That’s the way the Office of Secure Transportation (OST) wants it. At a cost of $250 million a year, nearly 600 couriers employed by this secretive agency within the US Department of Energy use some of the nation’s busiest roads to move America’s radioactive material wherever it needs to go—from a variety of labs, reactors and military bases, to the nation’s Pantex bomb-assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas, to the Savannah River facility. Most of the shipments are bombs or weapon components; some are radioactive metals for research or fuel for Navy ships and submarines. The shipments are on the move about once a week.
The OST’s operations are an open secret, and much about them can be gleaned from unclassified sources in the public domain. Yet hiding nukes in plain sight, and rolling them through major metropolises like Atlanta, Denver, and LA, raises a slew of security and environmental concerns, from theft to terrorist attack to radioactive spills. “Any time you put nuclear weapons and materials on the highway, you create security risks,” says Tom Clements, a nuclear security watchdog for the nonprofit environmental group Friends of the Earth. “The shipments are part of the threat to all of us by the nuclear complex.” To highlight those risks, his and another group, the Georgia-based Nuclear Watch South, have made a pastime of pursuing and photographing OST convoys.
Proponents say that the most efficient and reliable way to transport nuclear weapons and components is via the interstate highway system—a legacy of President Eisenhower, who pushed to build it as a national defense infrastructure during the Cold War in the 1950s. But Dr. Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor who advised the Clinton White House on how to keep nuclear materials secure, acknowledges that nuclear convoys carry risks. “A transport is inherently harder to defend against a violent, guns-blazing enemy attack than a fixed site is,” he says.
[...] In 1996, a driver flipped his trailer  on a two-lane Nebraska hill road after a freak ice storm, sending authorities scrambling to secure its payload of two nuclear bombs and return them to a nearby Air Force base. In 2003, two trucks operated by private contractors had rollover accidents in Montana and Tennessee while hauling uranium hexafluoride, a compound use to enrich reactor and bomb fuel. (DOE apparently uses some contractors for “low-risk” shipments, while high-security hauling is reserved for OST truckers). In June 2004, on I-26 near Asheville, North Carolina, a truck bound for the Savannah River Site leaked “less than a pint ” of uranyl nitrate—liquefied yellowcake uranium, which can be used to produce bomb components.
None of these incidents resulted in significant danger to locals, according to DOE records. Still, officials in Nevada, raising concerns in 2002 about possible federal shipments of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain , cited the DOE’s own study stating that a “reasonably foreseeable accident scenario” could cause cancer-related deaths. And a bomb or rocket attack on a truck, DOE had projected , could kill 18,000 people and cost $10 billion to clean up. Such concerns led some activists to dub nuke truckers “the axles of evil.”
Forget terrorism for a minute — what about the dangers of a crumbling infrastructure? I would think the fact that OST regularly transports radioactive materials and nuclear warheads throughout the nation on our interstate system in all kinds of weather, through major cities and towns, would be enough to make everyone want to ensure our highway and bridge system is maintained especially well.