Nuclear Catastrophe: How Much Risk is Acceptable? With Eric Schlosser

Investigative Journalist and Author
Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser describes the terrifyingly close calls we've had with nuclear weapons, and the odds that a disaster would result in global catastrophe.
  • Transcript


Eric Schlosser: Well I was spending time with the Air Force because I was interested in writing about the future of warfare in space. And most people don’t realize but we have an Air Force Space Command and we have a United States Space Command. This sounds like something out of science fiction but we have them and we have them because someday we’re planning to use laser beams and directed energy weapons in space to attack enemy satellites. So I was spending time with the Air Force Space Command visiting bases, looking at all this new high tech weaponry and the guys who I was hanging out with started telling me stories of the Cold War. Many of them had served as launch officers in intercontinental ballistic missile control centers during the Cold War. And it was a natural career path. If you knew a lot about missiles to go into the Space Command, and they told me some extraordinary stories about accidents involving our nuclear weapons that I just had never heard before.

And one of the stories that they told really stuck in my mind and it was the story of an accident in Damascus, Arkansas in September of 1980. And it just so happens that, you know, we’re doing this interview on September 18 and it was on September 18, 1980 that this accident happened. There were workers working in a missile silo doing routine maintenance, the kind of thing that, you know, they did all the time without thinking about it. And the missile in the silo was a Titan II missile, the biggest intercontinental ballistic missile the United States ever built. It was taller than a ten story building. And while they were doing this routine maintenance they were standing on a steel work platform near the top of the missile. And one of the guys reached over with a wrench handle with a socket on it to unscrew a pressure cap on the missile and as he reached over the socket fell off of the wrench handle and the socket fell in between this narrow gap between the missile and the steel work platform and it dropped about 80 feet, it hit the side of the silo, ricocheted and then hit the missile.

And when it hit the missile it tore a hole in the missile’s metal skin and suddenly thousands of gallons of highly flammable, highly explosive rocket fuel were filling the silo. And the Air Force literally had no idea what to do. No accident like this had ever happened before and they had to figure out what to do very quickly because on top of this missile was the most powerful nuclear warhead that the United States ever built. This one warhead on this one missile had more than three times the explosive force of all the bombs used by all the armies in the Second World War combined including both atomic bombs. So I was told this story by this Air Force officer and I just – I became obsessed with it. I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard about this before. I couldn’t believe how close we came to a major nuclear catastrophe that would have consumed much of the state of Arkansas in firestorms. So I started researching this one accident and I thought I’d write a fairly short book, a minute by minute retelling of this one nuclear accident.

The more I learned, the more amazed I was by how many other accidents there had been and how many times the United States came close to losing our own cities as a result of accidents with our own nuclear weapons. So that led me to interview bomber crew members, missile crew members, nuclear weapon designers, nuclear weapon repairmen and to do a lot of searches through the Freedom of Information Act for top secret documents about these nuclear accidents and about safety problems with our weapons. And I got thousands of pages of documents through the Freedom of Information Act and I was sort of amazed by what some of them said.

One of the reasons that I’d never heard about and most people had never heard about this extraordinary accident in Damascus, Arkansas, is there was incredible secrecy about our nuclear weapons program and there was every effort made to cover up accidents and near disasters. In the case of the Damascus accident the Air Force and the Pentagon claimed there was no possibility that this warhead could have detonated if the missile exploded. And I found that was just pure and simply a lie. There had been a top secret study done just a few years before the accident in Damascus that had pointed out that this specific warhead had safety problems and was liable to detonate during an accident. So there was this effort to keep away from the American people the truth about the dangers and the risks of our nuclear arsenal because there was a concern that if the American people really understood some of the risks they wouldn’t support our nuclear weapons policies.

If you look at the official Pentagon list of how many serious nuclear weapons accidents we’ve had, the Pentagon refers to them as broken arrows. That list includes I think 33 serious accidents. And when you look carefully at the list in some of those broken arrows there was no possibility of the weapon fully detonating because it wasn’t fully assembled. And yet I got a document through the Freedom of Information Act that listed more than a thousand nuclear weapons accidents just from 1950 to 1968 and many of those were far more serious and far more dangerous than some of the ones on the Pentagon’s official list. So we don’t really know – and I don’t know that we’ll ever know the actual number of nuclear weapons accidents. But I feel confident in saying it’s a lot larger number than 33 and that we were very, very lucky to make it out of the Cold War without one of our weapons detonating either in the United States or in Europe and destroying a major city or destroying much of an entire state.

All manmade things are fallible and they’re going to be fallible because we’re fallible. It’s impossible for human beings to create anything that’s perfect and that will never go wrong. So the question is how much risk are you willing to accept. And those decisions weren’t made by the American people debating well how much risk are we willing to accept. They were made by Pentagon policy makers acting largely in secret, a small number of people. Eventually they came to the conclusion that the risk of an accidental detonation from a nuclear weapon during an accident should be one in a million. And that’s what they decided was an acceptable risk. Now one in a million sounds like a very unlikely occurrence but one in a million things happen all the time. People who buy lottery tickets and win the lottery are defying odds much greater than one in a million.

And one of the problems with probability with all these odds – and this is just inherent in what probability is – is that if the odds of something happening are greater than zero it means it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen at some point. It could be in a million years or it could be next Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m. So all of these technologies, complex technological systems that we create have risks and when you talk about nuclear weapons you’re talking about the most dangerous technology, the most dangerous machines we’ve ever invented. And one of the aims of my book is to shed light on this technology and involve the public in this discussion and in these issues because the consequences of a nuclear detonation would just be unimaginably high, incredibly, worse than any natural disaster the United States has ever experienced. So I think time for this sort of strict secrecy is now long past over and we need to know and we need to be involved in the decision making about these most deadly machines.

When nuclear weapons were first being invented this was such a new technology and such a new science they really had no idea what some of the safety implications would be. And one of the themes of my book is that this technology has always from the very beginning been on the verge of slipping out of control. When they were about to test the first nuclear device in July of 1945 in the desert of New Mexico, they weren’t sure what would happen when it detonated. And a lot of the Manhattan Project scientists were worried that when the detonated this first nuclear device it would set the atmosphere on fire and all living things on Earth would be killed. Now they did calculations for about a year to determine if the detonation of a nuclear device would set the atmosphere on fire and they felt fairly confident it wouldn’t. The physicist Enrico Fermi put the odds at about one in ten. And no one was sure if he was kidding or not. But up until the detonation of that first device no one could be positive.

And one of the physicists who did the calculations on whether the atmosphere would catch on fire was standing ten miles away from the detonation when it occurred at five thirty in the morning. His name was Victor Weisskopf. And he saw this enormous fireball from a distance of ten miles and he felt the heat getting hotter and hotter on his face. And in that moment he was convinced the atmosphere had caught on fire and that all life on Earth was about to be extinguished. Now he was wrong thankfully but that sense of not quite being sure about this technology has never gone away. And in the year 2014 there are still all kinds of uncertainties about our ability to control this technology and to be able to prevent catastrophic mistakes and accidents if something goes wrong.

Directed by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, Dillon Fitton