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Air Force withheld nuclear mishap from Pentagon review team via CBS News

WASHINGTON — In the spring of 2014, as a team of experts was examining what ailed the U.S. nuclear force, the Air Force withheld from them the fact that it was simultaneously investigating damage to a nuclear-armed missile in its launch silo caused by three airmen.

The Air Force on Friday gave The Associated Press the first substantive description of the accident after being questioned about it by the AP for more than a year.

The accident happened May 17, 2014, at an underground launch silo containing a Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. The silo, designated Juliet-07, is situated among wheat fields and wind turbines about 9 miles west of Peetz, Colorado. It is controlled by launch officers of the 320th Missile Squadron and administered by the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base at Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The Air Force said that while three airmen were troubleshooting the missile, a “mishap” occurred, causing $1.8 million in damage to the missile. The service declined to explain the nature of the mishap, such as whether it caused physical damage, saying the information is too sensitive to be made public.

The three airmen were immediately stripped of their certification to perform nuclear weapons duty. The missile was taken offline and removed from its silo. No one was injured and the Air Force said the accident posed no risk to public safety.

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The Accident Investigation Board did not begin its work until Aug. 25, more than three months after the mishap. A safety investigation was begun sometime earlier. The Air Force denied an AP request for the accident investigation report in 2015 under the Freedom of Information Act.

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The summary said the central cause of the mishap was established by “clear and convincing evidence,” but the Air Force would not disclose the cause or the evidence. It said the cause is cited in the investigation report. The Air Force refused to make that public, saying the report is classified, even though the service’s own policy requires the public release of accident board reports.

The amount of damage to the missile – $1.8 million, according to the Air Force – suggests that the airmen’s errors might have caused physical damage, Kristensen said. If so, he said, it could have been categorized by the Air Force as a “Bent Spear” event, which is an official reporting code word for a significant nuclear weapon incident. The Air Force refused to reveal how it categorized the Juliet-07 accident.

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