Exercise missile ‘accident’ shows nuclear readiness by Sandians
An explosion on a Navy loading dock destroyed one Tomahawk missile and dropped a second into 15 feet of water, where it lay buried in mud. Was the water contaminated by radioactive materials? Were air or land contaminated by the plume from the explosion, caused moments earlier by the crash of a small private plane into the dock?
Those questions formed the basis for the elaborate six-day scenario — only partly simulated —that drew 20 Sandians and a number of government agencies to the Navy’s Kings Bay submarine base at the southern end of Georgia for an exercise called Dingo King ’05 from Aug. 22-26.
Real — except for the explosion
The exercise was real except for the initial dock explosion that precipitated the problem. Also, nuclear warheads had been removed from the Tomahawks.
Participants worked 12-hour shifts — some in cumbersome personal protective equipment — in intermittent rainstorms, air thick as soup (daily humidity: 90+ percent), heat in the 90+ degree range, and Hurricane Katrina on the horizon still deciding whether to proceed up the Atlantic coast or enter the Gulf. The melded teams found, raised, dismantled, and prepared the “disarmed” missile for transport to a safe haven.
The exercise revealed the strengths and weaknesses — both bureaucratic and naturally occurring — of the massive attempt at coordinating numerous government agencies to achieve a common task. Most participants at a so-called “hot wash” after the exercise pronounced the exercise an overwhelming success, despite real-world glitches that had to be overcome.
For example, a crucial team called the Accident Response Group (ARG), populated by Sandia (for this exercise, six full-time and 14 volunteer employees), Los Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, and Pantex participants arrived a day late on the scene because a charter plane provided by Ross Aviation — the company contracted to fly the team to an airport in northern Florida — developed real-world problems and could not take off. The team was ferried across the country the next morning by a different carrier.
The delay in arrival of the 70-member main technical group not only slowed work on recovering and safing the weapon but created unease in media simulated at the exercise site. Reporters were frustrated at being unable to get their more technical questions answered by Navy divers or high-ranking Navy players. (Unexpectedly, the most penetrating questioner among the simulated media was Rear Admiral Annette Brown, Commander of Navy Region Southeast, who for 10 minutes played the part of a local reporter.)
On the positive side, the exercise showed that talented people with different protocols could work together. “We felt very welcomed by our Navy hosts,” said DOE site leader Debbie Monette, assistant NNSA manager for national security. That feeling was corroborated by every Sandian that the Lab News interviewed.
One reason for the ready integration, said Tom Laiche, health physicist and manager of Hazardous Waste Management & Lab Services (10334), was that “The EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] military guys were anxious to have the engineers there to explain to them what was happening technically.”
Focused on ‘what goes boom’
The EOD folk, he said, are focused on “what goes boom and how to keep that from blowing up. They know rocket motors, propellants, explosives. They’re not necessarily conversant with the heavy metals, neutron generators, and other specialty inclusions. The radioactive portion may be a little unfamiliar to them.
“Meanwhile, the Labs engineers know what makes it work but they’re not the experts in handling explosive materials.”
Recovery procedures necessarily contrasted with popular movies showing superheroes quickly recovering buried treasure as soon as they find it. Navy divers, having located the missile on their third attempt, needed to develop and present a safe retrieval plan and have it approved before proceeding. This was not, after all, pieces-of-eight but (in exercise terms) an extremely dangerous device. The lift plan was written in tents cooled by five-ton air conditioners brought by the ARG, and then transmitted via broadband fiber optic lines laid by the ARG to temporary headquarters three-quarters of a mile away.
Pressurized water was pumped by a hose through the Bay water to blow off enough mud to insert a strap under one end of the missile and lift it slightly. More high-pressure water cleared off more mud, another strap was inserted and the missile raised higher, steadily overcoming the resistance of the vacuum created in the muck as the weapon lifted.
Connecting real world to ‘hot zone’
Because the potential for radiological disaster was huge, the ARG team brought monitoring equipment and the expertise of nuclear designers who knew exactly how the weapons functioned.
Four on-foot Sandians deployed 3,100 feet of fiber optic cable to link four video cameras in the “hot zone” proscribed to most participants to the command-and-control center.
“It’s a means of connecting the real world to the hot zone,” said ARG member Dave Tenario (12345), who said that fiber was preferred over copper or radio broadcast because there was far less chance of detonating the high explosives.
The portable integrated video system — a key piece of the equipment that Sandia developed — went dark when a vehicle drove over a cable. But the ARG quickly located the problem and got back on line.
“These are all real-world problems,” said first-time participant Brad Mickelsen, manager of Nuclear Safety Assessment (12332), “and we overcame them.”
Speed, he said, was less of an issue than moving without making critical mistakes.
“I think the ARG shined, from a tech expertise perspective. We’re well-respected in the accident community. Our role is significant. From a larger perspective [we field] 75 to 100 people who know their jobs well, not counting people back home supporting us.”
Sandia maintains most ARG gear
Sandia, under the leadership of John Hoffman of Emergency Response System Engineering (12345), maintains the bulk of ARG equipment for all users year round, and is responsible for seeing it gets to emergency sites in a timely manner to help the multi-agency ARG.
Why wouldn’t the Navy divers try to locate the missile — known to have fallen close by the dock — by merely poking in the mud with a stick? “If I poke it, I have to worry about it,” Brad said. “I don’t know how much I’ve sensitized [the high explosives in the weapon].” He said the divers probably used magnetometers to locate the shell of the missile.
Interdepartmental problems occurred when a control line set up by Pantex employees, beyond which authorized plans were needed, ran afoul of Marines attempting to relieve their buddies at a shift change in the designated hot zone area. As the Base nuclear commander later put it, “The Marines did what Marines do,” and cleared the area. For an hour and a half, they would let no participant in. The problem was solved via DoD and DOE discussions and rapid communication to the front lines.
Other failures in communication were noted, as when already-used and thus potentially frayed straps were employed instead of fresh ones to lift the heavy missile out of the mud and lay it on the dock.
Exercise just a step ahead of Katrina
Still, overall coordination was rated by many participants as “exceptionally good.” Members of the ARG were rapidly accepted and integrated with their DoD opposite numbers. Members of the two huge departments, along with participants from FEMA, the FBI, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Environmental Protection Agency, National Transportation Safety Board, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and others cooperated to develop plans, lay out work areas, transmit information, and remove, disassemble, and package dangerous objects.
Mission accomplished, the ARG lifted off in a charter plane nonstop to Albuquerque on
Saturday, six days after activation. The lift-off on
Saturday afternoon was a step ahead of Hurricane Katrina, which had by then veered toward New Orleans.
Visible in the distance and as high as the plane, the hurricane loomed over the normal cloud layer below like the Sandias over Albuquerque. The next morning, it would strike New Orleans, finding terrible gaps in its preparations, despite the city’s FEMA exercises.
To the natural question of how effective the DOE/DoD exercises would be in the event of a real emergency, Tom Laiche responds, “From a purely weapons recovery standpoint, the national labs and the military, teaming together, have exercised together enough that we can recover about any kind of weapon in any kind of configuration.”
The problem he foresees, however, is showing “an immediate and positive reaction to public issues that will be generated.” By this, he doesn’t mean a media presence so much as “immediate government assistance, and people out there doing things.” From a health physicist’s point of view, he says, “I could tell them to go to sleep and don’t worry about it. But from their point of view, their dog will have died, children break out in hives [and they’ll attribute it all to the accident] — it’ll be another Three-Mile Island. If we have a release of radioactivity from a true weapons accident, it will take us a long time politically to recover.”