Q&A: Eric Schlosser on the Secret History of America's Nuclear Arsenal

In a new book, the 'Fast Food Nation' author investigates the many near-misses that could have caused catastrophes

Eric Schlosser
Kodiak Greenwood
Longtime RS contributor Eric Schlosser's new book, 'Command and Control,' reveals long-hidden secrets about America's nuclear weapons program
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It was a one-in-a-million bounce: A socket slipped from a wrench and fell about 70 feet before piercing the fuel tank of the most powerful missile in the United States' nuclear arsenal. What followed was a race to prevent an explosion that could have incinerated the state of Arkansas.

In his new book, Command and Control, award-winning investigative journalist and longtime Rolling Stone contributor Eric Schlosser reveals how this disaster was narrowly avoided at a Damascus, Arkansas missile silo in 1980 – and shows that it was just one incident in an ongoing pattern of near-misses and bureaucratic blunders that have brought America to the nuclear brink again and again. Drawing on six years of research, Schlosser challenges and expands on the U.S. government's secretive record regarding nuclear accidents.

The best-selling author of 2001's Fast Food Nation – which began as an exposé published in RS – likens his new book to a foot soldier's history of World War II, relying on the firsthand accounts of U.S. service members. His interview subjects, many of whom served at the height of the Cold War, have been called on time and again to prevent nuclear devastation, often at tremendous personal risk. 

Command and Control hits bookstores tomorrow. Schlosser called RS to explain the results of his latest eye-opening research, and make the case for nuclear disarmament. "I'm not apocalyptic," he says. "But I think we have to confront this issue."

Let's get the big question out of the way: How many times have we just barely avoided nuclear armageddon in the U.S.? 

That's a good question. It's a very secretive subject, and I did my best, through interviews and through the Freedom of Information Act, to get as much information as I could on these accidents. The Pentagon lists 32 broken arrows, which are their official nuclear weapon accidents that they consider really serious – but if you look carefully at that list, quite a few of those accidents posed no threat of an accidental detonation on American soil, and I found a lot of other accidents that did.

So the answer is more than once, and far too many for us to be comfortable. The accident that I wrote about at length could have destroyed the state of Arkansas while Bill Clinton was governor. I write about another accident that occurred not long after John F. Kennedy's inauguration that could have deposited lethal fallout as far north as New York City. These are very complicated machines, and they're the most dangerous machines ever invented. I think every nation that has nuclear weapons has to really understand the risk, not only that they pose to your enemy, but to yourself.

Read Jeff Goodell's 2011 RS Feature on America's Nuclear Nightmare

You've written about a wide range of topics, from the fast-food industry to marijuana prohibition to immigrant workers. What prompted you to investigate nuclear weapons?

I was in Colorado Springs, spending time with members of the Air Force Space Command, and they started telling me stories of nuclear weapons. And I heard the story of the Damascus [Arkansas] accident, and I thought it was just an unbelievable story. I'd never heard about it. I couldn't believe that it happened, and I was determined to write about it someday. And the more I investigated, the more I realized this accident wasn't the only one. For many years, there were safety flaws with our nuclear weapons which weren't being addressed and which were being covered up. We're just very, very, very, very, very fortunate that a major city has not been destroyed by a nuclear weapon since Nagasaki. But there's no guarantee that that luck will last.

Why did you focus the book on the experience of these  nuclear foot soldiers?

Well, you know, there's no shortage of Cold War memoirs by former secretaries of state or former national security advisers or presidents talking about dealings with the Russians. But very little has been written about the ordinary servicemen and women who often took great risks. I tell the story of a guy whose job it was to walk over to a nuclear weapon damaged in an accident and dismantle it – basically a bomb squad guy trained to handle nuclear weapons. Now, that takes a lot of nerve to do, and people like that put themselves at risk in order to prevent catastrophes. I think their stories are really worth telling.

It was important to me to show, not just the bureaucratic incompetence in many cases, but also the incredible heroism of these ordinary servicemen. So it's not a simplistic, black-and-white anti-military thing at all. There's a Vietnam War memorial, but there really isn't any memorial to the people who served in the Cold War – and many of them lost their lives, even though it wasn't a declared war. 

What was your research process like?

Unlike the government, I've done everything I can to make the work transparent on this subject. So there's a massive, massive bibliography and source notes – which were a total drag to do, but which were a way of letting readers know where I got the information. Someone who reads one of my books, if they don't want to read any of the source notes, that's fine. But it's sort of a map to the book. And very, very little of the book is based on unnamed sources or anonymous sources. It's all very documented, and I think it was important to do that because the government has been so incredibly secretive on this subject, and there's been a great deal of disinformation and misinformation about it.

What were your most startling discoveries?

The most startling discoveries were how close we came to having a nuclear detonation on American soil. The other thing is how the most trivial, mundane little mistake could have potentially catastrophic consequences. In the Damascus accident, someone is using a socket wrench and the socket comes off the wrench. The idea that a socket could lead to a nuclear detonation is unbelievable – but there are other accidents in which somebody used a screwdriver instead of a fuse-puller and blasted a warhead off of a different intercontinental ballistic missile of ours. 

There was another case in which a navigator for a long flight decided to bring some rubber seat cushions onto a B5-2 bomber, and he put the cushions underneath his seat too close to a heat vent. The cushions caught on fire; the bomber wound up crashing with all of its nuclear weapons and almost hit one of our most important military bases. The notion that a nuclear detonation that could destroy one of our most top-secret bases could be caused by some rubber cushions catching on fire is just crazy. 

In the last decade, conversations about national security have been dominated by the threat of terrorism, and we don't hear as much about the dangers of nuclear weapons specifically. What do you make of that shift?

There's an enormous amnesia on the part of the American people about nuclear weapons. About half of the American population wasn't born yet or were small children when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union vanished. One of the reasons I wrote the book was just to remind people that these weapons are out there and how easily they can go wrong. 

I am hugely concerned – and people who have more expertise than I do in this area are hugely concerned – about the possibility of terrorists getting ahold of a nuclear weapon, or the possibility of a nuclear weapons accident by one of the nuclear weapons powers. I'm critical of the management of our nuclear weapons, but we invented this technology. I think we probably build the safest weapons on Earth. And yet, when you think of countries like Pakistan and India and North Korea having nuclear weapons, a useful guide would be to look at the rate of industrial accidents in those countries, which is much higher than here, and their ability to manage this incredible, complex technology is really worrisome. People can disagree on what the best policy should be for the United States, but I think everyone should know what the options are and what the real risk is. 

How secure are the nuclear weapons that exist today, both in the U.S. and abroad? 

The Air Force has had some real problems with the management of its nuclear weapons in the last few years. The worst incident I wrote about in the book was in 2007. They lost half a dozen of their powerful nuclear weapons for a day and a half. They had been loaded on a plane inadvertently and nobody bothered [to notice] – there was no paperwork required when they were moved from the bunker. It was incredible that that could occur. Since then, again and again, Air Force units that handle nuclear weapons have been decertified or have been punished for safety lapses. 

A few years ago, an entire squadron of our Minuteman missiles went offline, and the missile crews couldn't communicate with our own missiles. The Air Force denied there was any possibility that someone had hacked into our system, but later admitted that they're very concerned about the threat of somebody hacking into our nuclear command and control system. That's like the plot of a bad movie – but if an insider like [whistleblower Edward] Snowden can obtain that sort of information about the NSA, which is some of the most top secret secrets that we have, it's concerning when you have intercontinental ballistic missiles controlled by software.

The biggest concern right now, by far, is Pakistan. One of the things that just came out through some of Snowden's revelations is how little we know about how Pakistan is managing its nuclear arsenal. They're rapidly building all kinds of nuclear weapons. If you have 150 weapons and you only lose one of them, you're still taking care of more than 99 percent of them perfectly – but you can't afford to lose one. Again, one weapon equals one city. 

Do you believe there's a place for nuclear weapons in a national defense arsenal, or is the inherent threat they pose too great?

I agree with our president. I think these weapons should be abolished, in the same way I think that biological and chemical weapons should be abolished. Those NBC weapons – nuclear, biological and chemical –weapons, are considered the weapons of mass destruction. I think that it's not going to happen overnight, but people need to be aware of the risk and then I think that over time they can be negotiated out of existence. 

If I thought that we were all doomed and it was hopeless to do anything about this, I would not have bothered spending six years researching and writing about nuclear weapons. But I think that we don't have to lose a city to a nuclear weapon – and neither does any other country. People need to be aware, and the world needs to act to eliminate these weapons.

So you believe a day might come when nuclear weapons are gone?

I do. Again, I don't think it's going to happen overnight, but the first step would be for the major nuclear powers to meet and begin greatly reducing the sizes of their arsenals. The fewer weapons there are, the less likely there is to be a catastrophic accident. I mean, that's just the law of probability. Realistically, you have an alternative: You can abolish nuclear weapons or you can accept that one day they're going to be used. It's just almost unimaginable what that would mean.