Disarming the Dakotas
Witness to a Demolition

At the CLUI, we receive many requestes for information about missile silos. It seems everyone is interested in them - as well they should be. Of the thousands across the country, most are imploded and lie buried beneath the surface. Some have been restored and have been reused in fascinating ways. One is a museum (the Titan Museum, in Arizona), and another, a more modern Minuteman silo in South Dakota, is a planned museum. Of course, many hundreds still remain on line, ready to deliver their charge on a moments notice . . .

1259 Missle silo before...
1260 ...and after. Tom Vanderbilt photos.IN THE SMALL FARMING VILLAGE of Cooperstown, N.D., roughly an hour and a half from Grand Forks, the Cold War is still ending.

On the main street of Cooperstown, which bills itself as "Tree City U.S.A.," there is an unmarked, nearly empty storefront, nestled between a theater (showing Mission Impossible 2) and a quaint drug store, in whose window appears a single photograph. The picture shows what looks like a sandy brown tornado touching down on one of the state’s endless green horizons. What the picture actually depicts is the implosion of one of the state’s 150 Minuteman missile silos, those atomic-age fortresses that for years stood silent sentinel beneath the whistling prairies, scattered across some 7500 square miles — from Valley City, N.D. to the Canadian border — evident only by their three-phase power poles and, if one looked carefully, small brown signs attached to nearby "Stop" signs — with designations such as "C-28" and "D-15" — that pointed the way to missile installations.

The office belongs to Veit Demolition, a Minnesota-based firm that in September of 1999 was awarded the $12.1 million contract to demolish North Dakota’s silos in accordance with the 1991 START treaty. Over the course of the last year, the Veit crew has been removing the last vestiges of the Cold War from the North Dakotan fields, generally at the rate of two per week — weather permitting.
And so on a clear July morning I meet with Donald Speulda, point man on the project for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District. We climb into his white Cherokee and drive to site M-22, near the town of Hope. Like all of North Dakota’s silos, there is not much to see aboveground, simply a fenced square in the middle of a bean field, out of which sprouts a handful of power poles and a variety of what looks like abstract yard art. Upon arrival, a Veit employee hands me a hardhat and a small box connected to a wire. On the count of five I am to press the button. As I do, there is a geyser-like eruption a football field away, a funnel of rocks and dirt, and a low, flat whump that shakes the soft grass. A few spectators clap as the dust settles. Drive another nail into the coffin of nuclear proliferation.

Walking toward the wreckage, a Veit employee named Pat Hockett, a recent graduate of North Dakota State University, explains the process. "First we have our salvage company come in and strip all the salvageable material," he says. "The computers, the compressors, the brine chillers." He continues: "Then we come out and drill 69 holes, anywhere from three to twenty-two feet. It’s about two days work. Once the holes are drilled we’ll come in and fill them with dynamite and ampho — it takes about 200 pounds of dynamite, and 600 pounds of ampho."

As we stand at the precipice of the former silo, where smoke hisses from a chasm and the acrid smell of ammonium nitrate is unavoidable, I ask Veit’s demolition expert, Roger Livesy, to explain what 800 pounds of TNT means. "We would use 200 pounds of TNT to take down a 10-story building. Here, we use 800 pounds to go down 20 feet," he says, as we hear in the background the groan of a piece of metal as it collapses into the hole. Given that the silos were meant to presumably withstand a near-miss from an incoming ICBM, the arithmetic seems strangely comforting. Shortly, another crew will come along and begin to extract the tangled webs of No. 18 rebar; then a concrete cap will be placed six meters down to prevent further sinking, as well as a "geomembrane" (a fabric used to line asphalt roads) to prevent seepage. A separate observation hole is dug to allow compliance monitoring by Russian satellite for 90 days. The hole will then be covered, the land returned to the farmers whose plots already creep up to the very fenceline, and this segment of North Dakota’s massive nuclear arsenal — the old saw went that North Dakota was the world’s third-largest nuclear power — will again turn into just another plot of agricultural landscape. No plaques or markers will speak to its invisible legacy.

This is not the end of North Dakota’s nuclear power, of course. Near Minot, traveling down TK, one can see an active Launch Control Center for the still-active squadron of Minuteman III missiles. Located a hundred yards from the road, the otherwise unremarkable ranch house features several Humvees parked in the front yard, a massive American flag flying overhead, and an array of antenna far more exotic than the satellite TV variety. Beneath there will be a two-man squad going through the motion of what all American missileers have done for the past four decades, watching and waiting.
Field Report by Tom Vanderbilt