Still Courting a Vaporized World

In 1961, when I was in my first year of college, a B-52 bomber carrying a bomb some 400 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb broke up over Delaware. The nuclear weapon became activated as it fell from the disintegrating plane. Both of its timing parachutes deployed and it began the short countdown to detonation. The only thing that prevented an explosion that would have made much of the eastern US uninhabitable was one last simple switch. I never heard about this terrifying failure until Eric Schlosser’s new book, Command and Control, came out, and it scares the shit out of me.

Reading about this now frightens me more than the Cuban Missile Crisis did when I lived through it a few years later. Over the decades since, and since the breakup of the USSR, I had become too complacent and trusting about nuclear weapons. We haven’t had a real weapons accident yet; why should we worry now? Not any more; that complacency is gone.

In 1961, one simple switch prevented
a nuclear explosion that would have
made much of the eastern US uninhabitable.

Tens of hundreds of near catastrophes from nuclear bombs have occurred since 1945, far more than most of us imagined. Moreover, the threat today is just as great as ever. Even though the Cold War is long over, many more nations, some of them quite unstable, have nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, and others are working hard to get them. Meantime, there are still many thousands of bombs, any one of which could cause unimaginable havoc.

Ever seen a hair trigger? Some of them are on double-barrel shotguns. Simply touching the trigger fires the gun. Unfortunately, the most horrendous nuclear weapons rely for averting accidents on a hair-trigger system that quickly builds an unstoppable cascade of events that will arm and fire one or hundreds of them. The trigger has been almost fired many times since WWII, and we have come within minutes, even seconds, of worldwide nuclear nightmare.

Nuclear bombs are subject not only to accidental nuclear detonation, but to numerous other kinds of accidents that can and have caused serious damage. A wrench was accidentally dropped down the side of an armed missile in a silo, puncturing the fuel tank and beginning the collapse of the vehicle. Do you remember where were you in 1980, when that happened? If the process had not been somehow stopped, a nuclear explosion would have made most of the state of Arkansas radioactive forever. Bombs have been accidentally dropped, some of them detonating their trigger explosives, which was quite enough to injure people and create 35-foot craters even without a nuclear explosion. Pure luck has prevented nuclear explosions in far too many other incidents.

A wrench dropped into a missile silo
nearly caused Arkansas to become
radioactive forever.

A number of white-knuckle events during the Cold War brought us within minutes of Armageddon. Virtually all of these were created by something simple gone wrong. A message about a research rocket launch that was never delivered. Computers that decided the rising moon was a massive attack…

You have to wonder what on Earth made the people with godlike power over the life or death of every living thing think that this mad-scientist system on the razor edge of control was even remotely reasonable. Didn’t anyone even question the wisdom of building tens of thousands of weapons so horrendous that even one detonation would change the world, maybe even end all life forever. Is flying these monster bombs around the eastern seaboard what they meant by “making the world safe for democracy”? This is the thinking of a master race, a bunch of mad egotists who take decisions that have the potential for ending all life. They apparently believed that no one not of their priesthood should even take part in the discussion.

These selfsame bombs remain with us, and are Strangelove monsters still today. There is no conceivable legitimate use for them, and it is virtually inevitable there will be a serious accident without some significant changes, namely, getting rid of these hellish weapons. Insanity then, insanity now.

Hawks will say they are a deterrent, and we must keep them. Personally, I don’t think so. However, if we had only one or two of the less horrible ones, with several delivery systems widely disbursed, it would be just as great a deterrent as hundreds of them, because a potential enemy could never be sure they could avoid an attack that would turn their homeland into a charred, radioactive hell.

A world-changing nuclear explosion
is virtually inevitable.

I was a child in the post-WWII era, and I grew up with a visceral fear of atomic war that was shared by so many. I had the common nightmares of people who lived then, of looking up to see the city in the distance being incinerated, and realizing everyone would die. Of feeling a sudden stab of terror at a blinding flash of sunlight reflected off a car windshield. I don’t know whether to thank Schlosser for reminding us that the danger is still here, or curse him for ending my naïve complacency and peace of mind.

It is all too obvious that the nuclear threat is still with us, and it’s much more dangerous than we had thought.

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