December 11, 2013
Vol: 20 No: 50

Arts & Entertainment

Dirty bombs: Luck, not diplomacy, has saved the world from a nuclear catastrophe

by: Mike Wold

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety | By Eric Schlosser

Illustration by Derek Gundy

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The night of Sept. 18, 1980, was a tense one near Damascus, Arkansas: Fuel was leaking from a nine-story-tall Titan, the U.S.’s largest intercontinental ballistic missile. It was only a matter of time before its oxidizer tank collapsed and ignited an explosion. The Titan’s warhead represented three times the explosive power of all the bombs dropped in World War II.

Fortunately, the fuel explosion only blew the door off the silo, launched the second stage of the missile and sent the relatively unharmed warhead flying about 200 feet into a ditch. A cloud of toxic chemicals was released over farms and fields. One man died in the explosion; two others were seriously injured.

This was not the only accident involving a U.S. nuclear weapon. Major incidents include a hydrogen bomb engulfed in a burning plane on a runway in Morocco (1958); four hydrogen bombs deployed when bombers broke up over North Carolina and California (1961); four bombs dropped after a midair collision over Spain (1966); four bombs in a plane that crashed in Greenland (1968); and others. In the North Carolina incident, a single safety switch kept one bomb from going off.

In “Command and Control” author Eric Schlosser notes that a military report covering 1957 to 1967 details hundreds of incidents, large and small, in which H-bombs were accidentally armed, accidentally dropped, accidentally released from bomb bays and so on. None of these produced a nuclear explosion: It takes precise compression of a nuclear core to set off a bomb. In some of the cases, though the high explosive detonators did go off, digging large craters and releasing plutonium. If all the detonators had exploded at the exact same time, or stray electric currents or malfunctioning switches had set them off as designed, there would have been a nuclear disaster.

About the Titan explosion, Schlosser, who also wrote “Fast Food Nation,” weaves four threads: the effort made (or not made) to handle nuclear weapons safely; the attempt to keep a nuclear attack from being launched accidentally or by someone without authorization; the design necessary to deploy the nuclear arsenal with only a few minutes’ notice; and the strategic thinking for how to “win” a nuclear war.

This history covers the period before the breakup of the Soviet Union, as U.S. strategy morphed from winning by primarily targeting military installations (and secondarily Soviet cities) into deterring a first strike by threatening to wipe out the bulk of Russia’s population. The primary tactical goal remained the same: to deliver nuclear bombs effectively to their targets. The “safer” a bomb was — the more obstacles to it being armed and exploded — the less likely it was to be effective in a nuclear war. Consequently, the military resisted incorporating too many safety features into its bombs. As Schlosser summarizes one analyst’s conclusions, “The fact that a catastrophic accident with a nuclear weapon has never occurred … can be explained less by good design than good fortune.”

In the Damascus incident, the Air Force insisted to the public that there was no danger — right up to the point where the missile exploded. Part of the strategy of nuclear deterrence was controlling domestic public opinion: How could we win a nuclear war if the public turned against nuclear weapons?

Schlosser subtitles his book “The Illusion of Safety.”  U.S. decision makers created a system in which the president had only a few minutes to decide whether to launch an attack that would kill tens of millions of people — an attack that would invite proportionate retaliation. Schlosser documents incidents in which computer malfunctions indicated that a nuclear attack on the U.S. had begun. In one, a computer mistook the moon for a missile swarm. In 1974, as Richard Nixon faced resignation and was showing signs of emotional instability, the Secretary of Defense instructed the military to get the secretary’s approval before acting on any of Nixon’s emergency orders.

Schlosser attributes some of the problems with accidents to the top-down command structure in place until the 1980s, which made it hard for people at a site to respond to a crisis as it happened. Today’s military apparently allows more room for that. Safety features have also been added that reduce the risk of accidental explosions. On the other hand, since the end of the Cold War, being in charge of nuclear weapons is not an optimum career path for an officer. Consequently, the security of nuclear weapons is much worse than it was during the Cold War — as seen in recent headlines about officers involved with nuclear facilities being fired for negligence and corruption.

Schlosser maintains an objective tone. He gives full credence to the logic by which our highest officials came to believe that threatening to destroy the Soviet Union was the way to preserve our security, even as the Soviet Union attained similar capabilities. I only wish he’d answered this question: How can madness be so logical?

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