Oct 31 2013

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

Controversy broke out at two nuclear weapons facilities in the US recently when it was reported that people in charge of monitoring blast doors at an underground command post were napping on the job. Each of the facilities contain 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles and their launch codes. It turns out that the incident is neither unprecedented, nor rare.

Award winning investigative journalist Eric Schlosser chronicles a litany of absurd and terrifying nuclear close-calls since the end of WWII through to the Cold War in his just published book “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.” Among the horror stories Schlosser exposes are the six minutes Soviet President Boris Yeltsin had to respond to a nuclear attack that turned out to be a Norwegian weather experiment, the apocalyptic image of a Mark 36 hydrogen bomb burning for two and a half hours on a Moroccan air field, and a socket from a wrench that damaged a Titan II missile, nearly leading to the annihilation of the state of Arkansas.

In Command and Control, Schlosser shows how the US has been a minor bungle away from nuclear holocaust on more occasions than politicians or the military would admit.

Eric Schlosser is an award winning playwright filmmaker and investigative journalist. His First book Fast Food Nation brought about a worldwide backlash against that industry

GUEST: Eric Schlosser, award winning investigative journalist, author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety”

  1. M.H. Maggeleton 05 Nov 2013 at 6:53 pm

    Schlosser contacted me via phone several months ago wishing to use material from the book “Broken Arrow, Volume II- A Disclosure of Significant U.S., Soviet, and British Nuclear Weapons Incidents and Accidents” by Michael H. Maggelet and James C. Oskins (Lulu Press, 2010). Our first book is “Broken Arrow, The Declassified History of US Nuclear Weapons Accidents” (Lulu 2008)- also available on Amazon, B&N, etc. Our books contains original declassified AEC, DOD, explosive ordnance disposal render safe reports, various accident and incident reports, pictures of weapons and components, and eyewitness accounts. Schlosser wanted to use the EOD render safe report on the Damascus, Arkansas Titan II accident, where a W53 nuclear warhead was blown 500 feet out of its reentry vehicle and into a ditch. The weapon was severely damaged, with broken detonator cables and neutron generators blown off the back of the warhead- in this state it was incapable of producing a nuclear explosion. Of course, Schlosser ignores this and other facts, as clearly shown in various declassified reports, in order to create hysteria about impending nuclear detonations from “stray voltage” and other nonsense.
    Having worked on nuclear weapons during the height of the Cold War, I never had any concerns about weapons safety (and we were quite familiar with how our weapons worked). My co-author Jim Oskins worked on the early thermonuclear weapons and later open pit bombs such as the Mark 6 and Mark 15 Mod 0. He also worked the Titan II weapon system. You could say we have a little more insight into these accidents and incidents, having worked on the same types, and obtained a variety of documents under FOIA for our books. To be honest, it’s rather inconvenient listening to Schlosser promote his book, since he lacks familiarity with the subject matter and his statements are filled with political catch phrases rather than the cold, hard facts.
    As for the Mark 36 weapon accident at the “overseas base” (location is sanitized due to host nation and State Dept agreement), the base was evacuated since EOD was concerned about the possibility of a nuclear contribution. AEC post mortem shows that the nuclear capsule was not inserted into the pit (standard operating procedure), and all safety features and aircraft monitoring and control equipment worked as designed. The weapons high explosive melted, along with the nuclear capsule, mixing with weapon debris. The weapon secondary remained largely intact (declassified from USAF EOD reports). A weapon with the nuclear capsule outside or flush with the high explosive sphere could not produce a nuclear explosion.
    Schlosser’s statements on the Titan II accident are complete bull. The W53 was a robust system, and two B53 weapons survived falls from 30,000 feet during the Cumberland, Maryland Broken Arrow (January 13, 1964). It’s uranium 235 nuclear system was inherently one point safe, and the fire set (contained in a steel housing) could not produce a fire signal due to stray voltage. In fact, many of the declassified documents on the B53 (which shares some components with the W53) are available in sanitized form thanks to researcher/historian Hans Kristensen. With broken detonator cables, and no battery source, the W53 at Damascus could not produce a nuclear yield (extremely high voltage is necessary to fire the weapon detonators, at a very precise moment).
    Schlosser’s statements that the W53 could have incinerated the state of Arkansas are absurd. Same goes for the Mark 39 bombs at Goldsboro. The Mk 39 Mod 2 had two electrically operated solenoid safety switches, and the movement of a switch does not necessarily mean that a weapon will detonate since environmental safety features must also function. In the case of Goldsboro, most of these ESD’s functioned, and although fire signals were sent from the nose piezo’s, the low voltage current did not bypass the two electrical safety switches. Additionally, the bomb’s X-units were not charged, nor placed into a condition to be charged, nor pass a fire signal through the cold cathode tube spark gap. Many more steps were necessary for the bomb to fire, and it certainly wasn’t “one switch away” from nuclear detonation.
    The facts speak for themselves. Many of these accidents were harrowing enough for the aircrews, on-scene military personnel, and on scene responders without having to distort history with continual falsehoods.

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