Gods of Metal

Reading challenge book 3 – A book by an author you’ve never read before

Gods of Metal, by Eric Schlosser

Amazon link here

Gods of Metal was published by Penguin as a standalone book in 2015 as part of the 70-year commemoration of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. This is an expanded version of an article published in the New York Times about nuclear security. It also outlines the history of Plowshares, an pacifist anti-nuclear protest group whose members break into ‘nuclear facilities’ (e.g. Oak Ridge and nuclear warhead plants), and effectively graffiti property a with their own blood ‘to symbolize the death of innocent human beings’

This wasn’t a topic I knew a huge amount about, so I did find this book informative. In places, the descriptions of security (or the lack of) were horrifying. It left me thinking about the morality of the existence of nuclear weapons and wanting to read more, which I did (reviews to follow).

I don’t have much analysis here, but here’s some of the content from Gods of Metal that I particularly took to heart.

Who wants a selfie with a nuclear missile?

If you want to see a Minuteman missile site, it’s pretty easy: the launch sites are spread throughout the Great Plains, to prevent all missiles being taken out by one hostile strike, and many sites are visible from public roads.

The air force has tactical-response forces to protect the sites, but equipment as at 2013 was antiquated (e.g. helicopters are not equipped for night-time or bad-weather operations, lack offensive weapons, and rely on paper maps for navigation).

Why waste money on security when you could spend it on [fill in the blank]?

During the 50s and 60s, the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) did not issue any guidelines for the USA concerning how private companies with weapons-usable nuclear material had to secure such stocks. Instances have been identified where plutonium was shipped across the USA without armed guards.

During the 60s, hundreds of pounds of weapons-grade uranium went missing from the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation plant in Pennsylvania, and it is believed that it was shipped to Israel. An aide at the AEC told Gerald Ford, ‘The good news is that Israel definitely has the Bomb and can take care of itself. The bad news is that the stuff came from Pennsylvania.’

But once we entered the twenty-first century, the USA started securing its nuclear materials, right? Especially after 9-11?

Y-12, the USA’s fabrication and storage complex for weapons-grade uranium is located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The US government however outsources the running of the facility (and other storage facilities) to private contractors, for profit, because privatisation makes everything better. For a number of years, the running of Y-12 was outsourced to Wackenhut, a company which was acquired by G4S in 2002. (Yes, that G4S.)

Wackenhut regularly undertook security performance tests at Y-12, and had a clear incentive to earn positive test scores under the terms of its contract with the government, failure might result in a reduction of its fees. In 2004, external inspection of the tests results and processes at Y-12 identified, that prior to mock attacks, Wackenhut officers were told in advance which building at Y-12 would be targeted, which wall would be attacked, and whether their adversaries would use diversionary tactics.

So the US government fired Wackenhut, as they deserved?

Nope. The external inspection results did not result in Wackenhut losing its security contract.

In 2012, a break-in by three Plowshares protesters, including one eighty-two year old nun with a heart-condition, famously occurred. The protesters were baffled that they successfully reached the outside of the main storage facility, and experimentally struck the building with sledgehammers, ultimately knocking off a chunk of concrete, to see what would happen. Nothing.

The protesters’ success wasn’t because they were super-sneaky. On the date of break-in a fifth of the cameras on the fences surrounding the Protected Area were out of action, and security officers ignored alarms that sounded during the break-in because hundreds of false alarms occurred at the site every month. When the protesters hammered on the outer walls of the facility with sledge-hammers officers inside the facility ignored the sounds, assuming that they were made by workmen doing maintenance.

So Wackenhut’s contract to run Y-12 was ultimately terminated. Wackenhut does, however, continue to provide security to the Savannah River Site, in South Carolina, which holds about 20,000 lb of plutonium.


So where does that leave us?

Nuclear material and nuclear weapon secrets have been stolen before from the USA before. The above summary makes it hard to argue that the USA is fully committed to nuclear security. Furthermore, nuclear security in the USA is probably better than in most other places in the world.

I’ll leave you to think about that. Sweet dreams.



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