The United States has 450 nuclear missile silos spread across five states.
The US Air Force plans to deploy new missiles in these locations and keep them there for the next 50 years.
The Air Force expects the missiles to be targets of nuclear attack.
Here are the risks of having missiles on our land.
Here are the risks of having missiles on our land.
The Missiles On Our Land
The Air Force plan
The United States is investing several hundred billion dollars in a new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) fleet. Armed with nuclear warheads, four hundred new “Sentinel” missiles will be installed in existing but refurbished underground concrete silos spread across Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana.
Sentinel is a key part of an effort to modernize the entire US nuclear arsenal and its command and control infrastructure over the coming 30 years. The Sentinel missiles will replace existing Minuteman ICBMs starting in 2030.
The first generation of Minuteman missiles were deployed in the 1960s. Loaded in underground reinforced concrete silos, the missiles, each armed with a nuclear warhead, are ready to be launched within less than a minute. This is one reason they are called Minuteman missiles.
The US Air Force plans to keep the new Sentinel missiles in operation into the 2070s. What has so far been presented as a one for one missile replacement program could well turn into a broader nuclear build up.
A recent report from the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States recommends that the United States begin to plan and prepare to fight and defeat two nuclear peer adversaries at the same time. This plan would include building both more and different kinds of nuclear weapons.
The Sentinel missile will be about 50% heavier than the Minuteman missiles, meaning they could have an even longer range or carry a heavier payload. This is consistent with the Congressional Commission recommendation that plans be made for the Sentinel to be deployed with multiple warheads instead of one.
In US nuclear war plans, the ICBMs are meant to raise the scale of a nuclear attack on the country by offering hundreds of targets for adversaries to strike at the same time. Military strategists call this the Nuclear Sponge theory – with the Great Plains soaking up the consequences of hundreds of nuclear explosions intended to destroy the US ICBMs.
According to our calculations, the danger from radioactive fallout in the event of an all out nuclear attack on the silos would be much greater than previously known. Not only would communities living closest to the silos be obliterated, the fallout could disperse across the entire US, as well as into Canada and Mexico. Hundreds of millions of people would be at risk.
No Radiological Hazards
Missiles on Native Land
The Air Force picked the Fort Berthold Indian reservation, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation, as the first place to present its Environmental Impact Statement. The MHA nation is the only federally-recognized tribe in the United States to host nuclear weapons on its land.
In total, fifteen nuclear silos and one launch control facility are located on the northeast segment of the reservation. The tribe never agreed to have them there in the first place.
Construction of the silos occurred in the early 1960s, less than a decade after more than 80% of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikaras were forced to relocate following the intentional flooding of their reservation in order to complete the 1953 Garrison Dam project.
The land to which many moved had already been opened by the US government to outside ownership and was no longer considered to be part of the reservation. This is where the US military also decided to build nuclear missiles silos. A construction company who had built half to the Garrison Dam was contracted to build the silos. When the land was finally reintegrated within the reservation boundaries following a 1972 court decision, the silos were already there, loaded with their nuclear missiles. And so the Tribes were stuck with them without having any say if they wanted them there or not.
Our investigation found that despite the Air Force’s effort to showcase its public engagement with the MHA nation about the Sentinel project, very few people on the reservation knew about the modernization program. Many participants at the July 19, 2022 public hearing were veterans and ladies auxiliary who presented the colors and performed a ceremonial dance to greet an Air Force General.
On the day of the meeting, without notice, the venue was moved from its advertised location, the powwow grounds in Newtown to the Four Bears Casino complex. In a statement, Air Force Global Strike Command said the last minute change was necessary due to severe weather forecast by the National Weather Service.
Four people gave public comments at the hearing, including a journalist who found out about the meeting by accident one hour before it started because he happened to be in a nearby parking lot and was alerted by a police officer that a meeting was taking place.
Two women who spoke stressed the lack of information about the Air Force plans, the need to engage with the tribe and for the Air Force to visit the Tribe’s elders, many of whom had not been able to attend the meeting.
Social and Environmental Costs
Refurbishing the silos and installing new missiles is an enormous construction project with significant social cost, facts acknowledged by the Air Force. The military will need to refurbish one silo per week for the next nine years to keep up with its own schedule. These silos are operated by three Air Force bases. F.E. Warren, in Cheyenne, Wyoming oversees silos in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. Those communities are first in line to receive the new Sentinel missiles. Malmstrom AF base in Great Falls, Montana is next in line, with Minot AF base in Minot, North Dakota receiving them last, sometime in 2029 if the Air Force stays on schedule.
Construction will require workers to be housed first in “Pioneer Camps” who would then be tasked with building the larger camps housing thousands of workers in individual dormitories, which would be erected across all the missile fields. Hiring and moving such a workforce will be a particular challenge and the program target date for completion has already slipped by a year. Managing the impact of this workforce on school, infrastructure, local businesses and public safety including street lighting and jail capacity is a concern for impacted communities. And who should foot the bill to accommodate this temporary population has also become an issue.
On the Fort Berthold Reservation, the chief of police, raised concerns about the public safety ramifications of the Sentinel project for the Tribes. The 2010 North Dakota shale oil extraction boom brought many transient workers to the state, most of them men housed in camps, including on or near the Fort Berthold reservation, leading to an unprecedented rise of violent crime and increase in sex trafficking of Native women. Similar concerns were voiced out of Montana.
In Nebraska, Governor Jim Pillen, recently vetoed a state legislature proposal to fund new infrastructure that would support the integration of this out-of-state workforce. “The last thing any of us want to do, whether it’s the City of Kimball or State of Nebraska, is to spend money (on infrastructure) that’s going to be boarded up in five years,” he said at a September 26, 2023 town hall in Kimball, a city of about 2,300. Kimball will house the first Sentinel project worker’s hub, with a 3000 workers capacity, which would double its population.
The work on the silos will also generate hazardous wastes, including streams contaminated with asbestos, lead-based paint, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). One person present at the July 28, 2022 EIS hearing in Montana stressed the importance that workers refurbishing the silos are not exposed to hazardous substances.
These concerns are particularly relevant as the Air Force has since then found unsafe levels of a likely carcinogen at underground launch control centers in
Montana where an increase of cancer diagnostics among missile officers have been reported.
The US Air Force plans to equip the Sentinel missiles with new warheads, requiring the manufacture of plutonium pits or triggers, posing environmental hazards of their own, not included in the Sentinel EIS.
Plutonium pits are the hollow metal cores, each weighing a few kilograms, which enable the initial, explosive chain reaction in nuclear weapons.
During the Cold War, from 1952-1989, the US produced more than 70,000 plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads at its Rocky Flats facility in Arvada, Colorado just west of Denver.
Multiple fires, accidental spills, and insecure storage, contaminated the soil, sediment, groundwater and surface water within the more than 6,000-acre facility and its perimeter. Locals were kept in the dark about what was going on at the plant. Some believed they were manufacturing scrubbing bubbles.
After a $7 billion clean-up, the former Rocky Flats plant is now a Department of Energy Legacy Management 1300 acre site closed to the public. Surrounding the site is a 5000 acre US Fish and Wildlife managed refuge open for limited recreation. The Denver Public School District and others have banned field trips to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge out of concern over lingering radiological contamination.
The Air Force’s demand for a new warhead for the Sentinel missile is now the key driver to restart pit production in the United States.
Already the US faces a storage crisis with 20,000 legacy pits at the Pentax storage site near Amarillo, Texas. But the nuclear modernization plan requires 80 pits per year by 2030 with the work split between the historical Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico (LANL) and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Only LANL is currently operating but has yet to produce a war ready pit.
A January 2023 report by the United States Government Accountability Office points that the National Nuclear Safety Agency, (NNSA) which oversees nuclear weapons production, still “does not have a comprehensive schedule or cost estimate for pit production capability.” Along with being over budget and behind schedule, LANL has had significant safety issues in the past 10 years. In May 2023, the NNSA issued a Preliminary Notice of Violation to the contractor running the laboratory for “violations of the Department of Energy’s nuclear safety program requirements.”
The pit program is also facing important pushback from civil society including ongoing lawsuits around legacy waste at the Savannah River Site challenging the scope and findings of its separate environmental impact assessments.