The author of a new book on U.S. nuclear weapons raised some scary scenarios in a public talk at UBC.
Speaking at a Vancouver Writers Fest event at UBC on October 26, Eric Schlosser outlined several examples of sloppy handling of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
"There have been a series of stunning, stunning mismanagement events with our nuclear weapons just in the last six years," Schlosser said. "One of the most serious was in 2007 when half a dozen thermonuclear weapons were mistakenly removed from a bunker, loaded onto a plane, [and] flown across the United States. The plane was left unattended, and nobody in the Air Force realized that half a dozen nuclear weapons were missing for a day and a half."
Schlosser, author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety, pointed out that the people who removed the weapons from the bunker never checked to see if they had nuclear warheads.
"The guys who loaded them onto the plane never checked to see if they were nuclear weapons," he added. "The pilot of the lane never checked the armament that was loaded onto the plane. Each one of those steps was in violation of the rules. It wasn't like one person made an error. It was just systematic failure that was incredible: the notion that nobody is asked to sign for six weapons vastly more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
He told the audience at the Frederic Wood Theatre that then-secretary of defense Robert Gates fired the secretary of the Air Force and chief of staff of the Air Force.
Generals' personal problems elevated risk
That wasn't Schlosser's only troubling anecdote.
Three years later, he said that an entire squadron was "taken off the job" of maintaining America's biggest nuclear-weapons facility because of safety violations.
That's not all. "This summer," he noted, "two of the three strategic missile wings in the United States were cited for safety violations. Just in the last two weeks, the Number 2 general was removed from duty for illegal gambling."
Schlosser then stated that in the same week, the Air Force general in charge of all land-based missiles was also pulled off the job.
"The Air Force would only say they had lost trust in him," Schlosser said. "But the Associated Press reported that he has some severe alcohol issues. Now, I'd spent six years looking at the command and control of nuclear weapons. It's unbelievable to me that two of our highest-ranking officers in charge of our nuclear arsenal would have those sorts of personal problems. We have screening procedures in place that are supposed to get rid of and catch people with those problems, let alone let them be in charge of the arsenal. Those generals were vulnerable to blackmail. The one general with the illegal gambling was caught using counterfeit chips at a casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa."
He said that part of the problem is that the U.S. military sees no use for these weapons.
"The whole thrust of American policy, whether you agree or disagree with how it's being carried out, has been for more and more precise munitions: smart bombs, drones, weapons they can use in battle," Schlosser explained. "During the first Gulf War when it was clear that Iraq was going to use chemical or biological weapons, Colin Powell, as the head of the joint chiefs of staff, did a top-secret study about how we might use our nuclear weapons on the battlefield when fighting Iraq. And they decided—morality and ethics aside—they just weren't useful weapons. They weren't useful because of all the collateral damage. As a result, since 9/11, there's been a remarkable neglect of our nuclear command and control system, and of our nuclear-weapons management."
Fissile material more worrisome than loose nukes
In response to a question from the audience, Schlosser acknowledged some risks from loose nukes in the former Soviet Union, as well as from the Iranian and North Korean nuclear-weapons programs. But he said that he's even more concerned about the enormous amount of fissile material, such as processed uranium or plutonium, which can go unaccounted for.
"You don't need very much—with 10, 15, or 20 pounds, you could create quite an explosion," he said. "In the Soviet Union, they made thousands of tons of that stuff. Making sure that's accounted for and that's under lock and key—that concerns me more than losing one of their weapons."
Schlosser, also the author of the 2001 bestseller Fast Food Nation, emphasized that the probability of an accident involving U.S. nuclear weapons is extremely low. But he emphasized that if a problem occurred, it could have extremely high consequences.
He revealed that in 2010, 50 U.S. land-based missiles went off-line because a computer chip had been improperly installed into a processor. The breakdown in communications lasted an hour.
"The Air Force denied at the time that anyone had hacked into our nuclear command and control system," he said. "Privately, high-level officers in the Air Force became concerned that might be possible. And the Defence Science Board, which is an advisory committee to the Pentagon, issued a report this year saying that the vulnerability of the American nuclear command and control system to cyber-attack has never been fully assessed."
According to Schlosser, when the general in charge of the United States Strategic Command was asked at a Senate committee hearing if anyone could hack into the nuclear weapons of China or Russia to launch an attack, he replied "Senator, I don't know."
Author sees nuclear energy as a bigger threat
Schlosser also told the audience that his research into nuclear weapons has strengthened his opposition to nuclear energy. He cited the research of Charles Perrow, who examined the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear-power plant in 1979.
This helped Schlosser understand how a seemingly minor event—a dropped socket in a missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980—nearly caused an explosion that could have killed millions of people.
"These are complex technological systems," Schlosser said. "Again and again, we find ourselves inadequate to manage them."
His biggest concern is that the waste from nuclear reactors remains deadly for tens of thousands of years. He said that it's "highly irresponsible for us to be creating poisons that future generations might suffer from".
There has never been a central storage facility created in the United States, which means that the waste remains at the nuclear-reactor sites.
"And these reactor sites were never designed to store nuclear waste in the way it's being stored," he said. "They are huge targets, potential targets, for terrorists. But they are also at enormous risk in a natural disaster, in earthquakes, things like that. And a lot of these nuclear reactors are near large urban areas."
To sum up, Schlosser declared that he's even more concerned about this issue than the legacy of his country's nuclear-weapons program.
That's in part because of enormous strides taken in reducing their number. In the 1960s, he said, the U.S. had 32,000 nuclear weapons. A decade later, he added, the Soviet Union had 35,000 nuclear weapons.
"Today, thanks to arms control, the United States and the [former] Soviet Union combined have 3,500 nuclear weapons ready to use. So that's going from 60,000 to 3,500. Now, that's still huge overkill.... Just reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world, according to the laws of probability, reduces the odds that we're going to have a disastrous accident or that one of these is going to be deliberately used. So I'm optimistic."
However, he also declared that he's a strong believer in not allowing other countries to get their hands on nuclear weapons.
"The president of the United States has called for the abolition of nuclear weapons," Schlosser said. "I think that's an admirable goal. I hope that we could, one day in my lifetime, achieve it. But short of that, fewer weapons in fewer hands make for a much safer world."