Saturday Night Movie

The Day After is a 1983 American television movie that aired on November 20, 1983, on the ABC television network. It was seen by more than 100 million people during its initial broadcast. It is currently the highest-rated television movie in history.

The movie postulates a fictional war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact that rapidly escalates into a full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, the action itself focuses on the residents of Lawrence, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, as well as several family farms situated next to nuclear missile silos.

Here’s the insanely complicated process needed to launch the most powerful nuclear warhead

Jessica Orwig Jul. 29, 2015, 8:19 AM

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A Titan II missile inside the Titan Missile Museum in Arizona.

At the height of the Cold War, America’s underground was rife with dozens of hidden nuclear-missile units.

Some of these systems contained Titan II missiles, which carried the largest single nuclear warhead of any missile of its kind before or since.

Titan II was a guided ballistic missile that was also the largest, most powerful nuclear weapons system ever deployed in the US. And it served one purpose: deterrence.

“The idea behind Titan II was to instill enough fear in the mind of the enemy to cause them to think twice about launching an attack against us,” Chuck Penson, the archivist and historian at the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona, told Derek Muller, the host of the YouTube channel Varitasium.

In his latest Varitasium episode, Muller takes us inside an underground base where one of these monster Titan II missiles still stands, and he learns about the insanely complicated steps it would have taken to actually launch this terrifying piece of human engineering in the event of an attack.

Inside the missile was a weapon with incredibly destructive potential — 650 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that on the entry door into the silo, where the Titan II missile stands, there is a sign that reads “CAUTION.”

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Though the Titan II missile still stands, it no longer carries its dangerous cargo.

Among the more interesting features in the silo are the soundproof panels covering the walls. Without these panels to absorb the sound during a launch, the energy from the sound waves would actually shake the missile to pieces before it could lift off.

The Titan Missile Museum in Arizona, where this empty missile is located, includes the original site for one of the 54 underground silos across the country where deterrent missiles, such as Titan II, were hidden during the late 1950s and mid-’60s.

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The control center with all of the gadgets, switches, and buttons — including those that would initiate a launch — is located far from the missile, beyond a series of long underground tunnels.

Another benefit, besides secrecy, to an underground launch site was that if the enemy successfully detonated a bomb in the US, the site’s occupants would be shielded from the radiation as long as their base was not destroyed in the attack.

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Once in the control room, Penson takes Muller through the multistep process of what it would have been like to launch a Titan II missile. First, the speakers in the room sound an alarm that is followed by a message with a series of random numbers and words.

This message should have reached them only if the US president had ordered it.

Everyone in the room copies down the message and compares notes, and if they agree on what they heard, then they go to a red safe — which is locked, of course — containing a series of what Penson calls “authentication cards.”

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Each card contains two letters. If one of the cards has the two-letter combination that matches the first two letters in the secret message transmitted through the speakers, then the control room is officially “go” for launch.

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After that, you just have one more six-letter code and two keys separating you from World War III. But the six-letter code is on a wheel with 17 million possible combinations, and the key slots are far enough apart that you must have two people turning them at exactly the same time.

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After you insert the six-letter code, the commander counts down to the final key turn. The commander and his partner hold the keys down for five seconds, and then a terrifying green light illuminates the “Ready to Launch” panel.

“For all intensive purposes that should say, ‘Welcome to World War III,’ because that’s pretty much what it boils down to,” Penson said. “When you turn the key you are committed. There is no ‘oops’ switch.”

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These precautions were taken to prevent a single person from launching a missile. After all, people can get pretty crazy and paranoid during times of war.

Though Titan II was never launched to prevent an attack on US soil, several of these missiles were launched. In fact, some were used to launch American manned missions through NASA’s Gemini program to space.

 

How the U.S. Narrowly Avoided a Nuclear Holocaust 33 Years Ago, and Still Risks Catastrophe Today

September 18, 2013

Thirty-three years ago to the day, the United States narrowly missed a nuclear holocaust on its soil. The so-called “Damascus Accident” involved a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile mishap at a launch complex outside Damascus, Arkansas. During a routine maintenance procedure, a young worker accidentally dropped a nine-pound tool in the silo, piercing the missile’s skin and causing a major leak of flammable rocket fuel. Sitting on top of that Titan II was the most powerful thermonuclear warhead ever deployed on an American missile. The weapon was about 600 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. For the next nine hours, a group of airmen put themselves at grave risk to save the missile and prevent a massive explosion that would have caused incalculable damage. The story is detailed in Eric Schlosser’s new book, “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” which explores how often the United States has come within a hair’s breadth of a domestic nuclear detonation or an accidental war. Drawing on thousands of pages of recently declassified government documents and interviews with scores of military personnel and nuclear scientists, Schlosser shows that America’s nuclear weapons pose a grave risk to humankind.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thirty-three years ago today, the United States narrowly missed a nuclear holocaust on its soil that would have dwarfed the horrors of the Hiroshima bomb blast that killed approximately 140,000 people. The so-called “Damascus Accident” involved a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile mishap at a launch complex outside Damascus, Arkansas. During a routine maintenance procedure, a young worker accidentally dropped a nine-pound tool in the silo, piercing the missile’s skin and causing a major leak of flammable rocket fuel. Sitting on top of that Titan II was the most powerful thermonuclear warhead ever deployed on an American missile. The weapon was about 600 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. For the next nine hours, a group of airmen put themselves at grave risk to save the missile and prevent a massive explosion that would have caused incalculable damage.

AMY GOODMAN: To find out what happened next, we turn to a shocking new book called Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. In it, author Eric Schlosser reveals how often the United States has come within a hair’s breadth of a domestic nuclear detonation or an accidental war. Drawing on thousands of pages of recently declassified government documents and interviews with scores of military personnel and nuclear scientists, Schlosser shows that America’s nuclear weapons pose a grave risk to humankind. We’re joined right now by Eric Schlosser, author of a number of books, including the best-selling Fast Food Nation.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ERIC SCHLOSSER: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about that story 33 years ago today.

ERIC SCHLOSSER: Yeah, 33 years ago, during a routine maintenance procedure, a tool was dropped, and it set in motion events that could have led to the destruction of the state of Arkansas. And it just so happened that Bill Clinton was the governor at the time. Vice President Mondale was in the state at the time. And it’s one of those events that literally could have changed the course of history.

So the book is a minute-by-minute account of this nuclear weapons accident and its unfolding, but I use that narrative as a way to look at the management of our nuclear weapons, really from the dawn of the nuclear era to this day. A great deal has been in the media lately about Pakistani nuclear program, Indian nuclear program, Iran’s, but not enough attention has been paid to our own and the problems that we’ve had in the management of our nuclear weapons. And it’s a subject that I think is really, really urgent.

It’s interesting, as I was watching Bill McKibben, who I consider a true American hero, and I was just seeing the title of this show, Democracy Now!, the whole system of managing nuclear weapons is inherently authoritarian. And if you look at the kind of secrecy that we have now in this country and the national security state, it all stems from the development of the atomic bomb, the secrecy around it. And the real point of this book is to provide information to Americans that the government has worked very hard to suppress, to deny, an enormous amount of disinformation and misinformation about our weapons program.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You also point out, Eric Schlosser, that there is a link between the amount of secrecy around nuclear weapons and the level of their unsafety.

ERIC SCHLOSSER: Yeah.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you elaborate? Could you explain why that’s the case?

ERIC SCHLOSSER: Well, during the Cold War, and to a certain extent today, there was such intense, compartmentalized secrecy within the government, that, for example, the engineers and physicists who were designing the weapons weren’t allowed to know how the weapons were being used in the field. And the Air Force and Navy and Army personnel who were handling nuclear weapons didn’t know about the safety problems or safety issues that the designers knew.

So, one of the people I write about in the book is an engineer named Robert Peurifoy, who rose to be a vice president at the Sandia National Laboratories and is a remarkable man who realized that our nuclear weapons might be unsafe and pose a threat of accidental detonation. Again, in the book, I go through a number of instances that we almost had American weapons detonate on American soil. And so, I write about his effort to bring modern safety devices to our nuclear weapons.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to get about a 250-page document that listed all these different accidents, mistakes, short circuits, fires involving nuclear weapons. And I showed it to him, and he had never seen it. And this is somebody who for decades was at the heart of our nuclear weapons establishment. So the secrecy was so intense that the Air Force wasn’t telling the weapons designers problems that they were having in the field.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us some of those accidents, some of those near misses, and then how things are being handled today.

ERIC SCHLOSSER: Yeah, I mean, one of the most significant near misses occurred just three days after John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. A B-52 bomber broke apart in the sky over North Carolina, and as it was breaking apart, the centrifugal forces affecting the plane pulled a lanyard in the cockpit, which released one of the hydrogen bombs that it was carrying. And the weapon behaved as though it had been released over the Soviet Union, over an enemy target deliberately. And it went through all of its arming stages, except one. And there was one switch that prevented it from detonating in North Carolina. And that switch later was found to be defective and would never be put into a plane today. Stray electricity in the bomber as it was disintegrating could have detonated the bomb.

The government denied at the time there was ever any possibility that that weapon could have detonated. Again and again, there have been those sort of denials. But I obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act that said conclusively that that weapon could have detonated. I interviewed former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had just literally entered the administration and was terrified when he was told the news of this accident when it occurred. The official list of nuclear weapons accidents that the Pentagon puts out lists 32, but the real number is many, many higher than that. And again—

AMY GOODMAN: What are some of the more recent ones?

ERIC SCHLOSSER: Well, just this summer, two of our three Minuteman missile wings were cited for safety violations. A few years ago, the Air Force’s largest storage facility for nuclear weapons, the group that ran it was decertified for safety violations. And one of the more concerning things right now—this sounds like, you know, a Hollywood movie—is the potential vulnerability of our nuclear command and control system being hacked to cyber-attack.

The Defense Science Board put out a report this year that the vulnerability of our command and control system to hacking has never been fully assessed. There were Senate hearings on it this spring that didn’t get very much attention. But in 2010, 50 of our missiles suddenly went offline, and the launch control centers were unable to communicate with them for an hour. And it later turned out to be one computer chip was improperly installed in a processor. But what we’ve seen with Snowden and a relatively low-level private contractor able to obtain the top secrets of the most secret intelligence agency, the cryptography and some of the code management of our nuclear weapons is being done by private contractors. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Who’s doing it?

ERIC SCHLOSSER: I think Boeing is doing some of it. And again, they may be doing a wonderful job, but when you’re talking about nuclear weapons, there is no margin for error. And if you managed nuclear weapons successfully for 40 years, that’s terrific, but if you make one severe error and one of these things detonate, the consequences are going to be unimaginable.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You’ve also said that the command and control structure—system in place for nuclear weapons has actually weakened since the end of the Cold War. Is that right?

ERIC SCHLOSSER: One of the things that’s happened and one of the problems the Air Force is having is, once the Cold War ended—and during the Cold War, having control of nuclear weapons was a high-prestige occupation in the Air Force and the Navy, but since the Cold War, it’s been seen as a career dead end. And so, there have been all kinds of management issues, underinvestment—and I’m not saying we should be building, you know, hundreds and hundreds of new bombers or—but if you’re going to have nuclear weapons, no expense should be spared in their proper management.

AMY GOODMAN: How many do we have?

ERIC SCHLOSSER: And what I was going to say is, some of the systems that we have right now are 30, 40 years old. We’re still relying on B-52 bombers as our main nuclear bomber. Those are 60 years old. They haven’t built one since the Kennedy administration. And the Titan II missile that I write about at some length in my book, one of the problems and one of the causes of the accident was that it was an obsolete weapon system. Secretary of Defense McNamara had wanted to retire it in the mid-1960s, and it was still on alert in the 1980s. And again, with nuclear weapons, the margin of error is very, very small.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to President Obama in June. He was speaking in Berlin, in Germany, and called for nuclear reductions.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how distant that dream may be. And so, as president, I’ve strengthened our efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and reduce the number and role of America’s nuclear weapons. Because of the New START Treaty, we’re on track to cut American- and Russian-deployed nuclear warheads to their lowest levels since the 1950s.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama speaking in Berlin in June. Shortly afterwards, Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer criticized Obama for discussing nuclear arms reduction.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: The idea that we’re going to be any safer if we have a thousand rather than 1,500 warheads is absurd. So why is he doing this? Number one, he’s been obsessed with nuclear weapons and reducing them ever since he was a student at Columbia and thought that the freeze, which was the stupidest strategic idea of the ’80s, wasn’t enough of a reduction, and second, because I think that’s all he’s got.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Charles Krauthammer on Fox. Eric Schlosser?

ERIC SCHLOSSER: Right. As an analyst, I think that given his record on the Iraq War, nothing he says should be taken seriously. The fact of the matter is, every nuclear weapon is an accident waiting to happen or a potential act of mass murder. And the fewer nuclear weapons there are, the less likely there is to be a disaster. And I think that President Obama, on this issue, has been quite courageous in calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. It’s something that presidents have sought in one way or another since the end of the Second World War. And I think it’s urgent that there be a real arms control and reduction, not just of our arsenal, but of worldwide arsenals of nuclear weapons.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to a video released by the anti-nuclear weapons group Global Zero that shows many members of Congress don’t even know how many nuclear weapons the United States has. Here, members of Global Zero approach Republican Representative Morgan Griffith of Virginia, Republican Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri, Republican Representative Rob Wittman of Virginia, and Democratic Representative Pedro Pierluisi of Puerto Rico, Republican Representative Duncan Hunter of California, Republican Representative Mark Amodei of Nevada and Republican Representative Bill Flores of Texas.

GLOBAL ZERO INTERVIEWER: Do you happen to know roughly know how many nuclear weapons we do have?

REP. MORGAN GRIFFITH: Uh…

REP. BLAINE LEUTKEMEYER: Well…

REP. ROB WITTMAN: The current arsenal, I don’t have an exact number.

REP. TOM McCLINTOCK: My understanding is about 300.

REP. PEDRO PIERLUISI: No, no, it’s much more than that.

GLOBAL ZERO INTERVIEWER: It’s more than 15,000?

REP. PEDRO PIERLUISI: In terms of nuclear heads? Of course.

GLOBAL ZERO INTERVIEWER: More than 15,000? Really?

REP. PEDRO PIERLUISI: Well, I don’t know.

GLOBAL ZERO INTERVIEWER: Do you have any idea about how many nuclear weapons we have?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Uh, no.

REP. MARK AMODEI: Nope, not the exact number.

REP. BILL FLORES: It changes every day.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: According to the group Global Zero, more than 70 members of Congress were polled, and 99 percent of them did not know, even roughly speaking, how many nuclear weapons the United States has. Eric Schlosser, your remarks on that?

ERIC SCHLOSSER: It’s not an entirely fair question, because the numbers are very different whether they’re being counted for the SALT Treaty, how many are in reserve, etc. And so, it’s a difficult thing to say specifically. We have about 1,500 under the SALT Treaty deployed. We have a few thousand other—

AMY GOODMAN: And where are they?

ERIC SCHLOSSER: —in reserve. They’re mainly on our nuclear submarines that are at sea. We have 450 strategic land-based missiles that are in the northern Midwest. But it’s important to keep in mind that there is grounds for optimism. At the height of the Cold War, the United States had 32,000 nuclear weapons, and the Soviet Union had 35,000. So, right now, the number of weapons that both the Soviet Union and the United States have on alert, ready to be launched, combined, is maybe 2,000, 2,500. So, to go from 60,000 to 2,500, you know, 8,000 to 10,000, is a huge achievement. But there needs to be much greater reductions.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there a possibility of a domestic Stuxnet, you know, like the U.S. released against Iran, a virus in the—that would affect command and control?

ERIC SCHLOSSER: It’s a great concern. You know, these weapons are not connected to the Internet, but there are command information systems that run software. During the Cold War, Zbigniew Brzezinski was woken up in the middle of the night. He was national security adviser. He was told the United States was under attack. He got another call and was basically preparing to call President Carter and advise a retaliation. And it turned out that there was a faulty computer chip in the NORAD computers that was saying that Soviet missiles were coming towards the United States, and they weren’t. So, as long as you have a weapons stance in which we need to be able to retaliate immediately, it puts enormous pressure on acting quickly, and there’s are all kinds of possibility for error.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what has to be done?

ERIC SCHLOSSER: I think, firstly, the reason that I wrote the book is, in a democracy, these sort of decisions need to be debated by the American people. And really, since 1944 or 1945, fundamental decisions about nuclear weapons have been made—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds.

ERIC SCHLOSSER: —by a small group of policymakers acting in secret. So, firstly, we need openness. Secondly, we need a debate. And thirdly, we need fewer nuclear weapons, much more carefully managed, not only in this country, but in every country.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Schlosser, we want to thank you for being with us. Command and Control is the book. It has just come out. Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.

Eric Schlosser: If We Don’t Slash Our Nukes, “a Major City Is Going to Be Destroyed”

The “Fast Food Nation” author on his frightening new exposé of America’s nuclear weapons mishaps.

A 1953 detonation of the 23 kiloton XX-34 Badger at the Nevada Test Site. The Official CTBTO Photostream/Flickr Creative Commons

Update (1/16/2014): The Air Force announced yesterday that it had suspended and revoked the security clearances of 34 missile launch officers at the Malmstrom base in Montana after it came to light that they were cheating—or complicit in cheating—on monthly exams to ensure that they were capable of safely babysitting the nuclear warheads atop their missiles. Eleven launch officers, two of whom were also involved in the cheating episode, were targeted in a separate investigation of illegal drug use. The revelations were just the latest fiasco in the Air Force’s handling of America’s nuclear arsenal, which military officials invariably insist is safe. Then again, as Schlosser reveals in his book, they’ve lied about that before.

The term “wake-up call” is a tired cliché, but it is appropriate in the case of Command and Control, the frightening new exposé of America’s nuclear weapons mishaps by Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser.  In short, Schlosser delivers a book full of revelations that left me agape. While we still worry in the abstract about Iran and North Korea and Pakistan, it’s easy to forget that we still have thousands of our own ungodly devices on hair-trigger alert at this very moment. And even if we never drop or launch another nuke on purpose, these weapons are, in his words, “the most dangerous machines ever invented. And like every machine, sometimes they go wrong.”

That’s what the book is about. Through hard-fought documents and deep digging and extensive interviews, Schlosser reveals how close we’ve come, on numerous occasions, to a domestic nuclear detonation or an accidental war in which there are only losers. Command and Control will leave many readers with a deep unease about America’s ability to handle our nukes safely. Schlosser’s hope is that this unease will beget a long-neglected debate about “why we have them and when we use them and how many we need.” But his book is no screed. He delivers an engrossing page-turner. Would that it were fiction.

Mother Jones: The safety of America’s nuclear arsenal is far cry from fast food. What got you interested in this topic?

Eric Schlosser: I spent some time with the Air Force before Fast Food Nation came out. I was interested in the future of warfare in space: space weapons, particle-beam weapons, lasers, directed-energy devices. A lot of the people who were involved in it had started their careers as missile-crew officers. As I spent time with them, I became more interested in their stories from the Cold War about nuclear weapons than I did in the future of warfare in space.

MJ: How long did it take to research the book?

ES: A lot longer than I thought it would. I originally was going to write a relatively short book about this accident in Damascus, Arkansas, which was an extraordinary story. But the deeper I got, the more I realized that the subject of nuclear weapons accidents hadn’t really been written about, and that the threat was much greater than I thought it was. So what started out as a two-year project turned into six—and an extraordinary amount of digging around in strange places.

MJ: My general takeaway is that, given our history of near misses, it’s essentially dumb luck that we haven’t had an accidental nuclear detonation on American soil, or an accidental launch.

ES: If we don’t greatly reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world, or completely eliminate them, a major city is going to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon. It’s remarkable—it’s incredible!—that a major city hasn’t been destroyed since Nagasaki. We can confront this problem or we can accept that hundreds of thousands or more will be killed. And I don’t think that’s inevitable. The book was really written with a notion of trying to prevent that.

MJ: But is it inevitable if we maintain our current course?

ES: My background, academically, is history. I hate the word “inevitable” because I feel like things don’t have to be the way they are. But we really need to change our policies. I think Obama has done a terrific job of trying to raise awareness about nuclear weapons. But we really need to sit down with Russia, China, England, France, India, Pakistan, and think about how to greatly reduce, if not eliminate, these weapons. And that may sound totally absurd and unrealistic, but when I was in my 20s, if someone had said that the Soviet Union would vanish without a nuclear war and the Berlin Wall would come down and all this would happen without tens of thousands, or millions, of deaths, people would have thought that was absurd.

MJ: What do you think might befall our society were an accidental detonation to occur? I mean, suppose that H-bomb had exploded in North Carolina?

ES: It would have profoundly shocked this country and the world. When you look back at the response after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that was around the period that the United Nations was nominally created, and support for eliminating nuclear weapons was not only in the air, but was embraced by the majority of Americans. As the decades passed, particularly since the Second World War, we lost the sense of how devastating these weapons can be—and also what its like to be in a society that’s been completely destroyed by warfare. We’re very fortunate in the United States that we’ve been protected by geography. I was in Manhattan on 9/11, and the difference between having 3,000 Americans killed, which was horrible on 9/11, versus 500,000 or a million is almost impossible to comprehend. These weapons are machines, and I think they are the most dangerous machines ever invented. And like every machine, sometimes they go wrong.

MJ: I find it remarkable how little public attention has been paid to the safety of nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War.

ES: I can’t really blame the media. The government—lying might be too strong a word, although in some instances they absolutely lied about it—but they did everything they could to cover up these accidents, to distract attention from them, and when attention was paid to them, in most cases, to mislead the press.

MJ: Some examples?

ES: Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, it was almost boilerplate for Defense Department officials to say that during an accident there was no possibility of a nuclear detonation, while privately, at the weapons laboratories, there were physicists and engineers who were extremely worried and were well aware that we had come close to having it happen on American soil. If you look at the official list of broken arrows that the Pentagon released in the ’80s, it includes 32 serious accidents involving nuclear weapons that might have threatened the public safety. The list is entirely arbitrary: Some of those accidents didn’t even involve weapons that had a nuclear core, so they never could have detonated. But many, many serious accidents aren’t on that list.

One document I got through a Freedom of Information Act request listed more than 1,000 weapons involved in accidents, some of them trivial and some of them not trivial. There’s somebody who worked at the Pentagon who has read this book, and one of his criticisms was that I’m so hard on the Air Force—he said that there were a great number of accidents involving Army weapons that I don’t write about.

You know, it’s very difficult to get this information. I did the best that I could, but I have no doubt that there are other incidents and accidents that still have not been reported, so I can’t blame the mainstream media so much as blame this national security apparatus. Again and again I would see by comparing documents that what was being redacted wasn’t information that would threaten the national security—it was information that would be embarrassing, or put these defense bureaucracies in an unflattering light.

MJ: Were you surprised the Air Force gave you as much as it did?

ES: The Air Force was remarkably unhelpful. I was able to get what I got through FOIA requests to the Department of Energy and the Pentagon—some of these things took a couple of years, and some of them were heavily excised. We’re talking about a nation that no longer exists, the Soviet Union. We’re talking about weapons that are no longer in the stockpile. And yet when you get these documents, it’s remarkable how much has been blacked out. The thing that was enormously helpful to me, and surprising, was to find that some of the most anti-nuclear people in the US are the people who designed, handled, had command of these weapons.

MJ: When most people think of nukes, we think of these massive, high-yield bombs, but you also write about nuclear artillery shells, nuclear depth charges, and even a nuclear rifle called the Davy Crockett. How is it even possible, given the institutional dysfunction of the military, to maintain tight control with all these small nukes around?

ES: It was a constant challenge, and particularly when these weapons were being stored in Europe for use against an invading Red Army, it was a matter of inventory control. This book is critical of the management of our nuclear weapons, and yet the Pentagon deserves its due: To my knowledge, there was never an accidental detonation. If you add them all up, we probably made 70,000 of these things. If one of them had detonated, it means 69,999 did not. And that’s very good management. But still, the consequences of one detonation are almost unimaginable.

MJ: You can’t screw up!

ES: You can’t screw up once! And that’s the unique danger of these machines. The incident in 2007, when we lost half a dozen hydrogen bombs for a day and a half, was an incredibly serious security lapse: The fact that nobody was asked to sign for the weapons when they were removed from the bunker, the fact that nobody in the loading crew or on the airplane even knew that the plane was carrying nuclear weapons is just remarkable.

MJ: And this was six years ago!

ES: Yes. And the Air Force seems still not to have gotten its act together. There was a decertification of launch crews at Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of our three Minuteman bases, just a few weeks ago. There was a decertification at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, which is where the Air Force stores most of its nuclear weapons.

MJ: What’s a decertification?

ES: It means they’re failing their safety inspections. This is very, very serious stuff. The margin for error is as small as can be.

MJ: In the book, you relate how Harold Agnew, a Los Alamos physicist visiting a German base in 1960, “nearly wets his pants” when he saw planes with fully assembled H-bombs being guarded by lone US soldiers who weren’t even trained in what to do if someone tried to commandeer the plane. I can’t imagine that we’re still so careless.

ES: What was remarkable then was that we were sharing these weapons with our NATO allies. In that case, he saw a powerful nuclear weapon loaded onto a jet that was part of the German air force and had the Iron Cross markings on its wings. His concern—this wasn’t so long after the end of World War II—was that a disgruntled German pilot might just take off, head for Russia, drop his bomb, and there was absolutely nothing except for the air defense system of the Soviet Union to prevent him from doing that. There were no locks on the bombs. There were no codes required to activate the bomb. It was in the early days of the Kennedy administration that there was a crash program begun to do something you’d think common sense would dictate, which would be: Put locks on the nuclear weapons, and put coded switches on them so only the person who has the code could set them off. But there was a learning curve in the management of nuclear weapons, and we are very, very lucky. And there’s no guarantee that luck will last.

MJ: Describe the reaction of Sandia weapons safety expert Bob Peurifoy when you showed him the list of broken arrows you obtained through FOIA requests.

ES: I think Peurifoy is a national hero. He was a weapons designer at the lab who became concerned about safety and fought for 20 years to get modern safety devices installed on our nuclear weapons, at great personal cost. He knew as much about nuclear weapons accidents as any person in our national security establishment. There was a document I got listing accidents and less-serious nuclear incidents, and I gave him a copy to see what he thought of it. And he was stunned and very depressed by it, because it was clear that there were many incidents that were not being shared with him.

There was an enormous amount of compartmentalized secrecy, and that was to prevent secrets from being too widely shared and potentially leaked. But what that meant was people in different parts of the system didn’t have an overall view of how the system was operating—and that can be very dangerous. The people designing the weapons literally often didn’t know how they were being handled in the field by the Air Force—and a lot of people in the Air Force didn’t understand some of the dangers. There’s a very strong element of madness in this.

MJ: One of the Peurifoy’s greatest challenges was this constant tug-of-war between the desire to deploy a weapon quickly and the desire to have it not go off accidentally. The military invariably erred on the side of speed. Has that balance changed since the end of the Cold War?

ES: It hasn’t. There’s always going to be that inherent tension when you have these conflicting design goals. They can be expressed by the phrase “always/never.” The things that would ensure the weapon always works flawlessly may conflict with the things that make sure it never goes off accidentally, never gets stolen, never gets sabotaged.

This is especially important when you want your nuclear weapons available for immediate use, as we do in the United States. Right now, our land-based missiles are ready to be launched pretty much within a minute or so. To keep these WMDs on a trigger like that means that you’re adding an element of danger, a chance of accidental launch—whereas if you, for example, were to take the warheads off the missiles and not have them available for immediate use, they would be considerably safer. We still have the capability, if we get a signal that China or Russia has attacked the United States, to launch our missiles before they’re destroyed by these incoming weapons. But that means you’ve got to really make sure the radar signals are the right ones.

MJ: And you haven’t much time, especially with a submarine launch.

ES: Yeah, the time between when you see them on the radar and when they might hit might be six, seven, eight minutes if the sub is off the coast of the United States.

MJ: You describe a bunch of WarGames-type incidents during which this really happened—we got false launch signals or the Russians got false signals.

ES: There were two major false alarms during the Carter administration. One of them occurred when a training tape was accidentally put into the computer at NORAD that was supposed to warn us of a Soviet attack. It was a very realistic simulation of a Soviet attack, and so that created a great deal of concern until it was realized that it was a false alarm. Not that long afterward, during the tense period after the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, there was a computer error at NORAD that basically said that more than 1,000 missiles were on their way. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was woken up in the middle of the night and told that it looked like the US was under attack. He waited for more confirmation before calling the president, but he was fully prepared for this nuclear strike and to order a counter-attack. According to Bob Gates, who was head of the CIA and later Secretary of Defense, Brzezinski deliberately didn’t wake his wife, because if they were all going to die, he just wanted it to happen while she was sleeping. Having a launch-on-warning capability like we do, and having our missiles on alert is a very dangerous game, because once one of our missiles is launched—unlike bombers—there’s no calling it back.

MJ: In the early days of nuclear weapons, the authority to launch was solely in the hands of the president, and that got diluted. How many people have that authority now?

ES: Good question, and that’s probably very top secret. What happened was, as there was a great realization that Washington could be destroyed by the Soviets with little or no warning, there was a need to delegate the presidential authority so that if the president were killed, the United States could mount a retaliation. But once you start delegating authority—essentially sharing the launch codes—you introduce the possibility that somebody could start using our weapons without the authorization of the president. And this was particularly of concern with NATO, because it’s clear that the supreme allied commander in Europe had been delegated the authority to use nuclear weapons; if there was a communications breakdown between the United States and Europe, the NATO officers on their own could initiate the use of nuclear weapons, and things could spiral completely out of control very quickly. It’s not clear to me who is delegated to authorize their use today.

MJ: NATO no longer has that authority?

ES: NATO doesn’t really have nuclear weapons on alert anymore—there are some delegated to NATO through submarines, and there are maybe 200 tactical nuclear bombs, but they’re not mounted on airplanes.

MJ: Your book’s central narrative involves the deadly explosion you mentioned, which took place at a Titan II missile silo in Arkansas in 1980. What were the key lessons of that disaster, and do you think the military has learned them?

ES: I’m quite concerned. One of the lessons would be, if you’re going to have nuclear weapons, you must spare no expense in the proper maintenance of them. The Titan II was widely regarded as obsolete. They were running out of spare parts. There were frequent leaks, and the warhead was acknowledged not to have adequate safety devices. The people working on it were often poorly trained, poorly paid, overworked. There were shortages of trained technicians. In retrospect, it was completely irresponsible to have all of those things occurring with a missile carrying the most powerful warhead ever put on an Air Force missile. It’s just extraordinary! And there were high rates of drug use. I spoke to people who had been involved in sensitive nuclear positions who were smoking pot at the time. You don’t want people smoking pot and handling nuclear weapons. So those are some of the crucial takeaways. And yet our land-based missile, the Minuteman III, is upward of 40 years old. The B-52 bomber hasn’t been manufactured since John F. Kennedy was president, and some of those bombers are getting close to 65 years old. We really should either invest in our weapons systems or get rid of them.

Look at what happened with the Air Force, starting with that 2007 incident when they lost those hydrogen bombs. A few years ago, they lost communication with an entire squadron of Minutemen missiles—50 missiles!—for almost an hour. They had to decertify the maintenance crew that looks after the biggest Air Force storage facility in New Mexico. Seventeen launch officers were taken off duty earlier this year for safety violations. There’s a sense of a lack of direction, and mismanagement right now—particularly in the Air Force. And it’s intolerable. It’s unacceptable.

MJ: Obviously, the warhead on that Titan II didn’t detonate. But even barring a nuclear explosion, should we be worried about a dirty-bomb type scenario where, say, plutonium is dispersed over a populated area?

ES: Yes. That warhead didn’t contain plutonium, but the warheads on top of our Trident II missiles do. They are mounted around the third stage of the missile in a way so that if the rocket fuel were to detonate, you could have a major scattering—and that’s still a major issue with our Trident bases in Washington state and in Georgia. You have to be extremely careful about how these warheads are mounted on the missiles and how the missiles are put in the submarines. These are dangerous devices. And I’m not the first person to say that. I know that the Navy is quite aware of it, but I don’t think the general public is.

In college, I studied game theory and nuclear strategy, and I was interested in the nuclear freeze movement, so I read an enormous amount about nuclear weapons. But doing this book, I realized that my ignorance was profound. And this is important knowledge for American citizens to have, because we need to have a meaningful debate about nuclear weapons, about nuclear strategy, and why we have them and when we use them and how many we need. That’s pretty much why I wrote the book.

MJ: Curtis LeMay, who ran the Strategic Air Command back in the day, was almost this kind of caricature of a military hawk. On the other hand, it seems like America’s nuclear weapons were under far tighter control on his watch.

ES: Yeah. LeMay at one point was considered a great American hero, protecting us from the Soviets. He later became widely reviled in the United States, the symbol of a warmongering general who was caricatured in Dr. Strangelove as the mad general played by George C. Scott. LeMay’s politics are different from mine, and many of his theories of nuclear warfare are ones that I don’t endorse, but I think he was one of our truly great generals. He was an engineer by training, and if you’re going to have nuclear weapons, you want them managed by someone who has absolutely no tolerance for error, who’s a great believer in checklists and proper organization. He was all of those things. LeMay was absolutely ruthless with his men about ensuring that there was no sloppiness.

The other thing I think made him a great general was that he was brave and willing to take risks himself. During the Second World War, he flew the lead plane during some dangerous bombing missions just to show his men that the plan was a sound one. He was the sort of commander that’s more and more sort of missing in America.

With this nuclear weapon accident in Arkansas, there was a remarkable lack of accountability. The people who were held responsible and punished for it were the low-level enlisted men, and not some of the high-ranking officers and generals who had made the crucial decisions that contributed to the disaster. So, LeMay certainly made mistakes, but if you look at how our nuclear weapons are being managed now, we could use a little bit more of Curtis LeMay.

Nuclear ‘Command And Control’: A History Of False Alarms And Near Catastrophes

 Listen to the NPR interview here.
The Titan II intercontinental-range missile, pictured in 1965, sits ready for launch on its 150-feet-deep underground launchpad. "The one warhead on a Titan II had three times the explosive force of all the bombs used by all the armies in the second world war combined — including both atomic bombs," says investigative reporter Eric Schlosser. i

The Titan II intercontinental-range missile, pictured in 1965, sits ready for launch on its 150-feet-deep underground launchpad. “The one warhead on a Titan II had three times the explosive force of all the bombs used by all the armies in the second world war combined — including both atomic bombs,” says investigative reporter Eric Schlosser.

Keystone/Getty Images

Globally, there are thousands of nuclear weapons hidden away and ready to go, just awaiting the right electrical signal. They are, writes investigative reporter Eric Schlosser, a collective death wish — barely suppressed. Every one is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder, he says.

“When it comes to nuclear command and control, anything less than perfection is unacceptable because of how devastatingly powerful these weapons are,” Schlosser tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies.

Schlosser, best known for his book Fast Food Nation, spent six years researching America’s nuclear weapons, interviewing many involved in developing defense policy and in maintaining and deploying weapons systems, and examining government documents.

His new book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, is a critical look at the history of the nation’s nuclear weapons systems — and a terrifying account of the fires, explosions, false attack alerts and accidentally dropped bombs that plagued America’s military throughout the Cold War.

“One of the themes of my book is about how we are so much better at creating complex technological systems than we are at controlling them,” he says.

“It’s only since the Cold War ended that we’ve been able to find out how close we came, again and again, to having our own weapons detonate by accident, or potentially be stolen, or potentially be used by people without proper authorization.”


Interview Highlights

On a B-52 bomber that accidentally dropped a bomb on North Carolina in 1962

This plane was on a routine flight. At that period, we had B-52 bombers in the air 24 hours a day ready to attack the Soviet Union. So this plane took off with two very powerful hydrogen bombs. And while it was flying, the pilot noticed that there was a weight imbalance and they needed to essentially dump their fuel and get back to the base.

Command and Control

Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

by Eric Schlosser

While they were trying to get back to the base, the weight imbalance started to break apart the plane. As the B-52 bomber broke apart midair, the crew was evacuating, there was a lanyard in the cockpit, and it was the lanyard that one of the crew members would normally pull to release the hydrogen bombs. The centrifugal forces of the plane breaking apart pulled the lanyard as though [a] human being had pulled it.

Now, these bombs are dumb machines — and they didn’t know the difference between a person pulling on the lanyard or centrifugal forces. So the bombs were released as though we were over enemy territory and at war.

One of those hydrogen bombs went through all of its proper arming steps except for one, and when it hit the ground in North Carolina, there was a firing signal sent. And if that one switch in the bomb had been switched, it would’ve detonated a full-scale — an enormous, enormous thermonuclear explosion — in North Carolina.

On a false alarm that the United States was under Soviet attack

By the late 1970s, the great threat to the United States was Soviet missiles. These would come very quickly; the president of the United States would not have very much time whether to decide if this was a real attack or a false alarm and whether to launch our missiles — it might be as few as 10, 12 minutes to make this decision. …

On Nov. 9, 1979, at NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] headquarters inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, Co., suddenly the screens were filled with images of a major Soviet attack on the United States. It really looked like an all-out attack and that the president [Jimmy Carter] might have to make a decision about whether or not to respond. It was investigated very quickly and other radars showed no sign of this attack. And the decision was made that this was a false alarm.

And it was soon realized that someone had inadvertently put a training tape — and the training tape was of an all-out Soviet attack — into a computer, and the computer had presented the training tape as a real attack.

On another serious false alarm

We had another serious, serious incident … when Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser, was awoken at 2:30 in the morning and told by his military aide that the United States was most likely under attack by 220 missiles. And as Brzezinski said, “I need confirmation of that,” and his military aide got off the phone and the military aide called back Brzezinski and said, “It’s actually 2,200 soviet missiles [that] are coming toward the United States.”

Brzezinski wanted further confirmation, and as he lay there in bed in the early morning hours, he decided not to wake up his wife, because if Washington, D.C., was about to be destroyed, he preferred that she die in her sleep. And Brzezinski was preparing to call President Carter to talk about the American retaliation, and his military aide called back one more time [and] said it was a false alarm.

Eric Schlosser wrote Fast Food Nation, his look at the practices of the meatpacking and fast food industries, and Reefer Madness. His latest book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, is out in paperback later this month. i

Eric Schlosser wrote Fast Food Nation, his look at the practices of the meatpacking and fast food industries, and Reefer Madness. His latest book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, is out in paperback later this month.

Courtesy of Penguin

And this false alarm was later traced to a faulty computer chip that cost 46 cents that had malfunctioned and had sent this signal that 2,000 Soviet missiles with warheads were on their way.

On early nuclear weapons and the destruction of Hiroshima

Early nuclear weapons were essentially handmade. … The bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was an incredibly crude and inefficient weapon. When it exploded, about 99 percent of the uranium that was supposed to undergo this chain reaction didn’t — it just blew apart in the air. And a very small percentage, maybe 2 percent of the fissile material, actually detonated — and most of it just became other radioactive elements.

So when you look at the destruction of Hiroshima, this major city, Hiroshima was destroyed in an instant, and 80,000 people were killed and two-thirds of the buildings in this enormous metropolitan area were destroyed instantly because 7/10 of a gram of uranium-235 became pure energy. To imagine how small of an amount that is — 7/10 of a gram of uranium is about the size of a peppercorn; 7/10 of a gram weighs less than a dollar bill.

Even though this weapon was unbelievably inefficient and almost 99 percent of the uranium had nothing to do with the destruction of Hiroshima, it was a catastrophic explosion. Nuclear weapons since then have become remarkably efficient and small and capable of destruction that makes Hiroshima seem trivial.

On the frequency of these mistakes

I was able to obtain thousands of pages through the Freedom of Information Act to write the book that revealed these details, and also to do interviews with people who designed the weapons, people who handled them routinely, who told me these stories. It’s quite extraordinary how much was suppressed.

If you look at the Pentagon’s official list of how many nuclear weapons accidents, serious accidents, we have — what they call “broken arrows” — the list contains 32 accidents. But I was able to obtain a document through the Freedom of Information Act that said just between the years 1950 and 1968, there were more than 1,000 accidents involving nuclear weapons. And many of the serious accidents I found don’t even appear on the Pentagon’s list. So I’m sure there were many more that I was unable to uncover that occurred.

On how the aging missile technology is a safety hazard

The problem today is that we have very aging weapons systems — both in the United States and Russia. It’s very old technology. Our principal nuclear bomber, the B-52, hasn’t been built since John F. Kennedy was president. Our principal land-based missile, the Minuteman III, was put into the ground originally in 1970. [It] was supposed to be retired in the early 1980s, and the infrastructure is aging — the wiring, the computers in our Minuteman launch complexes use 9-inch floppy discs. There’s all kinds of potential for problems there — and in Russia, the same thing.