Monday, October 06, 2014
Playing with Nuclear Fire
The safety of nuclear weapons is the theme of Eric Schlosser's 2013 book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. After reading the book, my own reaction is mirrored in a quote Schlosser cites from General George Butler, who became head of the U. S. Strategic Air Command shortly before the Soviet Union came to an end in 1991. After familiarizing himself with the secret plans for nuclear war, Butler later remarked that "we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion."
Did you know, for example, that on March 11, 1958, a nuclear bomb landed on a playhouse belonging to the Gregg family of Mars Bluff, South Carolina? The impact was strong enough to set off the high explosives in the bomb, destroying the playhouse, a nearby automobile, and injuring six family members. Fortunately, the nuclear core was not inserted in the bomb. It remained behind in a B-52 aircraft three miles above, where the navigator had entered the bomb bay to check on the status of a locking pin. As he crawled awkwardly around the device, he grabbed the nearest object at hand for support, which happened to be the manual bomb-release lever. The bomb fell onto the bay doors and forced them open, and the navigator narrowly avoided following it to the ground by hanging on for dear life.
That same manual bomb-release lever was responsible for at least one other accidental loss of a nuclear bomb. The most hair-raising accident involving nuclear weapons happened to a Titan II nuclear missile in a silo near Damascus, Arkansas, on September 18, 1980. The Titan II was the same multistage rocket that boosted the Gemini manned spacecraft into orbit in the 1960s. It used highly hazardous nitrogen tetroxide liquid oxidizer and an equally dangerous rocket fuel, which would explode on contact with the oxidizer. You can imagine the challenges involved at underground missile silos all over the U. S., as Air Force personnel struggled to keep dozens of these hundred-foot-tall rockets fueled and ready for launch in minutes during the many years of the Cold War.
Inevitably, something would go wrong. On that fateful day in 1980, during a routine pressure check on the missile in Launch Complex 374-7, a technician dropped a heavy socket-wrench socket. It bounced off a projection inside the underground silo, hit the thin aluminum skin of the rocket, and punctured it, allowing fuel to escape into the silo. Over the next nine hours, things got steadily worse. I won't give away the ending of this particular story, which reads like a Tom Clancy thriller in spots, but today the silo is filled in and the land has been returned to its previous owner.
The Damascus accident advances in fits and starts over the entire length of the book as Schlosser digresses into the history of nuclear weapons, the evolution of nuclear-weapons policy in international relations, and attempts to make nuclear weapons safe as well as reliable. This structure mostly works, although at times I found myself wishing for less political and military infighting and more Cold War stories about bomb accidents. But there is plenty of both, for policy wonks interested in the finer points of Henry Kissinger's diplomatic skills and for techies wanting to know exactly how a thermonuclear weapon's electronic system functions.
The more time passes, the harder it is to believe that two of the most advanced industrial countries of the world—the U. S. A. and the Soviet Union—routinely played chicken with nuclear weapons, not just once, but dozens of times. And most of these games were played in an era when the most advanced communications systems were either submarine cables installed as long ago as the 1860s, or shortwave radios that were essentially amateur radio sets on steroids. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, generally recognized by historians as the time that the world edged closest to the nuclear brink, whenever the Soviet ambassador in Washington wanted to send urgent messages to his superiors back in the USSR, he had to call Western Union, which sent a messenger to the embassy on a bicycle and carried a piece of paper back to the telegraph office by hand.
Because few civilians ever saw or dealt with nuclear weapons, the whole Cold War threat had an unreal quality to it, but it was frighteningly real. Schlosser shows us that everyone living in the U. S. and the USSR, not to mention other nations with nuclear capabilities, had numerous escapes from a fiery or lingering death by nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, though most of us were unaware of them. And of course, that threat still exists today, though now the most dangerous nations with nuclear weapons are places like North Korea and Pakistan. As I write this, North Korea's nominal leader Kim Jong Un has not been seen in public for more than a month, so we don't really know who's in charge there.
Toward the end of the book, Schlosser quotes Langdon Winner's comment that "artifacts have politics." That is to say, the very nature of some technologies compels the formation of certain types of political structures to deal with them. The only way to deal with nuclear weapons, Winner concluded, is to form a secret, authoritarian system of control. The ultimate in hazardous technology demands the ultimate in control and safety precautions. Although nuclear-weapons powers have done pretty well at controlling the intentional use of such devices, the horror-story list of accidents that Schlosser has compiled in Command and Control leaves one with the impression that it is only a matter of time until we see an entire city or region vaporized, not because someone decided to start a war on purpose, but because some technician screwed up. For the sake of everyone who might be endangered by it, I hope that such an accident never happens. But unless those who decide to build nuclear weapons value safety as highly as they do reliability, the chances are that sooner or later, it will.
Sources: Eric Schlosser's Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety was published in 2013 by the Penguin Press. I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Mars Bluff, SC, the Mark 6 nuclear bomb, Titan II, Langdon Winner, and the 1980 Damascus, Arkansas incident. As of today (Oct. 6, 2014), CNN reports that Kim Jong Un has not made a public appearance since Sept. 4.