February 14, 2008

Senator Calls B-52 Nuke Incident 'A Wake-Up Call'

Senator Calls B-52 Nuke Incident 'A Wake-Up Call'

Thu, 14 Feb '08

Committee Grills USAF For Accidental Flight

Despite assurances from US Air Force officials the chances of a nuclear accident were "very, very unlikely," this week the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee slammed the service for last year's cross-country flight of a B-52 loaded with nuclear-tipped missiles.

Michigan Senator Carl Levin told Air Force officers the accidental flight was an unprecedented security failure, reports The Associated Press. "This event is really a wake-up call," he said. "As long as the United States has nuclear weapons they must be handled with the utmost security and attention."

As ANN reported, 70 Air Force airmen were punished for their involvement in the August 29-30, 2007 cross-country flight of a nuclear-armed B-52 bomber after an investigation found rules for handling such munitions were ignored. The aircraft flew from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Louisiana's Barksdale Air Force Base, carrying six Advanced Cruise Missiles with nuclear warheads.

Only the missiles were to be transported; the warheads were supposed to be removed prior to the flight, but that wasn't done. Furthermore, no one noticed the mistake until over a day after the flight.

Among the highest rank to receive punishment was 5th Bomb Wing commander at Minot -- Col. Bruce Emig, who served as the base commander since June. Four officers were also relieved of their commands.

"This was the result of a lack of attention to detail and lack of adherence to well-established Air Force guidelines, technical orders and procedures," Lt. Gen. Daniel Darnell, director of Air Force operations and planning, testified before the committee Tuesday. "There was never an unsafe condition."

Former Air Force chief Larry Welch added it was "very, very unlikely" plutonium from the warheads could have been released if the aircraft had crashed.

Despite those statements, however, several other senators drilled the point home during the hearing. Florida Senator Bill Nelson blamed "sloppiness and lack of discipline" for the incident, while South Dakota Senator John R. Thune said he was concerned the accidental flight is a sign nuclear safety protocols are slipping with the passage of time.

"This illustrates everyone is human, but we cannot tolerate mistakes," Thune added.

Levin continued to take a hard line, calling the loading of the missiles -- each carrying a warhead with 10 times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima -- "a significant failure.

"While historically there have been nuclear weapons accidents, with varying degrees of severity, no breach of nuclear procedures of this magnitude has ever occurred," Levin said. The senator went so far as to assert such inattention to security, "with few exceptions," is common within the Defense Department.

In an interview with the AP earlier this month, current Minot commander Col. Joel Westa -- who replaced Col. Emig -- took issue with anyone who would claim security is lax under his watch. He stressed no nuclear weapons will be moved without his knowledge, and "more robust" procedures are now in place to track the locations of those weapons.

"Our goal in this line of work is not to make errors. Our goal is perfection," Westa said. "It's one of those missions where the tolerance is very low for error. In fact, it is zero."

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