Nuclear Catastrophe: How Much Risk is Acceptable? With Eric Schlosser
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.
Eric Schlosser is an American author known for his investigative journalism. His books include "Fast Food Nation," "Reefer Madness," "Chew On This," and "Command and Control."
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
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.
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Water may be far more abundant on the lunar surface than previously thought.
- Scientists have long thought that water exists on the lunar surface, but it wasn't until 2018 that ice was first discovered on the moon.
- A study published Monday used NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy to confirm the presence of molecular water..
- A second study suggests that shadowy regions on the lunar surface may also contain more ice than previously thought.
Credits: NASA/Daniel Rutter<p>Still, it's not as if the moon is dripping wet. The observations suggest that a cubic meter of the lunar surface (in the Clavius crater site, at least) contains water in concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million. That's roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water. In comparison, the same plot of land in the Sahara desert contains about 100 times more water.</p><p>But a second study suggests other parts of the lunar surface also contain water — and potentially lots of it. Also publishing their findings in <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-020-1198-9#_blank" target="_blank">Nature Astronomy</a> on Monday, the researchers used the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to study "cold traps" near the moon's polar regions. These areas of the lunar surface are permanently covered in shadows. In fact, about 0.15 percent of the lunar surface is permanently shadowed, and it's here that water could remain frozen for millions of years.</p><p>Some of these permanently shadowed regions are huge, extending more than a kilometer wide. But others span just 1 cm. These smaller "micro cold traps" are much more abundant than previously thought, and they're spread out across more regions of the lunar surface, according to the new research.</p>
Credit: dottedyeti via AdobeStock<p>Still, the second study didn't confirm that ice is embedded in micro cold traps. But if there is, it would mean that water would be much more accessible to astronauts, considering they wouldn't have to travel into deep, shadowy craters to extract water.</p><p>Greater accessibility to water would not only make it easier for astronauts to get drinking water, but could also enable them to generate rocket fuel and power.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Water is a valuable resource, for both scientific purposes and for use by our explorers," said Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist in the advanced exploration systems division for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, in a statement. "If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries."</p>
A study finds 1.8 billion trees and shrubs in the Sahara desert.
- AI analysis of satellite images sees trees and shrubs where human eyes can't.
- At the western edge of the Sahara is more significant vegetation than previously suspected.
- Machine learning trained to recognize trees completed the detailed study in hours.
Why this matters<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTkyODg5NX0.O3S2DRTyAxh-JZqxGKj9KkC6ndZAloEh4hKhpcyeFDQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="3770d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3c27b79d4c0600fb6ebb82e650cabec0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Area in which trees were located
Credit: University of Copenhagen<p>As important as trees are in fighting climate change, scientists need to know what trees there are, and where, and the study's finding represents a significant addition to the global tree inventory.</p><p>The vegetation Brandt and his colleagues have identified is in the Western Sahara, a region of about 1.3 million square kilometers that includes the desert, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahel" target="_blank">the Sahel</a>, and the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/subhumid-zones" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sub-humid zones</a> of West Africa.</p><p>These trees and shrubs have been left out of previous tabulations of carbon-processing worldwide forests. Says Brandt, "Trees outside of forested areas are usually not included in climate models, and we know very little about their carbon stocks. They are basically a white spot on maps and an unknown component in the global carbon cycle."</p><p>In addition to being valuable climate-change information, the research can help facilitate strategic development of the region in which the vegetation grows due to a greater understanding of local ecosystems.</p>
Trained for trees<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTk5NTI3NH0.fR-n1I2DHBIRPLvXv4g0PVM8ciZwSLWorBUUw2wc-Vk/img.jpg?width=980" id="e02c0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="79955b13661dca8b6e19007935129af1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Martin Brandt/University of Copenhagen<p>There's been an assumption that there's hardly enough vegetation outside of forested areas to be worth counting in areas such as this one. As a result the study represents the first time a significant number of trees — likely in the hundreds of millions when shrubs are subtracted from the overall figure — have been catalogued in the drylands region.</p><p>Members of the university's Department of Computer Science trained a machine-learning module to recognize trees by feeding it thousands of pictures of them. This training left the AI be capable of spotting trees in the tiny details of satellite images supplied by NASA. The task took the AI just hours — it would take a human years to perform an equivalent analysis.</p><p>"This technology has enormous potential when it comes to documenting changes on a global scale and ultimately, in contributing towards global climate goals," says co-author Christian Igel. "It is a motivation for us to develop this type of beneficial artificial intelligence."</p><p>"Indeed," says Brandt says, "I think it marks the beginning of a new scientific era."</p>
Looking ahead and beyond<p>The researchers hope to further refine their AI to provide a more detailed accounting of the trees it identifies in satellite photos.</p><p>The study's senior author, Rasmus Fensholt, says, "we are also interested in using satellites to determine tree species, as tree types are significant in relation to their value to local populations who use wood resources as part of their livelihoods. Trees and their fruit are consumed by both livestock and humans, and when preserved in the fields, trees have a positive effect on crop yields because they improve the balance of water and nutrients."</p><p>Ahead is an expansion of the team's tree hunt to a larger area of Africa, with the long-term goal being the creation of a more comprehensive and accurate global database of trees that grow beyond the boundaries of forests.</p>
Tea and coffee have known health benefits, but now we know they can work together.
Credit: NIKOLAY OSMACHKO from Pexels
- A new study finds drinking large amounts of coffee and tea lowers the risk of death in some adults by nearly two thirds.
- This is the first study to suggest the known benefits of these drinks are additive.
- The findings are great, but only directly apply to certain people.