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Air Force decertifies nuclear warheads in NM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Air Force has decertified a unit responsible for maintaining an estimated 2,000 nuclear warheads at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, but top military officials won’t discuss specifics of the decision.

Decertification means members of the 898th Munitions Squadron cannot perform their usual duties with nuclear weapons.

Air Force officials declined to specify what that means.

They also declined to disclose what concerns prompted the action, but Ron Fry, a spokesman for the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, said Wednesday the move wasn’t prompted by any risk to the public.

“There is no risk to security, safety or health,” he said.

The New Mexico unit will be re-inspected and could be recertified by June, Fry said. Until then, he said qualified individuals from Air Force units based elsewhere will monitor nuclear weapons stored at Kirtland, located on Albuquerque’s south side.

Fry said security and stewardship of nuclear weapons remains an Air Force priority, and squadrons assigned to handle nuclear assets are evaluated using rigid criteria.

“This is a business where, as part of the mission, you can’t get a score of 99 out of 100 and pass. It’s got to be 100 percent,” Fry said.

According to an estimate by the nonpartisan Federation of American Scientists, an underground storage complex at Kirtland houses more than 2,000 nuclear warheads.

Neither Fry nor Speake would confirm the estimate.

Fry said commanders will develop and implement a plan aimed at bringing the New Mexico squadron up to Air Force standards.

“The decision to decertify was not made lightly,” he said. “In this case, it was the right action to take to give the unit time to identify and implement necessary changes.”

The decertification was requested by Brig. Gen. Everett Thomas, commander of the Nuclear Weapons Center at the New Mexico base.