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Kirtland school marks milestone

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Air Force Col. Mark Bowen, commandant of the Defense Nuclear Weapons School, stands near a B-29 at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. The school at Kirtland Air Force Base observes its 70th anniversary this year. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Shortly after the Defense Nuclear Weapons School opened 70 years ago at Kirtland Air Force Base, students dubbed it “the Kremlin” because of its tight security, and the name stuck.

As the nuclear program shifted to civilian control in 1947, Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, recognized the need for a school to teach military personnel to manage the nation’s nuclear stockpile.

“You have to be a good steward of that kind of destructive power, and I think we’ve done a good job with that,” U.S. Air Force Col. Mark Bowen, commandant of the Defense Nuclear Weapons School, said at a news conference this month to announce the school’s 70th anniversary.

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The school today remains at Kirtland, where it began in a row of Quonset huts in 1947. By 1953, the school had moved into a windowless vault-like structure that helped earn its nickname, the Kremlin.

The school’s early mission was to train military technicians to maintain atomic bombs and to safely recover explosives and radioactive components, particularly after accidents.

The school’s mission has evolved over the decades but remains focused on protecting people from the hazards of radioactive materials, Bowen said.

Today, most students are first responders, both military and civilian, who may arrive at the scene of an accident involving nuclear weapons.

They include police officers, firefighters, medical personnel and National Guard members, including personnel outside the U.S.

“The thing we understand is that people have an innate fear of anything that is nuclear,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Bruce Hill, an instructor at the school. “We teach to the radiation stigma that is out there.”

The school offers 36 courses, ranging from an introductory course for radiological and nuclear incidence response to advanced courses for nuclear weapons operators and policymakers.

The school trained an estimated 20,000 students in 2016, in both face-to-face and distance-learning courses.

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In the history of nuclear weapons, there has never been an accidental nuclear weapon explosion, or “nuclear yield,” anywhere in the world, Bowen said.

But there have been hair-raising moments, including two in New Mexico.

In 1957, a bomber on approach to Kirtland accidently dropped a large hydrogen bomb on Mesa del Sol, just south of Albuquerque. The weapon’s plutonium core had been removed before it fell, and there was no nuclear blast.

And in 1950, a B-29 with a nuclear weapon aboard crashed in the Manzano Mountains. The nuclear yield didn’t explode, but the high explosive in the weapon blew up, scattering radioactive materials, Bowen said.

Those events are among 32 serious accidents involving U.S. nuclear weapons, which explains the school’s purpose.

“It’s never gone nuclear, but we have had accidents with nuclear weapons,” Bowen said.

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