By Noi Mahoney of FreightWaves,
Nuclear materials couriers (NMCs) might have one of the toughest and most secretive jobs in the transportation industry: hauling nuclear bombs and other dangerous material.
The drivers who make up the covert fleet transporting nuclear weapons to locations across the United States are operated by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an organization established in 2000.
The Office of Secure Transportation is part of the NNSA, which is a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Curtis Johnson, the lead federal agent recruiter for NNSA, said in some ways the job is like other trucking jobs.
“Similar to other truck driving jobs, the NMC position does have its share of routine and monotonous long hours over the road,” Johnson told FreightWaves. “However, unlike most other trucking careers, these long-haul trips are part of a larger operation and every vehicle in the convoy is manned by multiple federal agents who share the driving, communications and security.”
The DOE continuously recruits and hires nuclear couriers year-round, Johnson said.
“We typically advertise the NMC position on www.usajobs.gov three or four times per year, with each job announcement being open to new applicants for one or two weeks at a time,” Johnson said.
After completing the hiring process, NMC candidates will spend approximately 18 weeks of training at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. The 18-week-long course is referred to as nuclear materials courier basic (NMCB) training and is a requirement for all new NMC candidates.
“I don’t believe that comparing NMCB to a military boot camp would be the best comparison,” Johnson said. “Our agency’s NMCB training would better compare to the specialized schooling that military service members attend after graduating from boot camp, such as infantry school or security forces training.”
The NMCB training runs two to three classes per year and applicants must have either military or law enforcement experience.
The NMCB has three primary phases of training in which candidates develop the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities to become an NMC, including:
- Driver training provides candidates with the fundamental skills to operate OST transport vehicles. Candidates must secure a CDL and pass all driving performance tests.
- Firearms training is provided for OST’s primary weapons and candidates must qualify with them on DOE-approved courses under both day and night conditions.
- The final phase of training is individual and small-unit tactics tailored to OST mission operations. Candidates must pass all tactics performance evaluations. Additionally, they receive instruction on the Advanced Radio Enterprise System, federal agent legal authorities and law enforcement control tactics.
Throughout the NMCB program, candidates must pass a physical fitness test, numerous written examinations and multiple performance tests.
After graduation, candidates who have successfully obtained a DOE security clearance participate in over-the-road mission operations with an active federal agent unit and undergo intense performance testing in convoy operations force-on-force exercises.
The DOE tries to hold three NMC training classes per year, with each class containing 20 NMC candidates.
“The numbers fluctuate, but quite often only 45 to 50 of the 60 trainees will graduate each year,” Johnson said. “The top three reasons for candidates not graduating are voluntary resignations, injuries and failing to satisfactorily complete a portion of the training.”
The salary range for an NV-01 (basic) federal agent NMC is $48,682 to $76,981.
Once a candidate becomes an NMC, he or she is authorized to make warrantless arrests and use lethal force if necessary during missions, Johnson said. Mission travel is generally performed year-round and is almost always preplanned. The position does not require nuclear couriers to be on call at all times.
Missions are always transporting either nuclear weapons, nuclear weapon components or special nuclear materials, such as uranium, to secure military sites across the U.S.
Listening to the radio or music is allowable so long as it does not interfere with convoy communications, Johnson said.
“Though the travel element of the job can be less than exciting, NMCs train year-round when they are not on the road doing missions,” Johnson said. “The mission pace changes from month to month, but most trips occur every other week with the other weeks being dedicated to training (shooting range, physical fitness, computer-based training, tactics).”