US author Eric Schlosser, best known for his book and film Fast Food Nation, has revealed how small human errors and complacency have led to the United States almost blowing itself up on several occasions.
The investigative journalist has been researching America’s history of nuclear weapons for his new book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety.
He delves into great detail on the “Damascus incident” of September 18, 1980, where a missile equipped with nuclear warhead exploded at a missile launch facility at the Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas.
An airman conducting maintenance on a USAF Titan-II ballistic missile, carrying a powerful nuclear warhead, dropped a socket about 24 metres before the two-kilogram tool hit and pierced the skin of the fuel tank.
The rupture caused a fuel leak and nine hours later the missile exploded.
An Air Force airman was killed and the launch complex was destroyed. But thanks to the warhead’s built-in safety features, it did not detonate.
Schlosser is in Australia for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, talking about our delusions over nuclear weapons — here are some of his key points when he spoke to ABC’s Lateline program.
Watch the full interview here:
1. It is believed one incident in 1980 could have wiped out the entire US state of Arkansas, where Bill and Hillary Clinton were at the time:
“We came pretty close. There was a major accident involving the most powerful nuclear warhead the US ever built and that warhead could have detonated. And if it had detonated Arkansas would have been consumed in firestorms.
Governor Clinton and his wife Hillary and their baby Chelsea, who was one year old, most likely would have died and there would have been deadly fallout up the eastern seaboard of the US.”
2. Remarkable acts of bravery prevented multiple nuclear disasters:
“Again and again ordinary servicemen risk their lives and sometimes lost them to prevent accidental nuclear detonations in the US. I found more than 1000 accidents and incidents involving nuclear weapons and in many ways it’s a testament to the skill of our weapons designers that none of them detonated full-scale.”
3. In 1980, the president's national security adviser was incorrectly informed that 2200 Soviet Union missiles were launched as a surprise attack on the US:
"He lay in bed preparing to call president Carter to advise a retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union, and he decided not to wake up his wife asleep next to him because he decided if they were going to be attacked he wanted his wife to die in her sleep. The phone rang again and it was the General who said, 'Very sorry, sir, it was a mistake'. In this case the false alarm was caused by a single computer chip that had been improperly installed in a communications computer and we were very lucky that, you know, no retaliatory strike was ordered."
4. We are still not safe from atomic weapons:
"As long as there is fully assembled nuclear weapon there will be the potential for catastrophe. I interviewed many [weapons designers] for my book and they feel it's not a question of whether this is going to happen, but when."
5. His biggest concern in terms of a trigger for nuclear warfare is the rivalry between India and Pakistan:
"They're neighbours and the flight time of a missile is going to be five or six minutes. So if one of those countries thinks the other one is about to attack, there's not going to be the same kind of time available to find out if it's a false alarm or a real attack."
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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