Accidents Happen—They Shouldn’t Lead to Nuclear Disaster

April 28, 2014
David Wright
Former contributor

Sunday evening the news show 60 Minutes aired an exposé on some of the problems that have surfaced recently about U.S. nuclear weapons. It’s a jaw-dropping story that few people know much about.

Part of the story is about recent findings of drug use and cheating on tests by the men and women whose job is to staff nuclear missile command centers on round-the-clock shifts. Some attribute these acts to a combination of very high job pressure and low staff morale. This raises questions about the probability of human error in a job where error has potentially huge consequences.

The other part of the story is even worse.

One of two thermonuclear bombs that fell in NC from a B-52. (Source: US Air Force)

One of two thermonuclear bombs that fell in North Carolina in 1961 from a B-52 and nearly detonated. (Source: US Air Force)

This relates to the VERY long list of nuclear “incidents” cataloged recently in a best-selling book by Eric Schlosser—Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Some of these incidents led to widespread plutonium contamination; others nearly led to a nuclear explosion. While some information has been available about many of these incidents, Schlosser’s research provides many more hair-raising details. Having these incidents—many of which brought us dangerously close to one or more nuclear detonations—collected together in one place makes clear  that we were lucky to have survived the Cold War without a nuclear weapons disaster.

Lessons for the Future

But to view these incidents simply as about the past misses the point. We are not out of the woods by any means. Bringing these incidents to light makes clear that some fundamental changes must be made in nuclear weapons policy before our luck runs out. And the clock is ticking.

In the 60 Minutes segment, Maj. General Jack Weistein, who commands the U.S. land-based missile bases, states that the probability of a nuclear accident at the bases “is as close to zero as you can get.”

That this is the assessment of the official in charge is troubling, especially in light of the list of incidents detailed in Schlosser’s book. What bothers me most is that Weistein and others likely have no idea what the probability really is. They have done what they can to reduce the probability of failure modes they’ve thought of, but what about failure modes they haven’t thought of (like someone dropping a wrench in a silo, causing a missile to explode and leading to fears that the warhead would detonate, as happened in 1980)?

It’s worth remembering the story of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Before the explosion, NASA management typically said the probability of an accident was “one in a 100,000.” Afterwards, analysis showed that the real probability was instead one in a few hundred, which is consistent with the actual rate of accidents that occurred.

The threat posed by human error and accidents is compounded by the fact that hundreds of nuclear land-based missiles in both the United States and Russia are kept on hair-trigger alert. During the Cold War, this was seen by military leaders in both countries as essential to deter an attack by the other side. Whether that ever made sense, it certainly does not today. The United States should take its land-based missiles off alert and should encourage Russia to do the same.

President Obama has the authority to do this. It’s hard to think of a rational reason why he doesn’t.

The stark reality is that accidents happen. When they do, they shouldn’t lead to nuclear disaster.