No, not Damascus, Syria: In Damascus, Ark., on Sept. 18, 1980, a nuclear-armed Titan II missile exploded in its silo, killing one serviceman, spreading toxic fumes and tossing its intact, unexploded nuclear warhead a few hundred feet to one side.
After reading Eric Schlosser’s new book, you will marvel that though this and many other nuclear accidents that have occurred over the years, there has never been an unintended nuclear explosion. You will be frightened, too, as Schlosser wants you to be, wondering whether and when the safeguards will give way.
Schlosser is the author of the 2001 bestselling Fast Food Nation, a meticulous investigation into the American fast-food industry and its local and global influence. Now he turns his attention to the issues of safety and command-and-control that surround the management of America’s nuclear arsenal (and, by inference, those of other countries).
This includes not only the warheads themselves but also the vast chain of weapons labs, underground bunkers, ground-based and airborne command posts, submarines, storage igloos, and the planes and missiles intended to deliver the weapons to their targets.
Schlosser chooses to tell the story from the perspectives of the individuals who design, operate and manage the nation’s nuclear weapons. He offers a perilous, gripping comprehensive account of America’s nuclear accidents to date. In alternating chapters, the book intersperses the story of the horrendous 1980 accident in Damascus with a broader overview of the growth and management of the American nuclear arsenal since 1945 and efforts to deal with persistent safety issues.
Drawing on exhaustive research, including accident reports released through the Freedom of Information Act, and interviews with many of the participants, Schlosser skillfully weaves together an engrossing account of the science and the politics of nuclear weapons safety. He presents the often arcane science of nuclear warhead design in understandable fashion. He deftly traces the dynamics of the Cold War arms race, the bureaucratic politics surrounding weapons safety, including especially the inter-service rivalries, and the often frustrating efforts of weapons scientists to guard against accidental explosions.
The story of the missile silo accident unfolds with the pacing, thrill and techno details of an episode of 24. It begins when a technician accidentally drops a socket down the missile silo and escalates from there, with fatal consequences, yet with an unexploded nuclear bomb lying on the ground.
In the broader history, Schlosser recounts scores of other nuclear accidents, miscalculations, mistakes and near misses. Nuclear bombs roll out of planes, drop into the sea or fall to earth, often spreading radioactive plutonium dust. Accidents are prompted by crashes, design mistakes, lightning strikes, handling errors, fires and explosions.
The dominant theme is the sheer level of danger associated with possessing and managing a nuclear arsenal. Complex, high-risk technologies are difficult to control. The margin of error for mistakes is small and the risk of human error is ever present.
As Schlosser suggests in the epilogue, the Titan accident is a good illustration of the “normal accidents” theory of sociologist Charles Perrow — the notion that trivial events (e.g. dropping a socket) can easily disrupt overly complex, high-risk systems (the Titan). In tightly coupled-systems, where everything is linked, one problem quickly leads to many others. Schlosser’s account is especially effective because it is written through the eyes of weapons handlers themselves — weapons lab scientists, military officers, enlisted personnel and technicians.
The book also highlights the threat posed by official secrecy and misinformation that regularly pervaded management of the nuclear complex. The Pentagon routinely misled the public, allies and even its own weapons handlers about nuclear accidents, concerned about minimizing public fear to preserve the nuclear mission during the Cold War.
Schlosser has written a powerful reminder that nuclear weapons are never really safe despite the fact that safety measures have so far worked. President Obama’s call to eliminate nuclear weapons has so far failed to receive significant popular support. This book might help to change that.
Nina Tannenwald reviewed this book for the San Francisco Chronicle.