Q&A: Author Says Pentagon Underreported Nuclear-Weapon Accidents

Eric Schlosser worries there's not enough public awareness about the danger such weapons still pose.

The U.S. government’s desire to maintain tight secrecy around the U.S. nuclear arsenal during the Cold War often left the very scientists and engineers charged with developing mechanisms for preventing atomic mishaps in the dark about hundreds of accidents and near-misses.

That revelation came through extensive investigative reporting by Eric Schlosser, author of the newly published Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety.

Schlosser, whose previous probes yielded the bestsellers Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness, told Global Security Newswire he was inspired to investigate U.S. nuclear weapon accidents after hearing about a close-call that occurred in September 1980. At the Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas -- not far from the town of Damascus -- a Titan 2 intercontinental-ballistic missile exploded and sent its warhead flying into a ditch 200 yards away.

The book, released last week by Penguin Press, includes new details from Schlosser's interviews with former U.S. military officials and nuclear laboratory workers, as well from information gleaned from documents he received through Freedom of Information Act requests.

One noteworthy takeaway learned from a declassified accident report is that from the summer of 1957 to the spring of 1967 there were hundreds of incidents involving U.S. nuclear weapons that were considered too minor by the Pentagon to bother with alerting weapon safety officials at Sandia National Laboratories. A number of those incidents, as detailed by Schlosser, sound anything but minor: “A Genie antiaircraft missile released from a fighter plane by mistake and dropped onto a weapon trailer; a Boar missile crushed by the elevator of an aircraft carrier; a Mark 49 warhead blown off a Jupiter missile when explosive bolts detonated due to corrosion; smoke pouring from a W-31 warhead atop a Nike missile after a short circuit; the retrorockets of a Thor missile suddenly firing at a launch site in Great Britain.”

A 1970 report ordered by Sandia “found that at least 1,200 nuclear weapons had been involved in “significant” incidents and accidents between 1950 and March 1968,” according to Schlosser. By contrast, the Pentagon cites only 32 cases of so-called “Broken Arrows” in its official list of major nuclear accidents since 1950 that resulted in explosion, fire, radioactivity release, loss, theft, accidental launch or actual detonation.

Though most of the accidents detailed in Command and Control happened decades ago, Schlosser noted that the U.S. Air Force more recently has had a string of embarrassing security and safety incidents related to its management of the country’s ICBMs and nuclear bombers.

Now that the Cold War is over, nuclear arms no longer generate the major mainstream news stories they once did, which makes Schlosser concerned there is not enough public awareness about the danger such weapons still pose.

“The world needs to remember that these things are out there, and I hope people will remember it without there having to be a disaster to serve as a reminder,” Schlosser told GSN. “I’m not apocalyptic. I’m not saying that doom is inevitable at all but it’s amazing how close we’ve come and there’s no reason to believe that our luck will last.”

Edited excerpts of the Sept. 16 interview are below:

GSN: You report that historically the Unites States has kept certain kinds of nuclear-weapons safety problems and incidents tightly compartmentalized, for security reasons. This limited how much information was available to the engineers and scientists responsible for nuclear-weapons safety. Why do you think former officials made that decision? And do you think weapon designers today have better access to that kind of safety incidents information?

Schlosser: There was compartmentalized secrecy throughout the national security state during the Cold War, and that was believed to be a way to keep the Soviets from getting our secrets. It proved to be very effective at keeping one part of the national-security system unaware of what the other part was doing. Weapons designers didn’t always know how the military organizations that had the weapons were using them, and the military organizations didn’t always know some of the safety issues of the weapons. One example would be the weapons designers at the labs were unaware that nuclear weapons in the 1950s were being taken out of their bunkers and put on airplanes for ground alerts. They were never consulted about that. The safety characteristics of a weapon when it’s in a bunker are very different from the safety characteristics of a weapon when it’s on an airplane and being driven down the runway.

As for today, I would hope that things are better but again I’m sure that these details are secret and I can’t really tell you. …

Certainly with the documents that I got from the Freedom of Information Act, again and again it was clear that things are being classified not to protect the national security, but to protect bureaucracies from embarrassment, especially when a lot of the incidents and the weapons that I was seeking information on were half-a-century, 60-years-old, weapons that are no longer in existence, designed for an adversary that’s no longer in existence. …

GSN: What enabled the kind of reporting that you did for this book? Could this kind of book have been written earlier, say during the Cold War?

Schlosser: It was a combination of … the declassification of certain documents after the Soviet Union collapsed, the willingness of people now, many years later, to talk bluntly about these issues. And I think in many ways the digital revolution helped considerably. … I went through tens of thousands of pages [of documents] if not more than that and it was the ability to search digitized documents that greatly facilitated my ability to find very specific information. …

GSN: Your past books have dealt with very different subject matters: fast food and America’s so-called black market. What inspired you to write a book about nuclear weapons?

Schlosser: I spent some time with the Air Force more than a decade ago and I was interested in the future of warfare in space. So I was spending time with a lot of people at the Air Force Space Command....One of them told me the story of the accident at Damascus. … I just couldn’t get that story out of my head. … So I decided to investigate that story and I was thinking about just telling the narrative about what happened at Damascus and the more I learned the more I was amazed and the book just got bigger and bigger. The other important narrative in it for me is the story of [U.S. nuclear weapons engineer] Robert Peurifoy and the effort to add modern safety mechanisms to our weapons. It became a dual narrative, and then it became a triple narrative, it became a bigger and bigger book as I found out more and more stuff that I thought was unbelievable.

GSN: Do you think congressional committees are given enough information about these nuclear mishaps and near-misses, so that lawmakers can exercise proper oversight of the U.S. arsenal and related policy?

Schlosser: Speaking historically, the safety problems with our nuclear weapons were kept from the Congress for years. I think the dissolution of the [Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in1977] really reduced government oversight in many ways and congressional oversight of nuclear weapons.

[Then-Sandia National Laboratories Vice President and nuclear weapons safety advocate] Bob Peurifoy was just fortunate [in April 1989] that [former] Senator John Glenn happened to be visiting Sandia and he was able to talk to him about the problems with our arsenal. … That’s what really got some movement … on the nuclear weapons safety issue. But it took sort of the serendipitous presence of a U.S. senator at Sandia for that to happen. Now, engineers at Sandia, one could argue, could have become whistleblowers. They could have gone to the New York Times or theWashington Post or something like that. But there should be things in place within the system that allow for problems to be brought to light.

It’s extraordinary to me that six years after the incident in Minot [Air Force Base in North Dakota] in which half a dozen thermonuclear weapons were misplaced that they are still having these sort[s] of safety questions and problems. I think [former] Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates did a great job in reading them the riot act [in 2008], but clearly the message wasn’t received.

GSN: Why do you think the message hasn’t been received?

Schlosser: I think there was a cultural shift in the Air Force through the 1950s, into the early 1960s. The Strategic Air Command was in some ways the most- elite unit … in the Air Force. … After the Vietnam War into the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a cultural shift in the Air Force, [and] a much greater … emphasis [was placed] on tactical air power. The officers who came to run the Air Force were, quote, “fighter generals” -- not “bomber generals.” Once the Cold War ended, the nuclear mission in many ways seemed like a career dead-end. ...

The book goes through all these close calls, crossed wires, almost accidental detonations. But what happened at Minot in 2007 was extraordinary. ... It was multiple levels of failure. It couldn’t be blamed on the ground crew alone. And it’s that sort of system of oversight that needs really close scrutiny. And the blame and responsibility is at the top, not at the bottom. Again and again inCommand and Control, I write about how it’s the technician using the wrong tool, it’s the guy in the silo who makes a mistake who’s severely punished while the leadership isn’t. And that’s why I thought again what Gates did was terrific. I’m not criticizing the current head of STRATCOM or the current head of Global Strike Command. But this is a cultural issue, this is a systems issue and I think they really need to get on top of it.

GSN: President Barack Obama’s administration has made improving global-nuclear security one of its core national-security priorities. But what about U.S. nuclear security, considering we have some of the most powerful weapons?

Schlosser: I’ll give you a mixed answer. On the one hand, I think that we probably do the best job, have the most-sophisticated safety technology, have the most-sophisticated command-and-control technology -- and yet look at the problems that we’ve had for the last 70 years. And that should give pause to any other nation that thinks about having nuclear weapons. Whatever mistakes we’ve made, the places that I feel the greatest concern about isn’t necessarily the United States, it’sPakistanIndia, Russia. … Who knows what has happened there or what is happening there. … [Russia] had a submarine fire a couple of years ago.

GSN: Since the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945, there have been no further nuclear warhead detonations. Should this be attributed to cooler heads prevailing and the existence of protocols intended to prevent the unintended launch of a nuclear weapon? Or is it just sheer dumb luck?

Schlosser: It’s not sheer dumb luck. Incredibly elaborate systems were created. The most-advanced technology was applied to solving these problems and great personal heroism was displayed in trying to prevent accidental detonations. If you look at the fact that we’ve built almost 70,000 nuclear weapons and none of them have detonated accidentally and no city has been destroyed by [an atomic warhead] since Nagasaki, that’s an incredible record of success. But in this business, there’s absolutely no margin for error. …Anything less than perfect achievement in this field unfortunately is unacceptable.

I have enormous respect for the people at the weapons laboratories, at the Air Force, in the Navy, who’ve devoted their careers to command-and-control, to nuclear-weapons safety. But the problem isn’t in them. The problem is in us and the fact that anything that is man-made is going to be imperfect. Every single machine that we’ve ever invented has failed at one point or another.

GSN: You detail a number of “Broken Arrows” that came close to resulting in disasters. How aware are lawmakers -- particularly those who advocate maintaining sizable nuclear arsenals to guarantee national security -- of this history of near-misses?

Schlosser: I have no idea. I hope they’ll read the book. They don’t have [to] agree with it, but I hope that they or their staff members will read it. I’d be glad to send them a copy.

It’s interesting that one of the [former] Bush administration’s arguments on behalf of the Reliable Replacement Warhead was that they could add the most modern safety-and-use control devices to it. So, advocates of building new nuclear weapons and more nuclear weapons … can also be advocates of nuclear-weapons safety. The two aren’t necessarily contradictory, although I wonder sometimes if arguments on behalf of safety are just a pretext on behalf of making new weapons.

My own prescription is that the fewer weapons you have, the less likely you are to have a problem with them, just statistically. …

GSN: What from your reporting do you think was the closest the world has ever come to the accidental detonation of a nuclear warhead?

Schlosser: If I were only able to pick one, it would be the crash in 1961 of the B-52 in North Carolina where the weapon went through all of its [arming mechanisms] except the X-unit [ -- the mechanism that triggers implosion-type bombs --] didn’t charge because the arm-safe switch in the cockpit had prevented it from charging but that switch was later found to have defects in it occasionally and stray electricity could have circumvented that switch and resulted in a detonation of a bomb. …

We’ve had many more close calls than the Pentagon has admitted in its list of “Broken Arrows.”