WASHINGTON, D.C.– The Pentagon has moved to classify the safety records of its nuclear weapons operations, a segment of the military with a long history of failed inspections, near-catastrophic accidents, security lapses and low morale.
Pentagon officials have stated that the decision was made in order to avoid disclosing too much information about U.S. nuclear capabilities to the public, despite the fact that the Pentagon has never suggested that reporting on nuclear inspection results could compromise nuclear security.
The Pentagon has also failed to inform the public about the change in classification. The decision was apparently made years ago in 2014, after an internal investigation into the program’s safety flaws conducted that same year secretly recommended that future inspections be hidden from the public. The change did not become known publicly until after an Air Force office posted a June 14 notice online which stated that the overall results of a nuclear inspection could no longer be included in any unclassified personnel documents.
Navy Captain Greg Hicks, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Associated Press that the military is “comfortable with the secrecy,” adding that the decision helps ensure that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, the U.S. will maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear stockpile.”
However, prior to the classification of nuclear weapon safety reports, inspections regularly revealed major flaws in the U.S. nuclear program. The Pentagon’s decision has raised the suspicion of critics, who argue that the program’s history of poor inspection results was what really prompted the move.
Rick Perry oversees US nuclear weapon safety but at least we get public reports WHAT DO YOU MEAN THEY'RE SECRET NOW?https://t.co/EI7A51Bhjh
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Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists, told The Associated Press that “The whole thing smells bad. They’re acting like they have something to hide, and it’s not national security secrets. I think the new policy fails to distinguish between protecting valid secrets and shielding incompetence. Clearly, nuclear weapons technology secrets should be protected, but negligence or misconduct in handling nuclear weapons should not be insulated from public accountability.”
Indeed, the nuclear weapons program is rife with examples of deep-seated problems and incompetence. For instance, in the 2000s, the Air Force suffered several “mishaps,” such as when they mistakenly transported live nuclear weapons across the country or when they accidentally shipped nuclear triggers to Taiwan. Investigations into these incidents led to the firing of some of the Air Force’s highest-ranking officials. Several other commanders in charge of key aspects of the nuclear program have been fired for misconduct and criminal offenses, while several ICBM launch personnel were found to have cheated on officer proficiency tests.
Furthermore, key nuclear weapon laboratories have been found to have major safety flaws, including Los Alamos National Laboratory. According to the Center for Public Integrity, internal government documents show that safety lapses at Los Alamos are common, including spilled plutonium and workers incorrectly positioning plutonium rods. Another nuclear weapon site, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, leaked an estimated 3,500 of radioactive waste into the environment just last year.
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Inspection reports themselves have exposed other problems, such as security lapses, flawed training, low morale and occasional poor performance. The Associated Press reported on such flaws in 2013 and 2014, ultimately leading to the investigation that recommended that such reports no longer be made publicly available.
In addition, the Pentagon has a long-standing practice of hiding the U.S. nuclear arsenal’s most outrageous safety flaws from the public, even when they nearly caused the destruction of entire states. For instance, the Pentagon kept documents detailing the 1961 Goldsboro incident a secret until it was obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2013. The documents revealed that the U.S. Air Force nearly detonated an atomic bomb 260 times more powerful than that used on Hiroshima over the state of North Carolina.
The incident took place when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina – one of which nearly detonated, save for the failure of one low-voltage switch. An internal report issued 8 years after the incident found that the bombs had inadequate safety controls and that the final switch could easily have been shorted by an electrical jolt, putting millions of lives at risk.
However, despite the dodgy safety track record of its nuclear weapons program, the U.S. has continued to publicly deny that its arsenal has ever put American lives at risk due to safety flaws. Such denials will undoubtedly become much easier for the military to stand behind following the classification of the nuclear weapon inspection reports.
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