Nuclear 'Command And Control': A History Of False Alarms And Near Catastrophes
Originally published on Wed August 13, 2014 11:39 am
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."
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.
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.
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.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross who's off this week. Our guest Eric Schlosser writes that today we have thousands of nuclear missiles hidden away and ready to go awaiting the right electrical signal. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The on-air version of this story states “we have thousands of nuclear missiles hidden away and ready to go.” That figure is a global figure, not a U.S. figure.]They are, he writes, a collective death wish, barely suppressed. Everyone is an accident waiting to happen - a potential act of mass murder. Schlosser's new book is a critical look at the history of our 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. Schlosser is an investigative reporter probably best known for "Fast Food Nation," his look at the practices of the meatpacking and fast food industries. He's also written the book "Reefer Madness." Schlosser spent six years researching America's nuclear weapons, examining government documents and interviewing many involved in developing defense policy and in maintaining and deploying weapons systems. His book "Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety" is out in paperback later this month. Eric Schlosser, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I grew up in the Cold War, and I knew, of course, that nuclear weapons were out there and had incredible death-dealing power. But I, somehow, always thought that they were carefully maintained by people in, you know, these moon suits and booties, and there were always these, you know, triple-redundant systems to avoid mistakes. And your book tells a really different, different story. I thought we should cover just a couple of the more chilling episodes that you document. One of them takes place in 1961. a B-52 takes off from a base in North Carolina with two hydrogen bombs aboard. You want to tell us what happened then?
ERIC SCHLOSSER: Yeah, and 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 there was a weight imbalance. And they needed to, essentially, dump their fuel and get back to the base. And while they were trying to get back to the base, the wait imbalance started to break apart the plane. And as the B-52 bomber broke apart midair, the crew was evacuating. And 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. And 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 a lanyard or centripetal 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 have detonated, full-scale, an enormous - enormous - thermonuclear explosion in North Carolina. And it would have changed the course of history. This was just a few days after John F. Kennedy was inaugurated in a period of great optimism. And if this hydrogen bomb had detonated in North Carolina, it would have sent lethal radioactive fallout as far north, perhaps, as Washington, D.C. And it would've been a catastrophe.
DAVIES: And then, not so many years before that, there was another terrifying incident where - well, it was a family in South Carolina, and there was a B-47 carrying nuclear weapons. Tell us what happened there.
SCHLOSSER: Yeah, and this accident was less dangerous in the sense that the nuclear weapon did not include the nuclear core. So it couldn't have detonated full-scale and created a nuclear detonation. But the accident is worth knowing about because it shows how the most simple, unlikely events can set off, potentially, a catastrophe. A B-47 bomber was flying with an atomic bomb in this case - a very large atomic bomb. And there was a signal in the cockpit that it wasn't properly locked in to the plane. So they sent a crew member into the bomb bay. And he'd never been in the bomb bay, but he volunteered to do it - he was ordered to do it. And he went in there, and he's, you know, in this small enclosed space, trying to push the locking pin in by hand. And he was searching around for about 10 minutes in the Bomb bay. And he reached above it, and there was some air turbulence. He grabbed onto, accidentally, the manual bomb release. It's almost like out of the scene of "Dr. Strangelove," and it's possible that Kubrik was inspired by this incident. The crewmember fell on top of the bomb and was very lucky to grab onto something in the Bombay before the bomb broke through the Bombay doors and fell downwards towards the ground. And this crewmember was literally hanging in the Bomb bay, looking down below thousands of feet at the ground. This atomic bomb fell. It hit. It landed in someone's yard. It exploded. It destroyed the house and the car and killed some chickens. But the family - the Gregg family was very, very fortunate that none of them were hurt.
DAVIES: And to be clear, in this case, the atomic material didn't detonate, but the high explosives that were part of the weapon did - right?
SCHLOSSER: Right, for a bomb like this, you have of a fissile material, like uranium or plutonium, surrounded by conventional explosives, and when the conventional explosives detonate, they compress the nuclear core. In this case, the weapon did not have a nuclear court in it. So there was no chance of a nuclear explosion, but the conventional explosives did detonate. And one of the themes of my book is about how we are so much better at creating complex technological systems then we are at controlling them. You know, a guy pulls the wrong handle and releases an atomic bomb over South Carolina. We're very lucky there wasn't a nuclear core in it because it would have detonated, and it wouldn't have been as large an explosion as in North Carolina. It would probably have been as large an explosion as the Hiroshima bomb. And that's pretty big explosion.
DAVIES: In 1979 - by then a lot of our weapons are on missiles, and we had this system for detecting when there might be a Soviet attack. And the detection system sent some alarming signals to military commanders. What happened with that?
SCHLOSSER: Well, by the late 1970s, the great threat to the United States was Soviet missiles. And these would come very quickly. And so the president of the United States would not have very much time whether to decide if this is 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. And at about 11 o'clock in the morning on November 9, 1979, at NORAD headquarters inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, Colorado, 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 might have to make a decision about whether to respond. It was investigated very quickly, and other radars showed no sign of this attack. 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. So that was a false alarm. Nothing was done as a result of it. But on June 3, 1980, we had another serious, serious incident at 2:30 in the morning when Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security advisor, was awoken at 2:30 in the morning and told by his military aide, the United States was most likely under attack by 220 missiles. And Brzezinski said, I need confirmation of that. And his military aide got off the phone, and the military aid called back Brzezinski and said it's actually 2,200 Soviet missiles are coming towards the United States. And 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, in his military aide called back one more time, said it was a false alarm. And this false alarm was later traced to a faulty computer chip - a computer chip that cost 46 cents that had malfunctioned and had said this - had sent this signal that 2,000 Soviet missiles with their warheads were on the way.
DAVIES: Eric Schlosser's book is "Command and Control." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is Eric Schlosser. He is the author "Fast Food Nation" and his most recent book is "Command And Control: Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus Accident, And The Illusion Of Safety." It's out in hardback and will be out in paperback later this month. I want to talk a bit about how we got where we are, in terms of this kind of a nuclear arsenal and the way it's managed. You have some fascinating information about the early history. Of course, America developed atomic weapons at the end of World War II. And I wondered if you could just talk a little bit about some of those early weapons. They were pretty large, clunky things, weren't they?
SCHLOSSER: And they were created in the age of the slide rule. This was very rudimentary technology. We developed nuclear weapons because there was a fear that Nazi Germany was developing them, as well. And this was in the height of the Second World War And the fact that they wound up being used against Japan - it wasn't the original intention. And the historians, you know, debate whether or not the use of two nuclear weapons against Japan ended the war with Japan, but, certainly, that was the perception. The early nuclear weapons were essentially handmade. In the book, I write about the test of the first nuclear device in Alamogordo in New Mexico in July 1945. And the nuclear core of that first nuclear device was literally put together by hand in a farmhouse. And you see these things and they look like laboratory experiments from a 1930s horror film - like Dr. Frankenstein could create. But even though there were these rudimentary, handmade devices, they worked. And the amount of devastation that they could create was extraordinary. And in the case of Hiroshima, 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 two 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 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. Now, to imagine how small an amount that is, 7/10 of a gram of uranium is about the size of a peppercorn. Seven-tenths of a gram weighs less than a dollar bill. So even though this weapon was unbelievably inefficient and almost, you know, 99 percent of the uranium had nothing to do with the destruction of Hiroshima, it was a catastrophic explosion. And nuclear weapons since then have become remarkably efficient and small and capable of devastation that makes Hiroshima seem trivial.
DAVIES: Accidents were a part of the nuclear program from the beginning. And one of the more horrific involved this engineer named Louis Slotin - do I have the name right - in 1946.
DAVIES: You want to just quickly tell us...
SCHLOSSER: Louis Slotin.
DAVIES: Slotin, OK.
SCHLOSSER: Well, I mentioned that the first nuclear core for the first detonation of a nuclear device was assembled by hand in a farmhouse. And it was assembled by Louis Slotin, who was one of the Manhattan Project scientists. He did some of the most daring experiments and so many of these things were done by hand. And he was doing an experiment at the lab in which he was showing others how a chain reaction worked. And he had two spheres of plutonium that were separated by a screwdriver. And the screwdriver slipped out of his hand and the plutonium instantly started a chain reaction and there was a bright, blue flash. And he was able to push apart the spheres very quickly, so that the other people in the room weren't killed. But in that instant, he absorbed a lethal dose of radioactivity. His death was through radiation poisoning - was slow. It was very painful. But in order to stress to future Manhattan Project scientists and nuclear engineers the importance of safety procedures, he agreed to have his death radiation poisoning filmed. It was horrific and that footage was later shown far and wide to people who worked on nuclear weapons as an example of what can happen when you're not careful.
DAVIES: After the United States dropped the two nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrendered, we were clearly entering a new age of warfare. And there was a lot of debate among policymakers about whether we would enter that age and if we did have nuclear weapons, who exactly would control them. You want to just give us a feel for what that discussion was like?
SCHLOSSER: It may seem hard to believe now. But in the year following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was such revulsion at the notion of using nuclear weapons. And there was such fear of the consequences that there was a very strong, worldwide consensus that these weapons must be banned - that they must be outlawed. And it was a feeling not just, you know, in the United States but throughout the world. And it was a feeling shared by many of the top officials in the United States military, having seen the devastation that just two of these weapons could cause. And there were all kinds of measures that were put forward to outlaw nuclear weapons, to put fissile material like Uranium-235 and plutonium under the control of the United Nations. There was a great deal of optimism and then the Cold War began. And as the Cold War settled in, the idea of banning nuclear weapons seemed more and more of an illusion.
DAVIES: As the military, you know, developed its nuclear capability and we had long-range bombers, which were in the air all the time, with nuclear weapons others on the ground ready to go, there were accidents and there were mistakes and there were fires and there were crashes. And there were people in the military and in the associated kind of scientific organizations and labs that were really aware of this and very concerned about them. You write about a guy named Bob Peurifoy. Tell us about him, what he was up to and what were some of the concerns he raised?
SCHLOSSER: Bob Peurifoy was trained as an engineer and he worked at one of our weapons labs that most people have never heard of - the Sandia National Laboratory. At Los Alamos and Livermore, they developed the physics part of the weapon. But at Sandia, they work on the mechanics of it, the machinery of it. And Peurifoy was an engineer there. And he began to become increasingly concerned about the safety of our nuclear arsenal. In the very early days of nuclear weapons, the nuclear core was stored separately from the bomb itself, so there is no way that the bond could detonate. But more and more, there was this need to use our weapons quickly, so we had fully assembled weapons that were ready to go. And the problem was once a weapon was fully assembled. There might be a chance, through a short circuit, through being exposed to fire, that it might detonate when it's not supposed to. And Peurifoy became increasingly concerned about this in the late 1960s. And he led a bureaucratic battle that lasted more than 20 years to install modern safety devices in our weapons so that our own weapons couldn't destroy one of our own cities by accident.
DAVIES: Now, the people who run the military have no interest in an accidental nuclear explosion or seeing their weapons stolen or commandeered by some, you know, mentally-deranged commander. Why would they resist adding safety features, which only make weapons more secure?
SCHLOSSER: Well, at the heart of controlling nuclear weapons, there is this tension. On the one hand, the military wants the weapons always available for immediate use. And they always want the weapons to detonate when they're supposed to over an enemy target. So the military pushes for always. But the other side of the equation is never. You never want a weapon to detonate by accident. You never want it to be used by someone without permission. You never want it to be easily sabotaged. And when you're designing weapons, the kinds of things that you might do to encourage and promote always, might be exactly the opposite of what you need to ensure never. So very often, the civilians were airing on the side of never and the military was airing - wanted to air on the side of always.
DAVIES: There's one remarkable story you tell about a safety switch that was installed because of concerns that you wanted to limit the ability of a crew to improperly arm and use a nuclear weapon. And these safety switches were installed, but then - well, you tell the story.
SCHLOSSER: It's important for people to realize that for the first couple of decades that we had nuclear weapons, there were no locks on the weapons. And crews that had them were free to use them and what prevented them from it - using these weapons was their military discipline. But starting in the Kennedy administration, there was a desire to put locks on the weapons so that a code would have to be entered before a bomber crew could use its weapons or before a missile crew could launch them. The Air Force, in particular, was insulted by this. They felt like it was a criticism of their discipline, of their professionalism, and really fought tooth and nail against putting any coded switches on its nuclear weapons. One of their arguments was pretty good. Let's say we go to war, but nobody gets the code. Let's say the president is killed or let's say whoever has the codes is killed, that means our entire arsenal won't work. But at the same time, the pressure to put coded switches on those weapons prevailed. And when the Minuteman missiles that the Air Force had first got these launch controls in the early 1970s, the Air Force rebelled against it and made the code the same for every one of its Minutemen launch complexes. It was - and I'm paraphrasing - zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero. It was a code that everyone could easily know if they wanted to launch their missiles.
DAVIES: Eric Schlosser will be back in the second half of the show. His book "Command And Control" will be out in paperback later this month. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week. We're speaking with investigative reporter Eric Schlosser, whose latest book looks at the accident and false attack alerts that have plagued America's nuclear weapons systems. Schlosser's also the author of "Fast Food Nation," a critical look at the impact of America's fast food industry. For "Command and Control," Schlosser spoke to many who maintained America's nuclear weapons including some involved in a horrific accident at a missile silo near Damascus, Arkansas in 1980. There's one accident that you tell in great detail in the book. And this involves a Titan II missile. Tell us about this weapon - what it does - how it works.
SCHLOSSER: The Titan II was the largest intercontinental ballistic missile that the United States ever built. It was about the size of a ten story building. It was enormous, and on top of it, was the most powerful nuclear warhead that the United States ever built. 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. It was an unbelievably powerful warhead.
DAVIES: And this is at an underground missile silo, which is where these weapons were stored. Just tell us a little bit about kind of the two stages of the weapon and what kind of an underground complex there was to manage it and launch it when necessary.
SCHLOSSER: Yeah, well, there was a deep silo to contain this hundred-foot tall missile. And the missal contained two different propellants. One was a rocket fuel. The other was known as an oxidizer. And when the two mixed, they catch on fire, and that's what would propel the missile up into the air. So it was very important to keep these two propellants separate. And there were separate tanks in the missile for the purpose. One day, they were doing routine maintenance in the silo, and there was a workman standing on a steel platform near the top of the missile, doing something that these guys did all the time - something you do without even thinking about - adding little pressure to one of the tanks. And he was standing on a steel work platform near the top. And the socket fell off of his tool, and it hit the steelwork platform, bounced. He reached for it and just missed it, and it fell in between this very narrow gap in between the steel work platform and the missile. It dropped about 70 feet down, hit the wall of the silo, ricocheted and hit the missile. And when it hit the missile, it tore a small hole in the steel skin of the missile. And suddenly, thousands of gallons of highly explosive - highly toxic -highly flammable rocket fuel went pouring out of the missile into the silo. And so there was suddenly this problem that the Air Force had never encountered before and literally didn't know what to do. Not only was this flammable rocket fuel filling the silo, but there was this other propellant, the oxidizer - which if it touched the fuel, would ignite - was in the tanks of the missile.
DAVIES: It's - there's an incredibly gripping account of how this unfolds, and folks can read that in the book. One of the things that's striking about that account is as - you know, there were a lot of people at the silo, you know, when the socket was dropped and when the leak occurred. And then, of course, other people were summoned in Arkansas and, eventually, in Omaha at higher levels of the military command. And as people tried to figure out what to do, there were drastically different, you know, suggestions as to whether you should take the top of the silo off to vent it or whether you should try and go in - send somebody in. We won't go into all of that here. But what does the delay and confusion in dealing with all of that tell us about the challenges of dealing with this kind of technology?
SCHLOSSER: Yeah, for me, the story was important not only because the details of it, to me, are credible - and there's remarkable personal heroism of the young airmen who go into highly dangerous environment to try to save the missile. But the story, to me, is an illustration of how hard it is to control complex technological systems, especially when something goes wrong. The Titan II missile had been on alert in silos in the United States for years - for almost twenty years when this accident occurred. They had routine checklists and standard operating procedures for how to do everything for this missile. And then when something goes wrong, they had no idea what to do, and they debated what to do. And the people who were near the missile who knew the most about the missile weren't allowed to make the decisions. The decisions were made by a strategic air command general hundreds of miles away in Omaha, Nebraska who knew very little about the missile.
DAVIES: So let's take us back to this moment at this missile silo in Arkansas. There's a decision to turn on an exhaust fan. Just briefly - what happens then?
SCHLOSSER: Well, two young airmen had risked their lives going into a silo that was full of explosive fuel vapor. The concentrations were so high, there was concerned that just by walking through the vapor, you could ignite it through the - because of the friction of your body. And they realized it was a dangerous situation, and they were getting ready to leave and some over the radio suggested maybe a ventilation fan should be turned on to get some of the fuel vapor out of the silo. And it's not clear if the young airman was ordered to do it or misunderstood what was being said - the radio communications were poor. And again, there was a litany of technological problems in addition to the accident. And in this case, they turned on the fan and got ready to leave the silo, and then there was just a massive, massive explosion as the missile went up in flames.
DAVIES: Yeah, tell us a little bit about the destruction and injuries that resulted.
SCHLOSSER: Well, this was a missile silo that had been designed to survive a nuclear strike from the Soviet Union. And the explosion of this Titan II missile just sent enormous, gigantic chunks of concrete, weighing tons, hundreds and hundreds of feet into the air. The door of the silo, which weighed hundreds of tons, was sent flying into a nearby forest. And the most concerning thing was that the nuclear warhead on top of the missile - this powerful warhead - was launched into the air and landed somewhere, and nobody knew where it was. And then there was this hunt to find this warhead in the early morning hour darkness and the total confusion and chaos. And when accidents like this happen, you know, you never really know how you are going to respond. In this case, most of the airmen fled the scene -were ordered to leave the scene. Even most of the disaster response force that had been sent there to handle the disaster fled the scene. And a small group of men stayed behind to rescue the injured and to try to find this powerful warhead that, somewhere, was in rural Arkansas.
DAVIES: Remarkably, the two men - servicemen - who were actually at the silo survived the initial blast. One died later. It was a horrific incident, and there had been a different - not an explosion - but a fire at another Titan II silo before that killed - is it 53 servicemen?
SCHLOSSER: Yeah, there was a fire at a different launch complex of the same sort of missile in which there were workers doing maintenance and an upgrade on the missile, and a fire broke out. And 53 construction workers died underground. And that missile site was later fixed up, and the Air Force used it, and it was known as the ghost site because so many men had died underground there. There was a feeling that it was haunted and that strange mechanical things would happen there in the middle of the night. And a lot of that sounds apocryphal, but strange things did happen, and a lot of this machinery was imperfect. And so it was interpreted as having some sort of supernatural origins. But these were very complex weapons systems. And the Titan two, in particular, had all kinds of potential for catastrophe. And we're very fortunate that more people weren't killed by these missiles.
DAVIES: As you investigated these incidents - and there were many of them - I wonder if you compared what actually happened with what the military said about them both to civilians and others in the military at the time and the explanations that they gave later and to what extent they reflected what actually happened.
SCHLOSSER: The Department of Defense did everything it could during the Cold War to prevent information about nuclear weapons accidents from being released - to prevent any information about safety problems with our nuclear weapons from being released. And, you know, the justification that was made for that was they were worried that if the details of these accidents became known, the public would lose support for our policy of nuclear deterrence and for our nuclear weapons policies. So they could justify it in a Cold War sense that, you know, we are in a Cold War and we need to keep the information as little as possible about these accidents. In reality, there was also a very strong bureaucratic motivation for people who made mistakes not to be held accountable for those mistakes. So 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. And I was able to obtain thousands of pages through the Freedom of Information Act to write the book that revealed these details, and 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 documents through the Freedom of Information Act that said just between the years of 1950 and 1968, there were more than a thousand 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 are many more that I was unable to uncover that occurred.
DAVIES: When you got records about these nuclear accidents and near misses and you showed them - I assume you showed them to the folks that you interviewed who had been, you know, active in seeking steps to make them safer, like this guy Bob Peurifoy. Were they surprised at what you found?
SCHLOSSER: I show one document, in particular, that was about 250 pages long that had detailed stories of problems with our nuclear weapons. And Bob Peurifoy was vice president of the Sandia National Laboratory. And his - one of his responsibilities was nuclear safety, and he had never seen this document. And it contained many incidents that he had never been told about. So it's disturbing when one of the top nuclear weapon designers responsible for the safety of the weapons isn't being told about problems with the weapons. There was so much secrecy during Cold War, and often this form of compartmentalized secrecy in which one group wasn't allowed to know what the other group was doing - that it actually made things more dangerous, not safer.
DAVIES: Eric Schlosser's book is "Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety." It's out in hardback and will be appearing in paperback later this month. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is Eric Schlosser. He's the author of "Fast Food Nation," and his most recent book is "Command And Control: Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus Accident, And The Illusion Of Safety." It's out in paperback at the end of this month. You talked to a lot of people who were involved in maintaining and deploying, you know, the nation's nuclear weapons. And I'm wondering, if they talked about it, how they felt about the risks of those weapons and what it felt like to bear the responsibility of controlling it.
SCHLOSSER: Well, one of the things - one of the problems I have with Hollywood stereotypes of our military is they were very often portrayed as caricatures - warmongers wanting to bomb the Soviet Union into oblivion on the shortest notice, and yet - particularly the strategic air command veterans that I met - were well aware of the great responsibility they had in controlling these nuclear weapons. And it was a very stressful job. They knew that if the order to go to war came that they would probably not survive it. If they were in a bomber crew, they would have to fly over the Soviet Union, and if they even made it there, the odds of them getting back were very slim. If they were a missile crew, they knew if it was a nuclear war, they might be able to launch their missile but the odds were a Soviet warhead would soon destroy their launch complex and kill them. They were patriotic. They believed in their mission. They believed that the conflict with the Soviet Union was a just one, but they were not eager to go to war. They realized that if they used their weapons hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, would be killed. And I didn't meet a single one who had ever any eagerness to turn the key or push the button.
DAVIES: You know, in the book you give a lot of people credit for trying to exercise better control over our nuclear weapons, and you explore how various presidents sought to gain better control. Let's talk about what's going on today. The Cold War is over but there's still an awful lot of weapons out there, and we're - have an increasingly contentious relationship with Russia. How do you feel about things now?
SCHLOSSER: I'm quite concerned. The good news is the number of weapons is vastly lower than it was at the height of the Cold War. At the height of the Cold War the United States had more than 31,000 nuclear weapons, most of them vastly more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. And because of the perverse mentality of the arms race, the Soviet Union decided they would be more powerful if they had more weapons. So the Soviet Union had 35,000 nuclear weapons. That's extraordinary. Today the United States has, perhaps, 2,000 deployed nuclear weapons, and Russia has, perhaps, 3,000 - maybe 4,000. So the numbers are much lower, and that's a good thing. The fewer weapons, the less likely there is to be an accident or somebody, you know, misusing a weapon. 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, was supposed to be retired in the early 1980s. And the infrastructure is aging - the wiring. The computers in our Minuteman launch complex use nine-inch floppy disks. So there's all kinds of potential for problem there and in Russia, the same thing. Their early warning system is aging. So you don't want the command and control systems of the United States and Russia to have to go on heightened alert for any reason like they did in the Cold War, firstly because the equipment is so old and secondly because we don't have officers who have experience of dealing with a nuclear crisis. During the Cold War our officers had to deal with the invasion of Hungary and the Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis and they'd been through these sorts of tensions.
DAVIES: Do you know whether mishaps with American nuclear weapons are less common today than they were, I mean, proportionally, you know, in the '70s and '80s?
SCHLOSSER: To my knowledge, there has not been an American major nuclear weapon accidents since the Damascus accident that's the focus of my book. However, in 2007 there was a very, very serious incident involving half a dozen nuclear cruise missiles of ours. They were accidentally loaded onto a B-52 bomber. The ground crew had no idea that there were nuclear warheads on the cruise missiles when they put them on the plane. The pilot of the B-52 didn't realize that her plane had nuclear weapons on board. The plane flew across the United States and we have had rules in place since 1968 that nuclear weapons are not supposed to be flown over the continental United States because of the risk of accidents. And then the bomber was parked on a runway at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana for hours without anyone realizing that nuclear weapons were on board. So for a day and a half, the Air Force effectively didn't know that half a dozen nuclear weapons were missing. And that's a very, very serious incident. You know, you can do a perfect job of maintaining control of 1,999 nuclear weapons, but if you lose one, that's a big problem.
DAVIES: Eric Schlosser, thanks so much.
SCHLOSSER: Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Eric Schlosser's book, "Command And Control," will be out in paperback later this month. You can read an excerpt at our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album from Billy Joe Shaver, a founder of the outlaw country movement. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.