare sight these days. The new trucks were significantly more comfortable for long haul operations, with an extra foot of headroom, more modern air conditioning systems, and other improvements.
Unfortunately, the problems with the SSTs seem to underscore serious and persistent issues within OST itself and may be coming up again with the newer SGTs. According to the Los Angeles Times, more than half of the 42 trailers OST has in operation are more than 15 years old and all of them have exceeded the Department of Energy’s own life expectancy estimates for the system.
The department is running a $670 million project to develop a replacement trailer, called the Mobile Guardian, but doesn’t expect it to be in operation until 2023. Beyond old equipment and poor oversight in its upkeep, the Los Angeles Times piece delves deeper into issues of neglected budgets, low morale, toxic leadership, and high turnover and it’s worth reading in full.
The expose painted a dismal picture of an overworked and underpaid organization where over a third of the personnel would put in more than 900 hours of overtime each year, equal to more than 35 extra days on the job. Couriers and agents spend most of that time on the road on long, boring drives unable to stop for protracted periods or even leave their vehicles in many circumstances. If they get pulled over by local law enforcement for some reason, the truck drivers aren't even allowed to speak to the police without the security force commander being present during the conversation.
Underscoring these issues, in 2010, the Department of Energy's Inspector General cataloged 16 alcohol-related incidents within OST in the preceding three years, including an incident of public intoxication where a courier was arrested and another where two employees ended up in police custody after getting into a drunken bar brawl. The report uncovered New Mexico court records showing the office's top executive had gotten a DUI after police came across him parked on a sidewalk apparently drinking in the car with a blood alcohol level of 0.15 percent.
A sleep deprived, irritable, heavy drinking workforce is not a good thing in most circumstances, but it seems especially worrisome when it comes to OST's mission. According to an earlier report by Mother Jones in 2012, the office had also uncovered the widespread use of "unauthorized firearms," possibly privately owned personal guns, and at least one instance where an agent had bought weapons and other gear on behalf of the organization only to illegally resell the items.
OST has generally rejected these criticisms, pointing out that its personnel have never lost a cargo for any reason. The organization has only suffered one severe accident, in 1996, when a truck towing an SGT skidded off any icy road in Nebraska and flipped over. There are, of course, the incidents in the 1990s and another in 2004, where a truck spilled less than a pint of uranyl nitrate, also known as liquified yellow cake uranium, along Interstate 26 in North Carolina.
Still, it is the very idea of moving nuclear weapons around on the ground in the first place that seems as if it may ultimately warrant a review. Underneath all the safeguards and other custom features of its high-tech trailers, OST is still relying on a truck.
In 1987, OST stopped operations of a similarly bland-looking train that ran a route between the Pantex nuclear weapon assembly facility in Texas and various military depots around the country. The Department of Energy also has and continues to employ contract cargo aircraft for some transportation operations, as well as coordinating with the U.S. military for other specialized airlift missions.
“Transportation is the Achilles’ heel of nuclear security and everyone knows that,” Bruce Blair, founder of Global Zero, a nonprofit group advocating for complete nuclear disarmament and a former U.S. Air Force missileer, told the Los Angeles Times for their investigation. “The danger is not a traffic accident – even a fiery crash is not supposed to explode a warhead – but a heist."
“In an age of terrorism, you’re taking a big risk any time you decide to move nuclear material into the public space over long distances via ground transport,” he continued. “Bad things happen.”
From the experience with the SSTs, though, it seems that a breakdown could have serious implications. It exposes the teams to unnecessary risks by stopping their movement suddenly and unexpectedly.
The Los Angeles Times review did not appear to uncover any reports about persistent maintenance issues or serious malfunctions with the newer SGTs, even if they were aging and potentially vulnerable to unspecified newer threats. The improved countermeasures meant that “the trucks will kill you” if you tried to rob one, an unnamed scientist told the newspaper.
Hopefully, the Department of Energy is making progress to address the other long-standing management issues within the OST, as well as to replace the secure transporters before serious problems emerge.
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