Domestic Nukes: An Unprecedented Disaster Waiting to Happen, with Eric Schlosser

Despite knuckle-gripping tension and mass nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, not a single detonation has caused mass civilian casualties since 1945. According to investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, such good fortune is nothing more than blind luck.

Somehow and someway the United States managed to make it to the year 2014 without getting itself blown up. Despite knuckle-gripping tension and mass nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, not a single detonation has caused mass civilian casualties since 1945. According to investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, such good fortune is nothing more than blind luck. Schlosser is best known as author of best-selling books Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness. His latest, Command and Control, analyzes nuclear weapons and the illusion of their safety. In his recent Big Think interview, Schlosser explains why the American public has no reason to feel safe about how the U.S. manages its nuclear arsenal:


Schlosser's book, as well as this interview, focuses in particular on a frightening incident that occurred thirty-four years ago in the town of Damascus, Arkansas. Damascus was home to a massive silo housing a ten-story Titan II missile. Atop this missile was the most powerful nuclear warhead the United States ever built. Tread carefully, right?

On September 18, 1980, an airman conducting routine maintenance dropped a socket that fell 80 feet (24 m) down the silo before tearing a hole in the missile's protective metal skin. This caused a major rocket fuel leak. Rocket fuel is highly flammable. It's also highly explosive. And thousands of gallons of the stuff was suddenly spilling out into a silo containing an explosive device capable of leveling much of Arkansas.

The rocket exploded within 24 hours (killing one, injuring dozens) but since Arkansas is still on the map you can probably guess that the warhead was kept from detonating. Still, as Schlosser explains, hearing this story for the first time shocked him. How could we have come so close to such a disaster? When he began researching further into Damascus, Schlosser found that it wasn't nearly as isolated an incident as he initially suspected:

"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."

Schlosser's research eventually led to the writing of Command and Control. His findings revealed that the U.S. government routinely lied about, covered up, and underreported accidents involving nuclear devices:

"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."

Now, in the 21st century, Schlosser wants citizens to carry more sway in the national discussion about these weapons. A nuclear detonation on domestic soil would wreak chaos on a scale dwarfing any known natural disaster. With stakes this high and the Cold War long over, is it not time to do away with all the government secrecy? 

"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."

At this rate, Schlosser believes a nuclear disaster is bound to happen sometime. It may be years from now; it may be tomorrow. What is for sure is that our illusion of safety from nuclear threat is simply that -- an illusion. And the greatest threat of a detonation on American soil comes not from Russia or some other outside entity. It comes from within. After all, we're only ever one lost socket away from catastrophe.

"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... 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."

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.

Image source: Ernst Haeckel
Surprising Science
  • An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
  • Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
  • Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
Keep reading Show less
Videos
  • Facebook and Google began as companies with supposedly noble purposes.
  • Creating a more connected world and indexing the world's information: what could be better than that?
  • But pressure to return value to shareholders came at the expense of their own users.
Keep reading Show less