November 15, 2005

In ‘Dingo King’ exercise, simulated nuclear accident overcome by real-world cooperation

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — While Hurricane Katrina was deciding whether to travel up the East Coast or strike New Orleans, a disaster repair crew off the coast of southernmost Georgia was working to raise the sunken host missile for a nuclear weapon.

The setting was the Navy’s Kings Bay submarine base along the southern coast of Georgia, in an emergency exercise called Dingo King ’05.

The scenario was this: A private plane piloted by a dentist experiencing a heart attack crashed into a Navy dock at the base. The crash occurred just as two Tomahawk missiles were being loaded onto a sub. The resultant explosion destroyed one missile and dropped a second into 15 feet of water where it lay buried invisibly in mud. Was the water contaminated by radioactive materials? Were air or land contaminated by the explosion? Where exactly was the missile, and how could it be raised safely?

Those questions formed the basis for the elaborate six-day scenario — only partly simulated — that drew 20 Sandia National Laboratories participants, along with a large number of government agencies, to the Navy base in late August.

The exercise was real except for the initial plane crash and explosion that precipitated the problem. No actual nuclear warheads were involved.

Participants worked 12-hour shifts — some in cumbersome, heat-retaining personal protective gear — in intermittent rainstorms, air thick as soup (daily humidity: 90 percent +), and heat in the 90+ degree range. Mosquitoes were a problem. Hurricane Katrina hovered on the horizon.

In these conditions, 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, the delayed arrival of a crucial National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) team called the Accident Response Group (ARG) — populated by experts from Sandia (for this exercise, six full-time and 14 volunteer employees), Los Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, as well as Pantex — slowed work on recovering and safing the weapon and created unease in simulated news reports created at the exercise site by people playing the role of the news media. The simulated reporters were frustrated at being unable to get their more technical questions answered by Navy divers or high-ranking Navy players.

On the positive side, the exercise showed that talented people with different protocols could work together. One reason for the ready integration, said Tom Laiche, health physicist and manager of Sandia’s Hazardous Waste Management & Lab Services group, was that “The EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] military guys were anxious to have the engineers there to explain to them what was happening technically.”

Recovery procedures necessarily contrasted with popular movies showing superheroes 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 5-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.

The result: 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 was raised higher, steadily overcoming the resistance of the vacuum created in the muck as the weapon lifted.

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.

Sandia 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.

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.

Still, overall coordination was rated by many participants as “exceptionally good.” Members of DOE and DoD, along with participants from the NNSA, FEMA, the FBI, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Environmental Protection Agency, National Transportation Safety Board, and others cooperated to develop plans, lay out work areas, transmit information, and remove, disassemble, and package dangerous objects.

Mission accomplished, participants flew home Saturday afternoon, a step ahead of Hurricane Katrina, which had now veered toward New Orleans. Visible in the distance as high as the plane, the hurricane loomed over the normal cloud layer below like the Rockies over Denver. The next morning, the hurricane would strike New Orleans.

To the natural follow-on question of how effective these DOE/DoD exercises would be in the event of a real nuclear emergency, Tom Laiche responds, “From a purely weapons recovery standpoint, the national labs and the military, working together, have exercised together enough that we can recover about any kind of weapon in any kind of configuration.”

The problem he foresees is showing “an immediate and positive reaction to public issues that would 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 people to go to sleep and don’t worry about it. But from their point of view, their dog will have died, or their children will break out in hives [and they’ll attribute it all to the accident]. It will take us a long time, politically, to recover.”

The ARG defined
ARG is not a phrase out of the recent “Speak Like a Pirate Day” (Sept. 19). Nor is it a cousin of the closely knit BORG of Star Trek.

The NNSA’s Accident Response Group handles the most serious nuclear situations in any part of the world on short notice, without losing its cool in the face of problems. If it must move back one step, it is expected to advance two.

ARG’s mission, according to an NNSA handout, is to “develop and maintain readiness to efficiently manage the resolution of accidents or significant incidents involving nuclear weapons that are in DOE’s custody at the time the accident occurred. The ARG will also provide timely worldwide support to [DoD] involving accidents and significant incidents involving nuclear weapons in DoD’s custody.” Using highly specialized equipment, the ARG is expected to monitor, assess, or remove nuclear weapons, components, or debris.

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Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Sandia media contact: Neal Singer,, (505) 845-7078