Eric Schlosser’s new book is not the kind of thing you want to read late at night, if a peaceful sleep is on the agenda. Thermonuclear weapons that exploded in their silos, or fell to the Earth in plane crashes, or went missing for days – these are some of the terrifying accidents that the investigative journalist outlines in Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.
He also writes about how nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union was nearly triggered by computers that mistook the moon for an oncoming missile, and by technicians who loaded the wrong war-games simulation tapes.
Amazingly, none of the accidents resulted in a nuclear detonation but Mr. Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, warns that these weapons remain a real threat, and we become complacent about them at our peril.
Although imminent annihilation no longer occupies the public imagination, he points out that the United States still has 4,650 nuclear weapons, Russia more than 3,000, and hundreds more are in the hands of China, Pakistan, North Korea, and other countries.
Mr. Schlosser spoke to The Globe and Mail from his home in New York.
Are you surprised there isn’t a giant crater somewhere in North America, considering how many near misses there have been?
It’s quite miraculous. When you look at the history of the Cold War, it’s amazing that it ended without a nuclear detonation here or in the Soviet Union. It’s remarkable that the conflict ended without weapons of mass destruction being used, but as long as these weapons exist, the threat of one of them going off exists.
You’ve been tracking so-called ‘broken arrow’ accidents involving nuclear weapons. One list you received through a Freedom of Information request was 245 pages long, and that only covered a decade. Is there a pattern you noticed or an accident that stood out?
I was surprised most of all by the day-in, day-out mundane problems with nuclear weapons – somebody noticing there’s smoke coming from a warhead, for example, because of a short circuit. That’s less dramatic than a plane crash or a fire, but very dangerous.
But the broken arrow I wrote about as the central narrative – a deadly accident at a Titan II missile base in Damascus, Ark., in 1980 – would rank as the most surprising and memorable. So many of the larger themes of the book are manifest in that accident, beginning with a seemingly trivial moment: a socket drops off a wrench. It took a bad bounce and pierced the skin of the missile.
The inability to figure out what to do next, how to handle this crisis, speaks to our difficulty in handling complex technology.
Is there a kind of mental complacency that sets in with people who have to maintain these weapons over a long period?
There can be, but it doesn’t lie with the technicians, it lies with the upper management and leadership. There’s been a real problem in the U.S. Air Force with the management of our nuclear weapons. There was an incident in 2007 that was as alarming as any that happened during the Cold War. Half a dozen cruise missiles with thermonuclear warheads were inadvertently loaded onto a plane, and were gone for a day and a half and no one knew they were gone. No one missed them. Nobody had to sign a piece of paper to remove them from the bunker. The pilot of the plane had no idea there were nuclear weapons on the plane.
This all sounds hypothetical, but six stolen nuclear weapons could be used for blackmail, they could be used by terrorists. We’re not talking about Wal-Mart losing some flat-screen TVs.
During the Cold War, the nuclear threat was a terrible preoccupation for people and culture. There was Dr. Strangelove and The Day After, people built shelters in their yards. Have we lost our healthy fear of these weapons?
People who grew up with it have this youthful memory, but it’s gone in the mass culture. The greatest threat we face today is complacency and a lack of awareness of what these weapons can do to us.
There used to be a nuclear-freeze movement. The largest single political demonstration in the history of the U.S. occurred in Central Park in 1982 with an estimated 750,000 people attending. Cut to 2013, and the most adamantly antinuclear activists are 75 to 90 years old. They’re the people with the most knowledge of nuclear weapons. It’s very, very concerning that an entire generation knows nothing about these weapons.
In past decades the threat lay in the tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The danger is more diffuse now. What countries concern you the most?
The area of greatest concern right now is India-Pakistan. The U.S. and the Soviet Union had a geopolitical struggle for power and ideological differences, but in the end they were both secular countries and were just barely able to avoid a nuclear exchange. With India and Pakistan, the hatred’s more intense, the proximity is closer, and the amount of time available to decide whether to launch or not is much briefer. In Pakistan, you have the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world; they’re creating nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield.
You write that Richard Nixon, during Watergate, was drinking heavily and was unstable, and his Secretary of Defence quietly told the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be very careful about any emergency orders coming from the president. So what happens if the commander in chief, or another world leader with his finger on the button, is the guy who loses it?
It’s up to the military authorities to disobey the order if they think millions will be killed. What’s remarkable is the amount of power a single human being has. A British prime minister, without consulting parliament or the British people, can order the launch of 40 or 50 nuclear-tipped missiles. There aren’t criteria that are laid down for the prime minister when he or she is supposed to launch, and the same is true for the president. There’s no obligation to consult with Congress or the American people. That is just unimaginable power.
This interview has been edited and condensed.