Know that popular Liberty Insurance Mutual commercial that jokingly shows people making small mistakes — dropping an air conditioning unit from an upper-story window or forgetting to put on the emergency brake — that destroy their cars? Funny, right? Now imagine that, but with nuclear weapons.
That's the frightening picture that author Eric Schlosser paints in his new book Command and Control, a look at the many accidents involving nuclear weapons that almost led to massive destruction. His conclusion isn't very comforting — it's partly plain old luck that has kept an explosion from happening, one of several points he made in a phone interview with The Atlantic Wire.
Take, for example, a 1980 accident in Damascus, Arkansas, which works as the book's headliner because it is both cartoonishly simple and dramatically frightening. There, a young worker at a silo for the Titan II ballistic missile, which held the most powerful nuclear warhead the U.S. had ever built, accidentally dropped a socket while doing regular maintenance. That socket fell, took an awkward bounce, and pierced through the missile, setting off a leak of rocket fuel and sending the Air Force into a desperate attempt to stop an accidental explosion of the warhead.
"I think a lot of the major themes of the book — about the difficulty of controlling complex technologies, the unpredictability of it, how a relatively trivial event can set in motion things that can lead to a catastrophe — It all just seemed present in this story," Schlosser told The Wire.
The book is scarily full of stories like the Damascus Accident, which Schlosser worked to get declassified for the book. In another case, a B-52 plane exploded above North Carolina during a supposedly-routine flight, dropping two hydrogen bombs below. They failed to explode because of a single low-voltage switch, the last safety measure available for the explosives. Other gut-wrenching examples were reported in The New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times Book Review.
Just as we are lucky that none of these accidents ever resulted in an explosion, we're equally lucky that no unhinged military members had a Dr. Strangelove-like desire to take nuclear action into their own hands, a possibility which, despite Air Force claims to the contrary, was very real. "The reality was until the early 1970s, there was nothing to prevent a bomber crew from just flying to the Soviet Union with their hydrogen bombs and dropping them," Schlosser said. "There were no codes that they had to type in to unlock the bombs or unlock the missiles. So we're glad that never happened but it's a pretty risky way to manage a nuclear weapon."
Even more disconcerting — two people in charge of safety protocols for nuclear weapons didn't even know about all of these accidents until Schlosser told them. That's because of the Air Force's compartmentalized secrecy, which prevents the bomb users from interacting with its developers, Schlosser explained. "There were bomb handlers and pilots who didn't realize some of the safety problems with the weapons, and there were weapons developers who didn't realize how these weapons were being handled. And that's a very bad combination," he said.
And this isn't just a historical problem; many of these same issues remain today. "I'm concerned about the arsenal right now, and the morale of the people who are running it, and some of the safety violations we've been having for the last two years," Schlosser said. While his work highlights the potentially huge problems of human infallibility, the solutions he suggests don't offer much. "But if we're gonna have these weapons, we need to take care of them properly," he said. Any other options? "Or just get rid of them."
(Photo of Schlosser: AP Photo/The Penguin Press, Kodiak Greenwood; Photo of book cover: Amazon.)