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Nuclear Weapons: Evaluation of Report on Feasibility of Increasing Air Transportation of Nuclear Weapons, Components, and Materials

GAO-12-577R Published: May 04, 2012. Publicly Released: May 04, 2012.
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What GAO Found

In summary, we found the following:

  • The ATS report was supported by generally acceptable methods for developing transportation options and evaluating safety, security, and operational requirements for these options. The assessment of safety risk from a possible airplane crash transporting nuclear weapons was the key factor supporting the report’s conclusions to maintain the current balance of air and ground transportation of nuclear weapons. In addition, the majority of the nuclear weapons in the active nuclear stockpile require special DOD approval to be transported by air.

  • The ATS report was supported by an acceptable methodology to develop relative costs among the different transportation options under review and included selected costs, such as per-weapon, per-mile operating costs for transportation of nuclear weapons via current air and ground approaches. However, it did not analyze all costs—for example life cycle costs—or developing infrastructure, such as airfields, necessary to support some air transportation options.

  • According to stakeholders, changes in operational requirements for transporting nuclear weapons, new technologies that have improved security and safety, or reassessments of potential threats of future attacks since the report’s completion in 2009 would probably not mitigate the safety risk of air transportation and would be unlikely to alter the report’s conclusions.

Why GAO Did This Study

Transporting nuclear weapons, components, and materials represents a safety and security risk. House Report 110-652, which accompanied the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009 (Pub. L. No. 110-417), directed the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Air Force to conduct a feasibility study on increasing the use of aircraft to transport nuclear weapons, components, and materials and to report back to Congress by December 31, 2008. In turn, House Report 112-78, which accompanied the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (Pub. L. No. 112-81), directed us to conduct an independent evaluation of the air transportation study (ATS) jointly issued by the Administrator of NNSA and the Secretary of the Air Force in September 2009. The conclusions of the 2009 ATS report supported maintaining the current balance of air and ground transportation of nuclear weapons.

We provided a classified briefing of our preliminary observations to staff of the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, on February 2, 2012. On March 13, 2012, we provided classified briefing slides to the House Armed Services Committee.

This report provides information on whether (1) acceptable methodologies were used in the ATS report to develop nuclear weapons transportation options that considered safety, security, and operational requirements, (2) acceptable methodologies were used in the report to develop cost estimates for nuclear weapons transportation options identified in the report, and (3) recent changes to nuclear weapons transportation operations, technologies, or threat information might alter the conclusions reached in the report.


We are not making any recommendations for congressional consideration or agency action.

For more information, please contact either Gene Aloise at (202) 512-3841 or or John Pendleton at (202) 512-3489 or

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Nuclear safetyRisk assessmentNuclear weaponsAir transportationCorporate stakeholdersOperational requirementsAuditsTransportationCost estimatesNational laboratories