Nuclear peril was (and is) worse than we thought

We were in greater danger from nuclear weapons than we thought during the Cold War era, and that danger still exists.

That is what I learned from reading COMMAND AND CONTROL: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser, a history of nuclear weapons technology from World War Two to the present.

command-and-controlThe danger was not so much that the USA or USSR would intentionally start a nuclear war.  Deterrence did work.  The danger was an accidental discharge or launch of a nuclear missile.  As Eric Schlosser documented, this nearly happened literally hundreds of times.   Evidently nobody knows the actual number because the U.S. government doesn’t keep a list.

Even Robert Peurifoy of Sandia Laboratories, the leading advocate of safer nuclear technology within the government, didn’t know of all of them.

The book has two narrative threads.  One is the evolution of nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy from FDR to Reagan, the technical and engineering difficulties, and a relentless piling up of reports of bomber crashes, accident bomb drops, computer system failures around nuclear weapons and weapons being lost or left unguarded.  We’ve been on the brink of nuclear war and nuclear disaster many more times than we know.

The other thread is an hour-by-hour report on a near-disaster a Titan missile complex near Damascus, Arkansas, in 1980.   I had not thought of missile crews as brave in the sense that fighter and bomber pilots are brave, but the missile crews deal with dangerous and not completely predictable forces.

The accident began when an enlisted man, performing routine maintenance near the top of the missile, accidentally dropped a socket, which punctured the oxidizer tank of the lower stage.  Both the oxidizer and the fuel are toxic as well as highly flammable and explosive.  If the air pressure in the oxidizer tank were to fall below a certain level, the tank would collapse and the rocket fuel would explode.  The rocket carried a nuclear bomb with the explosive power of all the bombs dropped during World War Two, including the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The following few hours were a story of bureaucratic paralysis and individual heroism as a fire broke out in the complex and the rockets eventually exploded despite everything the crew could do.  It was only by good fortune the nuclear warhead was not detonated.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal, both as a whole and in its individual parts, is an example of what the writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a fragile system.  The failure of any of its parts would have led to the cascading failure of the whole system.

Nuclear strategy for 40 years was based on the “Single Integrated Operational Plan,” which was an all-out attack which would have taken the lives of an estimated 200 million people in Russia, China and eastern Europe.  Some U.S. military leaders actually contemplated launching such an attack which would have taken the lives of more people than were killed by Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined; presumably the Soviets had a similar plan.

The U.S. had no plan for what to do after the attack.  Planning ended with the nuclear holocaust

Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger and others sought alternatives.  Their efforts were unsuccessful for, in my opinion, good reason.  If the leaders of a nation are going to use nuclear weapons at all against an enemy which also has nuclear arms, it is too late to hold back.

Schlosser gives great credit to General Curtis LeMay, who commanded the Strategic Air Command from 1948 to 1957 and higher Air Force positions through 1965, for his strict insistence on proper procedures and checklists and tough unannounced inspections.  It was said of LeMay that he did not distinguish between the unfortunate and the incompetent, and that to err is human, but to forgive is not SAC policy.  This tough attitude saved many lives, Schlosser said.

The situation is different now.  In 2003, Schlosser reported, half of the Air Force units responsible for nuclear weapons failed their safety inspections, despite three-day advance warnings.

Schlosser pointed out that the United States has never had an unauthorized detonation of a nuclear weapon—a remarkable achievement.  But each day that nuclear weapons exist is a gamble that a detonation won’t take place.  Meanwhile nuclear weapons proliferate.  India, as Schlosser noted, has double the industrial accident rate of the United States, and Pakistan has three times the rate.  How long until one of those weapons goes off?  And then what?


If We Don’t Slash Our Nukes, “a Major City is Going to Be Destroyed,” an interview of Eric Schlosser by Michael Mechanic of Mother Jones.

A Sneak Peak at Eric Schlosser’s Terrifying New Book on Nuclear Weapons, an excerpt printed in Mother Jones.

America’s biggest threat is its own N-weapons, an earlier post of mine.

The day we nearly bombed North Carolina, another earlier post of mine.

Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, a review by Louis Menand in The New Yorker.

Hat tip to Jack Clontz for calling Schlosser’s book to my attention.

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