Nuclear weapons pose a grave threat to whoever possesses them

October 7, 2013

Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, an exposé of the standards and practices of the US fast food industry, which was later adapted into major motion picture. For his next project, Schlosser spent six years scrutinizing the United States’ maintenance of its nuclear weapons arsenal. His latest book, Command and Control, documents the incredible challenges inherent in possessing, in his words, “the most dangerous technology ever invented”, where there was immense pressure to simultaneously make sure these weapons were always ready to be detonated at a moment’s notice, but where there simply could be no margin of error. As Schlosser explains, our ability to maintain these weapons safely is not nearly as assured as we would like to believe, and there have been numerous instances where the incidence of an accidental nuclear detonation has hung on a razor’s edge. ICAN was granted an interview with Schlosser to discuss his book and the impossibility of guaranteeing nuclear weapons safety indefinitely.

Q. Your book Command and Control has succeeded in lifting the veil of secrecy that has shrouded nuclear weapons for more than 70 years. It provides a terrifying picture of the risks that the continued maintenance of nuclear weapons entails. Is the possession of nuclear weapons a security liability?

A: Every country that chooses to have nuclear weapons must confront the fact that these weapons pose a grave threat to whoever possesses them.  The United States invented this technology, perfected it, has more experience with it than any other nation—and yet, as my book reveals, has come close, on numerous occasions, to having its own weapons detonate inadvertently on its own soil.  Possessing nuclear weapons not only makes you a target for other nuclear states, it also opens the door to self-inflicted disasters.

Q. On August 29, 2007, one of the United States Air Force’s weapons-handling team at Minot, North Dakota, was tasked with transporting de-commissioned nuclear weapons down to a base in Louisiana. Instead of picking up the missiles tipped with dummy weights, the crew loaded onto a Louisiana-bound bomber six missiles tipped with live nuclear warheads, each with roughly 10 times the explosive capacity as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The six nuclear missiles sat unguarded on the tarmac for nine hours after the plane landed before the ground crew realized they had accidentally become a nuclear-armed outpost without any of the safety protocols and security clearance-checks put in place that normally accompany the handling of nuclear weapons. The risk of an accidental nuclear weapon detonation is far from being addressed. Are we able to handle these weapons safely? And what is at stake?

A: The Minot case was a systematic failure in command-and-control.  The idea that nobody was asked to sign for the weapons, before removing them from the bunker, is incredible.  And nobody examined the weapons before loading them on a bomber, flying them across the United States, leaving them unattended for hours.  It is hard to conceive how fallible human beings could ever devise a technological system that’s infallible.  And the consequences of an accidental nuclear detonation or the theft of a nuclear weapon would be unimaginably bad.  So long as these weapons exist, so will that threat.

Q. This book is a result of an investigation that lasted 6 years. What was your motivation behind writing it and what is the most important message you want to communicate?

A. I started the book after hearing the story of the accident in Damascus, Arkansas.  I couldn’t believe that a worker, dropping a tool in a ballistic missile silo, during routine maintenance, could set in motion events that might have led to the accidental detonation of the most powerful nuclear warhead the United States ever built.  It’s an amazing story, one that not only illustrates the central themes of my book but also conveys some of the great heroism of ordinary servicemen during the Cold War.  A lot of young people in the military risked their lives–and sometimes lost them–trying to prevent a nuclear war and nuclear catastrophes.  The aim of the book isn’t to preach any one particular point of view or to offer a diatribe against American nuclear policy.  The tone of the book is calm and factual.  All of the assertions are documented.  The book is full of information that my government has long tried to hide, and one of my goals in writing it was to remind people that these weapons are still out there, thousands of them, ready to be used.  We need a vigorous public debate about nuclear weapons.  For too long, fundamental decisions about nuclear policy have been made by a handful of officials, acting in secret.

Q. In a recent article published on the Guardian you mentioned an RAF truck carrying hydrogen bombs skidded off a road in Wiltshire, UK. The problem with accidents involving nuclear weapons is that the effects of a detonation do not stop at borders. Nuclear weapons are not only the problem of nuclear weapon possessors, but a global humanitarian threat. What would you recommend governments do to prevent the problems highlighted in your book?

A: My own view is that we need to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world.  We need to reduce the number of countries that possess them.  We need to prevent terrorist groups from obtaining them.  And then, some day, I hope, we will rid the world of these things—the most dangerous machines that mankind has ever invented.

Photo credit: The Guardian



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