Page 7


Photo by Ron Wolf road. The “SST” is the truck in the middle of the photograph. The crane at the left belongs to the Air Force. Amarillo at the Hub Moving Bombs, Plutonium By Ron Wolf Denver The temperature was in the 20’s and light snow was expected as Jonny Sappington of Amarillo pulled his government-owned 18-wheeler out of Cheyenne, Wyoming, on the overcast December afternoon. He headed south toward Denver with his highly classified cargo. Three heavily-armed guards followed close behind in a light blue, unmarked Chevrolet Blazer. Two more armed men were in the tractor with him and had shared the driving duties since the crew left Richland, Washington, early the previous day. Despite the threatening forecast, the interstate was still clear and dry, at least for another 40 miles. As Sappington neared Fort Collins, Colorado, the condition of the road rapidly worsened. Fog hung in the low-lying area along the highway, condensing and freezing and coating the pavement with a thick sheet of ice. Sappington slowed his rig as he encountered the first large patch. Moments later he spotted a truck that had overturned about 400 yards ahead. He applied his brakes and tried to avoid the obstruction, but his truck slowly jackknifed and slid onto the media strip. The trailer edged over and came to rest on its side in the ice-encrusted weeds. So many vehicles skidded off the road that day that the local office of the Colorado State Patrol was unable to respond to all the calls. Motorists were advised to come into the office when the weather cleared to fill out accident forms. Another overturned truck would hardly be noticed, but this one was different. It contained a cargo of plutonium, the raw material of nuclear weapons. For the next 18 hours local officials and the media got a rare close-up look at one of the government’s more secretive operations, the transportation of nuclear warheads, unassembled bomb components, and the nuclear ingredients used in the manufacture of these weapons. The disabled truck and its sensitive contents belonged to the U.S. Department of Energy, the agency responsible for developing, manufacturing, and transporting the nation’s nuclear arsenal. DOE’s transportation safeguards division, based in Albuquerque, operates a fleet of more than three dozen customthe one which skidded off the southbound lane . of Interstate 25 with Sappington at the wheel. To escort its shipments, the division employs an elite force of 150 highly trained and heavily armed “couriers,” most of them combat veterans recruited from the military services. Under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, they are authorized to use whatever force is necessary to protect what they occasionally refer to as “the goodies.” Last year DOE’s convoys logged three and a half million miles while moving secret cargos between 100 locations within the United States. Probably, more of those miles were logged in Texas than in any other state. The shipments routinely rolled over most of the interstate highways in Texas and the rest of the country, as well as through most of the major cities. The nuclear ingredients and weapons components are transported almost continuously between the seven privatelyoperated plants and two government laboratories that form the manufacturing complex. The finished bombs are delivered to, or retrieved from, more than 60 Air Force and Navy bases where nuclear weapons are stored or deployed. The hub of this nationwide network is the Pantex nuclear weapons plant east of Amarillo. Components from the other DOE facilities are shipped to Pantex for final assembly, and the completed weapons are shipped from the Texas plant to all the other destinations. At the same time, the flow of weapons also moves the opposite direction. Aging nuclear devices are returned to Pantex from bases around the world for disassembly, and the plutonium components are shipped from Amarillo to Denver for recovery and refabrication. As the center of this extensive transportation system, Amarillo serves as home base for Jonny Sappington and 65 other DOE couriers 40% of the total courier force. So many shipments are made around the country each year \(probably more has a dozen or more convoys on the roads simultaneously in all kinds of weather during all hours of the day and night. Through it all, the transportation safeguards division has maintained a remarkably low profile. Its trucks are externally indistinguishable from the thousands of other unmarked rigs on the roads. The DOE vehicles are specifically THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3