Archive for February, 2014

Nuclear Roulette

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Command and Control, Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, Eric Schlosser, 2013

A history of the era of Nuclear Weapons and the miracle that there have been no accidental Nuclear blasts and no Nuclear wars were started. Many believe this has been either dumb luck or divine intervention.

Trinity Test

The book features the Damascus (Arkansas) accident in 1980 (Carter is President and Clinton is Governor of Arkansas) when a Titan II (the type used for the Astronaut’s Gemini flights) carrying a Mark W-53 nuclear warhead exploded in its silo. The bomb proof 700 ton silo door was blown off and the 4 ton warhead was thrown a thousand feet into the air and landed in a nearby ditch without a Nuclear detonation. The 9 megaton bomb was the largest in the US arsenal and would have destroyed most of Arkansas. The incident started when a maintenance crewman dropped a socket which punctured the main booster rocket and started a fuel leak. All gauges and controls for the site are located in the bomb proof control room but the crew were ordered to evacuate the room once the leak started. This greatly narrowed the options available to deal with the crisis. The Air Force insisted that decisions on dealing with the crisis be made in Omaha rather than locally and the people in Omaha were not expert on the Titan II and its silo. After a delay of eight hours, two highly trained maintenance crew members were ordered to return to control room to get readings but they were ordered to enter the hard way rather than use the emergency access route. They got the readings and were leaving when they were ordered to return and activate an exhaust fan. One of them volunteered to return alone and when he turned the fan on a spark from the motor triggered the explosion. Miraculously both men managed separately to get away from the site where they waited for hours for evacuation and medical help. Everyone at the site had panicked and left the site and only later did a few return to look for survivors. Both men suffered from inhaling rocket fuel and the man who turned the fan on died several days later. The Air Force and the officer who gave the order to turn on the fan denied having given the order and the dead mechanic was blamed for the explosion. The surviving mechanic was reprimanded to failing to follow procedures and he asked to be discharged from the Air Force. Eventually he was placed on reserve with the understanding he would never be recalled. The evacuated control room survived the explosion with no damage whatever.

The book is a long chronicle of accidents involving Nuclear weapons and an equally long list of near Nuclear war incidents, mostly of false alarm origin but featuring the near miss Cuban missile crisis with Kennedy and Khrushchev.

Curtis LeMay

Also featured was General Curtis LeMay, the creator of the Air Force SAC. Even after the introduction of ICBMs and submarine Nuclear missiles, LeMay and SAC insisted on keeping a number of B52 Nuclear armed bombers in the air perpetually. A B52 would need many hours to reach any target while a submarine missile may take 5 minutes and an ICBM only 15 minutes. B52s are still used today for Nuclear weapons even though the last B52 was built when Kennedy was President. The B52 features prominently in the very long list of Nuclear accidents.

George C Scott as Gen. Buck Turgidson Dr. Strangelove

LeMay was caricatured by George C Scott as an insane general trying to start a Nuclear holocaust in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove. The movie was based on the 1958 book Red Alert by Peter George who co wrote the script for the movie. Schlosser says this black comedy remains one the best and accurate depictions of command and control in the Nuclear era. The movie ends with the Russians disclosing that the detonation of the rogue pilot’s lone Nuclear bomb has automatically triggered the secret Russian Doomsday Machine which will totally destroy life on earth. Dr. Stranglove, the Nazi German scientist played by Peter Sellers, has to explain to the Soviet ambassador that keeping the Doomsday Machine a secret defeats the whole purpose of the weapon as a deterrent to war. In 1974 it was learned that the Soviets had in fact created a secret doomsday machine that would automatically launch their entire Nuclear arsenal including many bombs buried in Russia in the event a Nuclear explosion was detected by their monitors.

Schlosser notes that the very Existence of Nuclear weapons requires centralized control. The US first put the control of Nuclear weapons into the hands of a Civilian group, the Atomic Energy Agency Commission. The introduction of missiles made required reaction times far shorter and control was passed directly to the President and his ever present “football”, the case containing the necessary codes to authorize a Nuclear attack. The problem then became, how to assure the President survives the first wave, a problem that was never solved. Schlosser believes that the decision to launch an attack in real conditions of a Nuclear attack would be made by lower level military officers unable to communicate with superior officers or civilian officials.

Throughout the Nuclear era, communications technology has been abysmal with incompatible systems and single points of failure that would certainly eliminate all communications at the start of any attack. Equally deplorable has been the military and defense departments opposition to the introduction of any safety devices that would reduce the risk of accidental detonation. After the end of the cold war in 1991, both safety and communications have improved. More than 70,000 Nuclear weapons were built in the US. Today there are approximately 1500 active Nuclear weapons among NATO and US forces with another 2500 in reserve (in a single location near Albuquerque). Leading experts say 300 Nuclear weapons would be enough to assure a worldwide holocaust.

After WWII the US disarmed so quickly there was absolutely no radar available to detect Soviet bombers. It was assumed they would fly a polar route and thousands of little huts were built in small towns across the northern US complete with binoculars, plastic pictures of different planes to help identify a Soviet bomber, and a telephone. These huts were manned by civilians (including yours truly) during daylight hours and we were instructed to call the local air force base if we saw a suspicious plane flying overhead. This reader assumed that the huts were akin to asking students to get under their desks during a Nuclear attack, a ploy to reassure citizens that everything was OK and under control. In fact the little huts were the only detection system in existence at the time.

The US built 3 Nuclear bombs initially, one was used in the Trinity test, one destroyed Hiroshima, and the last destroyed Nagasaki. At the end of the war, the US had no Nuclear weapons and most of the scientists of the Manhattan project returned to civilian life. This absence of Nuclear weapons was a closely held secret for years. Even the DEW line radar system was useless once ICBMs came into existence and for years the primary policy of war was called Mutual Assured Destruction (appropriately MAD. If you start anything, we all die.) Until recently, our defense plans were centered around a top secret plan the SIOP. Those who have been allowed to see to SIOP agree that the plan is ill conceived, arbitrary, massively overkill, and truly mad. Had the order ever been given the military would have dutifully executed the SIOP rendering the earth uninhabitable. Carl Sagan pointed out many years ago that the dust alone raised by these massive explosions would have blocked the sun and driven the earth into an uninhabitable ice age making all life on earth impossible. Forget nuclear contamination and sickness. We would all die anyway.