An Interview with Eric Schlosser on the Risks of Hair-Trigger Alert

, physicist & co-director, Global Security | April 8, 2015, 12:44 pm EDT
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Eric Schlosser, author of the best-selling book Fast Food Nation, last year published a new book that details dozens of accidents that have occurred with U.S. nuclear weapons—some of which nearly led to a nuclear explosion. His book, Command and Control, makes clear that nuclear weapons systems—like all complex systems involving technology and humans—are not perfect. Things go wrong.

Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control. Photo: Kodiac Greenwood

Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control. Photo: Kodiac Greenwood

The current situation, in which the United States and Russia keep their nuclear-armed missiles on hair-trigger alert so they can be launched within a matter of minutes, makes everything worse. System failures could lead to the accidental, unauthorized, or erroneous launch of these weapons.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, UCS is urging President Obama to take U.S. land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert, since that would essentially eliminate the risk of accidental, erroneous, or unauthorized launch. High-level U.S. officials support the idea.

UCS recently interviewed Eric about his book, and the continuing risks posed by nuclear weapons:

UCS: You spent six years researching Command and Control. Given what you uncovered, how worried should we be about the possibility of a nuclear accident or inadvertent nuclear launch?

ES: I think the danger posed by the world’s nuclear arsenals is the single greatest national security threat we face. I’m not apocalyptic. I’m not predicting there’ll be a nuclear detonation tomorrow at 3pm. But there’s been remarkably little public discussion and attention paid to this issue considering what’s at stake.

Today I’m more worried about an unauthorized launch than an accidental detonation —something going wrong in the system itself so that a launch either happens by mistake or someone who shouldn’t have access to things gets access. It takes constant vigilance to make sure that doesn’t happen. And, while the nuclear weapons we have today are much safer than the ones we had in the 1970s and 1980s, our nuclear infrastructure is also aging and a lot of the equipment is outdated. So accidents absolutely are possible. The probability is greater than zero. There’s no question about that.

UCS: The Union of Concerned Scientists is now calling for the United States to take its land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert. How helpful do you think this step would be for our safety here at home?

ES: I support the idea of taking our land-based missiles off of hair-trigger alert. Our land-based missiles are really only useful for attacking Russia. And to take them off of hair-trigger alert is to signal to Russia that we’re not going to have a first strike with our land- based missiles. It would be great to see a similar effort on Russia’s part because there’s much more we can do in a partnership to reduce the danger. But I believe we need to do everything we can to prevent accidents with our nuclear arsenal and this seems like a sensible and important first step.

UCS: Back in the 1980s, a million people gathered in Central Park to call for a nuclear freeze. Why do you think the public seems to be paying such comparatively little attention to the subject now?

The prospect of a nuclear war was a source of tremendous anxiety during the Cold War. And the collapse of the Soviet Union was so sudden and unexpected that I think everyone just breathed a sigh of relief. People started to believe that the danger ended with the end of the Cold War. And of course, the risk of nuclear war was greatly reduced. The nuclear arsenals in the U.S. and in Russia have declined in size by about eighty or ninety percent. That’s terrific. But the danger never fully went away. The danger is still with us. And, unfortunately, I think people are pretty much in denial about it.

UCS: By explaining in detail how close we’ve come on a number of occasions to an accidental nuclear cataclysm, your book is a terrifying read. What has the reception been like since it was published?

ES: My aim with this book has been to provoke discussion about this issue. And I’m very gratified that there seems to have been a significant uptick in attention to the issue since the book was published. This the first book I’ve written that seems to have been read by people in power—people in the Air Force, people at the weapons labs. And, to some extent, I think it is encouraging a discussion about the safety of our nuclear infrastructure and I’m very glad about that. I’m also happy to be speaking about this with the Union of Concerned Scientists—an organization that has played an important leadership role on this issue for the past 40 years.

UCS: Your book highlights a number of accidents and near misses since the development of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Do you think there more accidents and near misses that haven’t been publicly disclosed?

ES: I think there were a great many incidents we don’t know about. The really big accidents are hard to conceal. When there’s a serious incident, like when we lost a hydrogen bomb off the coast of Spain, it’s likely to become widely known. But there are many kinds of accidents that are more mundane and banal—like someone pulling the wrong wire and inadvertently arming a nuclear weapon. That kind of accident could also potentially lead to a catastrophic outcome but may not be as likely to come to light.

At a book talk I gave in New Mexico, someone in the audience came up to me afterwards and complained that I was very tough on the Air Force in the book—but kind of let the Army off the hook.  He had worked at Sandia and done a command and control study of the Army’s tactical weapons in Germany in the early 1970s. He was terrified by what he’d seen there. Of course, I asked him to enlighten me, but he said ‘no, no, no. He couldn’t do that.’ The study remains classified.

I did the best I could while researching the book.   But there is much more out there that I was unable to uncover. Still, the incidents I did include point to how lucky we’ve been so far. And we don’t want a national security policy based on luck.

UCS: At UCS, we’re encouraging our members to get more involved and take action on the issue of the safety of our nuclear arsenal. What would you say to encourage them? 

Well, first of all, in the coming years, Congress will be discussing the modernization of our nuclear arsenal and infrastructure. Much of this debate will take place in secret with very little public input. There will be some people proposing to spend about $1 trillion to upgrade our nuclear weapon capabilities. So I think it is vital to learn about these issues.  People need to get involved, and this country needs a vigorous, informed public debate about this spending and its goals.

Today we are witnessing the beginning of an international discussion—a serious discussion—about the abolition of nuclear weapons. From a humanitarian perspective, these weapons do not discriminate between civilians and military targets. And there are many who are making the argument that nuclear weapons should be abolished on those grounds alone. You know, we banned landmines and chemical weapons and cluster munitions. A growing number of people are working toward the abolition of nuclear weapons as well.

The key point I want to make is that we can reduce the threat posed by our existing nuclear arsenals. There are all kinds of things we can do. Taking our land-based missiles off of hair-trigger alert is certainly one such thing. But, in order to meaningfully reduce the threat, we absolutely need to start talking about it—and stop living in denial.

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  • Hilario Pena

    ” I have a son. He work in the ( Nuclear Propulsion of Subs.). I feel proud of him!, but I still have a mix feeling.