RAF LAKENHEATH, England — A nuclear weapons expert said the Air Force’s response to a recent mishandling of nuclear weapons raises questions about the security of America’s arsenal worldwide, including at several installations in Europe.

“[Maj.] Gen. [Richard] Newton said everything [in North Dakota] was done to Air Force regulations,” said Philip Coyle, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, an independent Pentagon watchdog group. “The problem I had with that was the same conditions could exist at other Air Force bases around the world.”

The Air Force still is recovering from its most serious safety infraction in recent memory after a B-52 bomber was inadvertently loaded with nuclear weapons at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., and flown to Barksdale Air Force Base, La.

The Fifth Bomb Group at Minot lost its certification to handle nuclear weapons, at least four officers were fired and roughly 65 other Air Force personnel were disciplined in connection with the Aug. 29-30 incident. Additional probes are slated from both the Defense Science Board and the House Armed Services Committee that may lead to further discipline.

The most serious condition Coyle cited was the storing of nuclear weapons alongside conventional munitions — as was reportedly the practice at Minot.

“Perhaps they are doing that (storage practices) in other places. If they are, there is an opportunity for a similar type of accident,” said Coyle, who has worked at a nuclear laboratory in the United States and served at the Pentagon.

According to the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, the U.S. military maintains nuclear weapons on seven military installations in six European countries: England, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey. The FAS reports that nukes were removed from Ramstein and Spangdahlem air bases in the past several years.

But an FAS nuclear weapons expert said the likelihood of a similar incident is diminished by the fact that the Air Force seldom moves its nuclear weapons — at least intentionally.

“The [nuclear] weapons do not move unless they absolutely have to be moved,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project with the Federation of American Scientists.

“The military is so reluctant to touch these unless they have to.”

Officials at RAF Lakenheath declined to comment on whether the nuclear weapons reportedly stored on base are housed alongside conventional weapons or confirm if the base even has nukes.

Kristensen said it’s widely accepted in the scientific community that the U.S. has forward deployed nuclear weapons across Europe.

“We take that information from a large number of sources,” he said. “Hearings, budget material and leaks are a big part.”

Moreover, a British Ministry of Defence report on the June 2003 joint exercise dubbed “Dimming Sun” appears to validate the FAS reports that there are U.S. nuclear weapons in England. The exercise — which included participants from U.S. federal agencies, military units and British first responders — involved the scenario of a plane transporting nuclear weapons from RAF Lakenheath crashing in Norfolk shortly after takeoff.

“The accident scenario involved a simulated release of radioactive material that had an impact on the local community,” the report states. “Such exercises include the arrangements for accidents involving United States of America nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom as required by the Government-to-Government Arrangement.”

Coyle said it’s possible other infractions involving nuclear weapons have occurred in the U.S. and abroad, but have gone unreported by the media.

“The only reason this one got noticed was because some Air Force people were so disgusted that they leaked it,” he said. “If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t have known about this one.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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