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."

Big Think Edge
  • The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
  • Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
  • Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
Keep reading Show less