19 April 1998
Perspective, ABC News Radio
Correspondent: Solly Granatstein
LEAD-IN: …Imagine shipping something much more dangerous, like nuclear weapons. And imagine shipping them on the highways you and I use. You might think there’d be a tremendous outcry from the public, but you’d be wrong. The people at the forefront of these shipments are alarmed, but they aren’t getting much attention. ABC’s Solly Granatstein has this disturbing story for Perspective.
SOLLY GRANATSTEIN: It’s a sunny day on the interstate in eastern Tennessee. And there among the mini-vans and sports cars are three tractor trailers bearing nuclear bombs or bomb-grade material.
The trucks are unmarked, so the other drivers probably don’t know anything strange is going on. But they’re are part of the Department of Energy’s top secret program to transport nuclear weapons and material, on public roads, throughout the country.
The men who drive in the convoys are called "Road Warriors," because they carry M-16’s and guard the dangerous cargo from theft by terrorists.
NUCLEAR COURIER: "We travel along with the shipments, we escort them in a very secret low key mode. Very inconspicuous to the public."
SG: These are the words of one of the nine nuclear couriers who spoke with us on condition we replace their voices to shield their identity.
COURIER: "We are the line that keeps those catastrophic weapons out of the hands of mad men and crazy people."
SG: But that line may be riddled with holes. An ABC News investigation has revealed a program in disarray. The ‘Road Warriors’ are at war with their own managers over issues ranging from adequate training to radiation exposure. And perhaps most disturbing, ABC has learned that the convoys may not be able to defend themselves against terrorist attack.
Such an attack has never been attempted. But we asked a government security official, what chances a well-organized terrorist group would have of actually stealing a nuclear weapon from a convoy.
SECURITY OFFICIAL: "Based on the current training and the current philosophy of management, they would stand a better than 50-50 chance of being successful."
SG: This official also asked to have his voice disguised.
He adds that even though the courier training drills are unrealistic, the couriers still lose them to mock terrorists two-thirds of the time – a rate that, according to the official, should be more like 20 percent.
The Department of Energy told ABC News that its training is adequate but refuses to release the results of drills, claiming such details are classified. Critics say DOE keeps too much classified, and that this culture of secrecy works to the detriment of the couriers.
JEFF BLACKBURN: "These are not guys that are used to doing that kind of thing."
SG: Amarillo, Texas labor lawyer Jeff Blackburn, who represents a group of couriers, says it’s remarkable that they spoke with ABC, even anonymously:
BLACKBURN: "They’re not used to being outspoken. But they have become that way because of the management problem that exists."
SG: Jim Bailey is one courier who braved official reprisals and went public after the death of his baby daughter, Kelly. She was born with a condition that Bailey believes was the result of his work as a courier.
JIM BAILEY: "She was born with, um, the doctors were calling it neuroplastoma. And she lived about four-and-a-half months."
SG: The doctors were puzzled by baby Kelly’s multiple, very rare brain tumors. When they heard what the father did for a living, they thought there might be a connection. A subsequent test showed that Bailey had sustained chromosomal damage.
The doctors told Bailey he should stop driving until DOE could assure him that the trips were safe – an assurance they never felt they received.
Unlike other personnel who work with nuclear weapons, the couriers don't wear any protective clothing. And their radiation badges don't measure exposure to tritium, one of the three radioactive substances to which couriers may be exposed. Even a recent DOE report concluded that, under current procedures, couriers may be contaminated without anyone knowing it.
So Bailey continued to refuse to go out on trips. In September 1996, he was fired.
BAILEY: "It hurts the fact that I’ve been terminated wrongfully. I was very good at my job. I did what was, what was expected of me."
SG: Two federal courts agreed with Bailey. Last May, a judge ruled that DOE had not adequately provided for Bailey’s safety and ordered the agency to reinstate him. The Energy Department appealed that decision, then lost again on appeal. Despite these losses, DOE manager Rush Inlow denies the Department mishandled Bailey’s case.
RUSH INLOW: "We tried to provide him with reassurance that we were concerned and that we were providing for his safety. He’s a good courier. I wish he were still with us."
SG: Bailey’s lawyer Tom Carpenter is baffled by Inlow’s comment.
TOM CARPENTER: "Mr. Inlow is not being very honest. I don’t think the government wants Mr. Bailey back at his job. They’ve been fighting to keep him fired from his job."
SG: In addition to Bailey, Carpenter represents about a dozen other couriers who were suspended after an ABC News camera crew followed a convoy in Tennessee on February 24th.
CARPENTER: "The drivers were tossed out of work, and they were subjected to interrogation by the FBI, and now they’re looking at possible polygraph interrogations."
SG: Convoys have been trailed before, mainly by anti-nuclear activists, without provoking this level of official fallout.
But the 24th was different. The ABC News team followed the convoy from a place near the entrance of the Oak Ridge facility. But the convoy’s commanders did not notice our camera crew until lunch time, a couple of hours into the journey. DOE managers assumed there was a security breach, that ABC News knew where and when the convoy would stop for lunch.
The mission was aborted; the convoy turned around. Now off the road and denied overtime pay, the couriers’ wages were suddenly cut in half.
The Department of Energy won’t talk about the FBI probe, saying it too is classified.
The current plight of the Oak Ridge Section would seem to pit the couriers’ right against the nation’s compelling need for nuclear security. To the couriers, however, it seems like just another act of retaliation against them by managers who grow vindictive whenever they’re criticized.
COURIER: "The slightest derogatory information about you can have you taken off the road, out of travel status…And most of the time this information doesn’t have to be corroborated…That’s a heck of a deterrent for an individual who might want to come forward and just tell the truth. You’re talking about cutting a guy’s salary in half…and he could possibly lose his job, just for telling the truth."
SG: And it is that truth which some couriers feel is desperately needed if the program, and its security, is ever to improve.
Reporting for Perspective, I’m Solly Granatstein, ABC News, Oak Ridge, Tennessee.