Command and Control of Nuclear Weapons

Author Eric Schlosser asks how do we live safely with “the most dangerous machines ever invented?”

Eric Schlosser addresses an audience in Tiedtke Concert Hall. (Photo by Scott Cook) Eric Schlosser addresses an audience in Tiedtke Concert Hall. (Photo by Scott Cook)

Author and investigative journalist Eric Schlosser opened the Rollins Winter Park Institute’s seventh season on September 10 with a discussion of his latest book, Command and Control.

Schlosser spent six years researching the history of close calls and near accidents that have occurred during the 70 years that the United States has maintained a nuclear arsenal. Although safety has improved over the decades, he noted the problem is compounded today by apathy on the issue and the threat of terrorism.

Speaking to an audience at Tiedtke Concert Hall in the Keene Music Building, Schlosser posed the question: “How do we make sure our own weapons don’t explode by accident, don’t get stolen, and can’t be used by one of our own personnel without the permission of the president of the United States?”

The answer, in part, he said, is to reinvigorate the debate by examining the circumstances that led to previous accidents. “There is a remarkable amount of ignorance, apathy, and amnesia about the weapons.”

To illustrate how routine maintenance can turn lethal, Schlosser related one of the incidents in his book about how a dropped socket from a wrench bounced down a 10-story underground missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas, in 1980. The falling tool punched a hole in the missile’s fuel tank, causing an explosion that killed one serviceman and injured 20 other people. It also sent the nuclear warhead flying out of the underground silo. The device landed near one of the gates to the military complex. Though battered, it did not detonate, thanks to a built-in safety device.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) Schlosser, however, pointed out that radioactive material was released in accidents in the 1960s off the coast of Greenland and Spain. There was nuclear contamination, but, fortunately, the devices did not explode.

Schlosser said the U.S. has improved safety procedures for the weapons that are now many times more destructive than the two used against Japan in World War II. “We build the safest nuclear weapons in the world,” he said. Yet no system can reduce the probability of an accident to zero, so another accident is inevitable, he said. “It could happen in a million years. It could happen tomorrow afternoon at 3.”

The author of the bestselling Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness said there currently are an estimated 17,000 nuclear devices in existence. That makes for a safer world than during the Cold War when the U.S. and the former Soviet Union stockpiled 70,000 weapons in a nuclear arms race. Nevertheless, Schlosser wondered if nuclear nations such as Russia, India, Pakistan and North Korea could be counted on to maintain high standards of safety. “How good are they at controlling their weapons, preventing accidents, preventing them from being stolen?”

He said to lessen the likelihood of nuclear accidents, we must continue reducing the number of such weapons in the world; stop other countries from acquiring nuclear bombs and warheads; and redouble efforts to keep radioactive bomb-making material out of the hands of terrorists.

Toward the end of his talk, he quoted Hamilton Holt, president of Rollins College from 1925 to 1949, on the need to be vigorous in seeking peaceful solutions to violence between nations. “Let us, then, make war on war.”