When We're Our Own Biggest Nuclear Threat

Last year, two men were handcuffed and detained after a drunken bar incident. Not unremarkable for your average road warrior. Except these two men were federal agents, and their cargo was nuclear weaponry. That's terrifying. And it's happened before.

That might be the most egregious of the alcohol-induced incidents that have plagued America's Office of Secure Transportation the last few years, but it's far from an isolated incident. In 2007, an agent was arrested for public intoxication during a secure transportation mission, and there have been a full sixteen incidents involving those entrusted with transporting our nuclear arsenal from 2007 to 2009 alone.

The Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees OST, points to the fact that its agents have never been found drunk driving, and that there's no systemic problem. But when the people who are driving nuclear materials in the morning are getting drunk enough to be detained/arrested the night before, that's a problem. And systemic integrity is fine for accounting firms, but a single mistake in nuclear transportation is potentially catastrophic.

And that's just two years of alcohol-specific missteps. In 2008, we sent electrical fuses for nuclear missiles to Taiwan. In 2007, six nuclear warheads were transported from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, to Louisiana's Barksdale Air Force Base—by mistake. It's a pattern of mistakes where there's zero room for error.

So why does this happen? And how can we fix it? Double checking our shipping labels would be a nice start. But for the more immediate concern, the news that drinking is a huge temptation for people driving incredibly dangerous materials over long distances, there may not be an easy answer. There's no job that carries with it such a unique combination of stress and boredom, which these agents experience in high enough quantities to drive anyone to the bottle.

That doesn't make it right! But it's something we've been struggling with as far back as the early days of missile defense:

Even more important, its day-by-day success hinged on the dedication of pilots, mechanics, radar operators, and all of the other anonymous personnel who fought off the extreme cold weather and endless hours of boredom to stand guard against an enemy they hoped would never come.

That's what it was like for life as a SAGE operator in the 1950s. And not too far off from what secure transporters face today.

The OST already has a "zero tolerance" policy for alcohol incidents. But when the consequences are so potentially severe, the focus needs to be on prevention more than discipline. There are enough threats to America's nuclear arsenal as it is; the last thing we need is to count the people who handle it among them. [NPR via Gawker]