When America Almost Nuked Itself

Michael Mechanic calls Eric Schlosser’s new book on nuclear weapons accidents “the most unsettling work of nonfiction I’ve ever read”:

Here’s the truth: Just days after JFK was sworn in as president, one of the most terrifying weapons in our arsenal was a hair’s breadth from detonating on American soil. It would have pulverized a portion of North Carolina and, given strong northerly winds, could have blanketed East Coast cities (including New York, Baltimore, and Washington, DC) in lethal fallout. The only thing standing between us and an explosion so catastrophic that it would have radically altered the course of history was a simple electronic toggle switch in the cockpit, a part that probably cost a couple of bucks to manufacture and easily could have been undermined by a short circuit—hardly a far-fetched scenario in an electronics-laden airplane that’s breaking apart.

In an interview with Mother Jones, Schlosser describes the extent of the problem:

Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, it was almost boilerplate for Defense Department officials to say that during an accident there was no possibility of a nuclear detonation, while privately, at the weapons laboratories, there were physicists and engineers who were extremely worried and were well aware that we had come close to having it happen on American soil. If you look at the official list of broken arrows that the Pentagon released in the ’80s, it includes 32 serious accidents involving nuclear weapons that might have threatened the public safety. The list is entirely arbitrary: Some of those accidents didn’t even involve weapons that had a nuclear core, so they never could have detonated. But many, many serious accidents aren’t on that list.

One document I got through a Freedom of Information Act request listed more than 1,000 weapons involved in accidents, some of them trivial and some of them not trivial. There’s somebody who worked at the Pentagon who has read this book, and one of his criticisms was that I’m so hard on the Air Force—he said that there were a great number of accidents involving Army weapons that I don’t write about.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, he discusses nuclear safety around the globe:

I am hugely concerned – and people who have more expertise than I do in this area are hugely concerned – about the possibility of terrorists getting ahold of a nuclear weapon, or the possibility of a nuclear weapons accident by one of the nuclear weapons powers. I’m critical of the management of our nuclear weapons, but we invented this technology. I think we probably build the safest weapons on Earth. And yet, when you think of countries like Pakistan and India and North Korea having nuclear weapons, a useful guide would be to look at the rate of industrial accidents in those countries, which is much higher than here, and their ability to manage this incredible, complex technology is really worrisome. People can disagree on what the best policy should be for the United States, but I think everyone should know what the options are and what the real risk is.