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Decline in focus led to nuclear incident

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By Roger Snodgrass

The Defense Science Board (DSB) finds “a marked decline in the level and intensity of focus on the nuclear enterprise and the nuclear mission,” since 1990 and the end of the Cold War.The board was asked by the Secretary of Defense to provide an independent assessment of events surrounding the unauthorized movement by a B-52 aircraft of live nuclear warheads from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana last year.“The unauthorized weapons movement incident can be a just-in-time rescue if lasting corrective actions are implemented now,” the unclassified report states.Robert Selden, an independent member of the task force that provided 16 recommendations for improving nuclear surety, discussed his role in the report and the larger implications in a telephone interview Monday.Now retired in White Rock, Selden is a former senior manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where his roles included director of the Center for National Security Studies.“I was part of the review group looking not so much at the detail of what happened, but at the root causes and the changes in the policy or process that might be helpful to make sure this thing wouldn’t happen again,” he said.“It was indeed a wake-up call and I suspect this will mean that the procedures and the care that all the people put into it will be carefully done for quite a while now, because everyone realizes the potential for something really dangerous to happen.”Selden said he thought the problem was more serious for the Air Force than for the Navy or the Department of Energy nuclear complex because the Air Force is heavily involved in conventional weapons operations.“They are engaged in shooting wars around the world,” he said. “This makes the nuclear mission an additional duty and means they are not 100-percent focused on the nuclear work.”The report noted that over time, procedures at the bases had been simplified to a “process of concurrent activity.”The breakout crew, for example, was supposed to verify the status of all the cruise missiles loaded on pylons in the storage facility before doing anything else. But the near-inert missiles they intended to pick out are no longer marked by placards placed on multiple sides and surrounded by orange cones.“Over time, the practice at Minot was reduced to an 8  X 10 (inch) piece of paper placed somewhere on the pylon,” the report states.So, the breakout crew inadvertently selected a pylon containing live nuclear warheads. Because of lax procedures, they were hooking up the trailer to the tow vehicle at the same time as they were “verifying” what they were loading.Three other verification opportunities similarly failed to detect the fact that live warheads, not the defused ones, were attached to the bomber to fly across the country.“Some (of the crew) did not interpret ‘verify’ as requiring a physical check,” the report stated.In reviewing related reports from the last 15 years, the study found that “there has been a steady long-term trend minimizing the perceived importance of the nuclear deterrent to national security.”One example from a 1998 DSB report on nuclear deterrence noted that “the most long-term implication is the widespread perception in both the Navy and the Air Force that a nuclear forces career is not the highly promising opportunity of the past era.”Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard from a panel of Air Force generals on the history and root causes of the event, who said a “breakdown of leadership and discipline at the two bases” was to blame for the mistake. Their testimony emphasized corrective actions including efforts to increase the visibility and focus of the nuclear enterprise.“No matter what one thinks about having weapons or their use, if you have them, you have to pay attention,” Selden said, echoing one of the points made by the science board task force.