Excerpt from Eric Schlosser’s Terrifying Book on Nukes (and a Radiohead Video, Too)
August 11, 2014
By Michael Mechanic
Mother Jones, September 15, 2013
Update (1/16/2014): The Air Force announced yesterday that it had suspended and revoked the security clearances of 34 missile launch officers at the Malmstrom base in Montana after it came to light that they were cheating—or complicit in cheating—on monthly exams to ensure that they were capable of safely babysitting the nuclear warheads atop their missiles. Eleven launch officers, two of whom where also implicated in the cheating episode, were targeted in a separate investigation of illegal drug use. (As Schlosser told me in an interview, “You don’t want people smoking pot and handling nuclear weapons.”) The new revelations were just the latest fiasco in the Air Force’s handling of America’s nuclear arsenal, which military officials invariably insist is safe. Then again, as you’re about to discover, they’ve lied about that in the past.
ON JANUARY 23, 1961, a B-52 packing a pair of Mark 39 hydrogen bombs suffered a refueling snafu and went into an uncontrolled spin over North Carolina. In the cockpit of the rapidly disintegrating bomber was a lanyard attached to the bomb-release mechanism. Intense G-forces tugged hard at it and unleashed the nukes, which, at four megatons, were 250 times more powerful than the weapon that leveled Hiroshima. One of them “failed safe” and plummeted to the ground unarmed. The other weapon’s failsafe mechanisms—the devices designed to prevent an accidental detonation—were subverted one by one, as Eric Schlosser recounts in his new book, Command and Control:
When the lanyard was pulled, the locking pins were removed from one of the bombs. The Mark 39 fell from the plane. The arming wires were yanked out, and the bomb responded as though it had been deliberately released by the crew above a target. The pulse generator activated the low-voltage thermal batteries. The drogue parachute opened, and then the main chute. The barometric switches closed. The timer ran out, activating the high-voltage thermal batteries. The bomb hit the ground, and the piezoelectric crystals inside the nose crushed. They sent a firing signal…
Unable to deny that two of its bombs had fallen from the sky—one in a swampy meadow, the other in a field near Faro, North Carolina—the Air Force insisted that there had never been any danger of a nuclear detonation. This was a lie.
Here’s the truth: Just days after JFK was sworn in as president, one of the most terrifying weapons in our arsenal was a hair’s breadth from detonating on American soil. It would have pulverized a portion of North Carolina and, given strong northerly winds, could have blanketed East Coast cities (including New York, Baltimore, and Washington, DC) in lethal fallout. The only thing standing between us and an explosion so catastrophic that it would have radically altered the course of history was a simple electronic toggle switch in the cockpit, a part that probably cost a couple of bucks to manufacture and easily could have been undermined by a short circuit—hardly a far-fetched scenario in an electronics-laden airplane that’s breaking apart.
The anecdote above is just one of many “holy shit!” revelations readers will discover in the latest book from the best-selling author of Fast Food Nation. Easily the most unsettling work of nonfiction I’ve ever read, Schlosser’s six-year investigation of America’s “broken arrows” (nuclear weapons mishaps) is by and large historical—this stuff is top secret, after all—but the book is beyond relevant. It’s critical reading in a nation with thousands of nukes still on hair-trigger alert.
In sections, Command and Control reads like a character-driven thriller as Schlosser draws on his deep reporting, extensive interviews, and documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act to demonstrate how human error, computer glitches, dilution of authority, poor communications, occasional incompetence, and the routine hoarding of crucial information have nearly brought about our worst nightmare on numerous occasions.
While casual readers will learn a great deal about the history and geopolitics of our nuclear arsenal, Schlosser’s central narrative is built around a deadly 1980 explosion at a missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas, where the W-53 thermonuclear warhead, the most powerful weapon ever mounted on a missile, sat atop a Titan II. He puts us on site as the catastrophe unfolds, offering an intimate window on the perspectives and personalities of those involved. It’s a gripping yarn that shows how the military concept of “command and control”—the process that governs how decisions are made and orders are executed—functions in practice, and how it can unravel in a crisis.
Command and Control will leave readers with a deep unease about our ability—let alone, say, Pakistan’s—to handle nuclear weapons safely.
Absent the Soviet threat, it’s easy to forget that these ungodly devices are still all around us. An entire generation, as Schlosser told me recently, is blissfully unaware of the specter of nuclear devastation. ButCommand and Control will leave readers of any age with a deep unease about our ability—to say nothing of, say, Pakistan’s—to handle these weapons safely. Schlosser wrote the book in the hope of reviving America’s long-dormant debate about “the most dangerous machines ever invented.” Fortunately, he delivers a page-turner, not a doorstop.
Below this short video trailer, you’ll find the first chapter of Command and Control. It’s just a tease, but it’ll give you a taste of what’s in store. The book is available September 17. Buy it. Read it. Make noise about it. And don’t miss my chat with Schlosser about his epic project, and why he believes “it’s remarkable—it’s incredible!—that a major city hasn’t been destroyed since Nagasaki.”
ON SEPTEMBER 18, 1980, at about 6:30 in the evening, Senior Airman David Powell and Airman Jeffrey Plumb walked into the silo at Launch Complex 374-7, a few miles north of Damascus, Arkansas. They were planning to do a routine maintenance procedure on a Titan II missile.
They’d spent countless hours underground at complexes like this one. But no matter how many times they entered the silo, the Titan II always looked impressive. It was the largest intercontinental ballistic missile ever built by the United States: 10 feet in diameter and 103 feet tall, roughly the height of a nine-story building. It had an aluminum skin with a matte finish and U.S. AIR FORCE painted in big letters down the side. The nose cone on top of the Titan II was deep black, and inside it sat a W-53 thermonuclear warhead, the most powerful weapon ever carried by an American missile. The warhead had a yield of nine megatons—about three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.
The silo was eerily quiet, and mercury vapor lights on the walls bathed the missile in a bright white glow.
Day or night, winter or spring, the silo always felt the same. It was eerily quiet, and mercury vapor lights on the walls bathed the missile in a bright white glow. When you opened the door on a lower level and stepped into the launch duct, the Titan II loomed above you like an immense black-tipped silver bullet, loaded in a concrete gun barrel, primed, cocked, ready to go, and pointed at the sky.
The missile was designed to launch within a minute and hit a target as far as 6,000 miles away. In order to do that, the Titan II relied upon a pair of liquid propellants—a rocket fuel and an oxidizer—that were “hypergolic.” The moment they came into contact with each other, they’d instantly and forcefully ignite. The missile had two stages, and inside both of them, an oxidizer tank rested on top of a fuel tank, with pipes leading down to an engine. Stage 1, which extended about 70 feet upward from the bottom of the missile, contained about 85,000 pounds of fuel and 163,000 pounds of oxidizer.
Stage 2, the upper section where the warhead sat, was smaller and held about one fourth of those amounts. If the missile were launched, fuel and oxidizer would flow through the stage 1 pipes, mix inside the combustion chambers of the engine, catch on fire, emit hot gases, and send almost half a million pounds of thrust through the supersonic convergent-divergent nozzles beneath it. Within a few minutes, the Titan II would be 50 miles off the ground.
The two propellants were extremely efficient—and extremely dangerous. The fuel, Aerozine-50, could spontaneously ignite when it came into contact with everyday things like wool, rags, or rust. As a liquid, Aerozine-50 was clear and colorless. As a vapor, it reacted with the water and the oxygen in the air and became a whitish cloud with a fishy smell. This fuel vapor could be explosive in proportions as low as 2 percent. Inhaling it could cause breathing difficulties, a reduced heart rate, vomiting, convulsions, tremors, and death. The fuel was also highly carcinogenic and easily absorbed through the skin.
The missile’s oxidizer was classified as a “Poison A,” the most deadly category of man-made chemicals.
The missile’s oxidizer, nitrogen tetroxide, was even more hazardous. Under federal law, it was classified as a “Poison A,” the most deadly category of man-made chemicals. In its liquid form, the oxidizer was a translucent, yellowy brown. Although not as flammable as the fuel, it could spontaneously ignite if it touched leather, paper, cloth, or wood. And its boiling point was only 70 degrees Fahrenheit. At temperatures any higher, the liquid oxidizer boiled into a reddish brown vapor that smelled like ammonia. Contact with water turned the vapor into a corrosive acid that could react with the moisture in a person’s eyes or skin and cause severe burns. When inhaled, the oxidizer could destroy tissue in the upper respiratory system and the lungs. The damage might not be felt immediately. Six to twelve hours after being inhaled, the stuff could suddenly cause headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, pneumonia, and pulmonary edema leading to death.
Powell and Plumb were missile repairmen. They belonged to Propellant Transfer System (PTS) Team A of the 308th Strategic Missile Wing, whose headquarters was about an hour or so away at Little Rock Air Force Base. They’d been called to the site that day because a warning light had signaled that pressure was low in the stage 2 oxidizer tank. If the pressure fell too low, the oxidizer wouldn’t flow smoothly to the engine. A “low light” could mean a serious problem—a rupture, a leak. But it was far more likely that a slight change in temperature had lowered the pressure inside the tank. Air-conditioning units in the silo were supposed to keep the missile cooled to about 60 degrees. If Powell and Plumb didn’t find any leaks, they’d simply unscrew the cap on the oxidizer tank and add more nitrogen gas. The nitrogen maintained a steady pressure on the liquid inside, pushing downward. It was a simple, mundane task, like putting air in your tires before a long drive.
Powell had served on a PTS team for almost three years and knew the hazards of the Titan II. During his first visit to a launch complex, an oxidizer leak created a toxic cloud that shut down operations for three days. He was 21 years old, a proud “hillbilly” from rural Kentucky who loved the job and planned to reenlist at the end of the year.
Airman Plumb, 19, wasn’t qualified to do this sort of maintenance or to handle these propellants. Accompanying Powell was his on-the-job training.
Plumb had been with the 308th for just nine months. He wasn’t qualified to do this sort of missile maintenance or to handle these propellants. Accompanying Powell and watching everything that Powell did was considered Plumb’s “OJT,” his on-the-job training. Plumb was 19, raised in suburban Detroit.
Although an oxidizer low light wasn’t unusual, Air Force technical orders required that both men wear Category I protective gear when entering the silo to investigate it. “Going Category I” meant getting into a Rocket Fuel Handler’s Clothing Outfit (RFHCO)—an airtight, liquidproof, vaporproof, fire-resistant combination of gear designed to protect them from the oxidizer and the fuel. The men called it a “ref-co.”
A RFHCO looked like a space suit from an early-1960s science fiction movie. It had a white detachable bubble helmet with a voice-actuated radio and a transparent Plexiglas face screen. The suit was off white, with a long zipper extending from the top of the left shoulder, across the torso, to the right knee. You stepped into the RFHCO and wore long johns underneath it. The black vinyl gloves and boots weren’t attached, so the RFHCO had roll-down cuffs at the wrists and the ankles to maintain a tight seal. The suit weighed about 22 pounds. The RFHCO backpack weighed an additional 35 and carried about an hour’s worth of air. The outfit was heavy and cumbersome. It could be hot, sticky, and uncomfortable, especially when worn outside the air-conditioned silo. But it could also save your life.
The stage 2 oxidizer pressure cap was about two-thirds of the way up the missile. In order to reach it, Powell and Plumb had to walk across a retractable steel platform that extended from the silo wall. The tall, hollow cylinder in which the Titan II stood was enclosed by another concrete cylinder with nine interior levels, housing equipment. Level 1 was near the top of the missile; level 9 about 20 feet beneath the missile. The steel work platforms folded down from the walls hydraulically. Each one had a stiff rubber edge to prevent the Titan II from getting scratched, while keeping the gap between the platform and the missile as narrow as possible.
The thrust mount was attached to the walls by large springs, so that the Titan II could ride out a nuclear attack.
The airmen entered the launch duct at level 2. Far above their heads was a concrete silo door. It was supposed to protect the missile from the wind and the rain and the effects of a nuclear weapon detonating nearby. The door weighed 740 tons. Far below the men, beneath the Titan II, a concrete flame deflector shaped like a W was installed to guide the hot gases downward at launch, then upward through exhaust vents and out of the silo. The missile stood on a thrust mount, a steel ring at level 7 that weighed about 26,000 pounds. The thrust mount was attached to the walls by large springs, so that the Titan II could ride out a nuclear attack, bounce instead of break, and then take off.
In addition to the W-53 warhead and a few hundred thousand pounds of propellants, many other things in the silo could detonate. Electro-explosive devices were used after ignition to free the missile from the thrust mount, separate stage 2 from stage 1, release the nose cone. The missile also housed numerous small rocket engines with flammable solid fuel to adjust the pitch and the roll of the warhead midflight. The Titan II launch complex had been carefully designed to minimize the risk of having so many flammables and explosives within it. Fire detectors, fire suppression systems, toxic vapor detectors, and decontamination showers were scattered throughout the nine levels of the silo. These safety devices were bolstered by strict safety rules.
Plumb watched the nine-pound socket slip through the narrow gap between the platform and the missile.
Whenever a PTS team member put on a RFHCO, he had to be accompanied by someone else in a RFHCO, with two other people waiting as backup, ready to put on their suits. Every Category I task had to be performed according to a standardized checklist, which the team chief usually read aloud over the radio communications network. There was one way to do everything—and only one way. Technical Order 21M-LGM25C-2-12, Figure 2-18, told Powell and Plumb exactly what to do as they stood on the platform near the missile.
“Step four,” the PTS team chief said over the radio. “Remove airborne disconnect pressure cap.”
“Roger,” Powell replied.
“Caution. When complying with step four, do not exceed 160 foot-pounds of torque. Overtorquing may result in damage to the missile skin.”
As Powell used a socket wrench to unscrew the pressure cap, the socket fell off. It struck the platform and bounced. Powell grabbed for it but missed.
Plumb watched the nine-pound socket slip through the narrow gap between the platform and the missile, fall about 70 feet, hit the thrust mount, and then ricochet off the Titan II. It seemed to happen in slow motion. A moment later, fuel sprayed from a hole in the missile like water from a garden hose.