North Dakota's Nuclear Presence

Siddharth Gupta
February 15, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: B-52H Dropping a Test Bomb. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

North Dakota is known for its large crude oil economy. Natural gas has been on the rise, and renewable energy (Solar/Wind) has contributed only a very small portion to the state's energy requirement. North Dakota, most likely because of the large abundance of oil, has no operating nuclear reactors or fuel cycle facilities. The Peace Garden State is an Agreement State - it has the authority to license and inspect byproduct, source, or special nuclear materials used or possessed within its borders. [1] There is no plan in the future to create a nuclear power plant in the state, most likely because North Dakota consumes amongst the least energy in the country.


North Dakota seems to reserve all its nuclear uses for military purposes. In the 1950's, when the Cold War was gaining momentum, the Air Force was looking for areas to create a base. Minot was selected, and within five years of its opening, the base housed a new Minuteman I ICBM.

As the war progressed, Minot's 91st Strategic Missile Wing was the first to convert to the LGM- 30M Minuteman III series. [2] These projectiles have a range of up to 8,000 miles at 15,000 mph. They can be delivered anywhere in range within thirty minutes, with an explosive power of 170 kilotons. [3]

Fig. 2: An inspection at Minot Air Force Base. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Over the last fifty years, the base has accumulated 150 missiles and 27 B-52 bombers, mostly located in the Bakken oil field. Fig. 1 shows a B-52 bomber dropping an ICBM. They are spread across an 8,500-square mile area, but a large portion are in the center of the oil mass. They are spread out so much to increases the chances of survival in a nuclear war. [3] The 91st Missile Wing employs approximately 1600 Airmen, including enlisted individuals, civilians, and officers. [2] These nuclear weapons remain functional even today, and the Minot Air Force base plays an important part in the safety of the United States.


Maintaining such a large fleet of B-52 bombers and 150 missiles in the barren wasteland of North Dakota is not easy. In a sixty-page report by the Pentagon, they claim that, "Hydraulic seals leak, equipment breaks, transport vehicles fail more frequently, and aircraft are cycled into limited hangars for maintenance." [4] Some of the launch control capsules have not been cleaned since they were built in 1962. This is partially due to low morale as well as limited urgency in the face of no Cold War. [4] Fig. 2 shows an inspection occurring at Minot Air Force Base. These problems were first brought to light in 2007, when six nuclear warheads were accidently loaded onto a B-52 and sent to Louisiana. The bombs were left unguarded for thirty-six hours until someone realized they were missing. The Air Force has decided to spend twelve million dollars to revitalize operations. [5]

© Siddharth Gupta. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Nuclear Regulatory Legislation," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NUREG-1098, Vol. 1, No. 10, September 2013.

[2] G. Heefner, The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland (Harvard University Press, 2012).

[3] S. H. Day, ed. Nuclear Heartland: A Guide to the 1,000 Missile Silos of the United States (Progressive Foundation, 1988).

[4] D. Sanger, "Pentagon Studies Reveal Major Nuclear Problems," New York Times, 13 Nov 14

[5] W. J. Hennigan, "North Dakota Nuclear Missile Base Struggles to Recover from Scandals," Los Angeles Times, 20 Nov 14.