Secret history of "near-miss" accidents with H-Bombs revealed in new book

Rob Waugh

When Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas in 1980, a worker dropped a metal tool inside a buried silo housing the most powerful nuclear missile the United States had ever built.

The 3lb socket ripped open a tank, and thousands of gallons of fuel began leaking from the 103ft Titan II missile, which was fully armed with a thermonuclear warhead. The resulting explosion, says Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control, “could have destroyed the state.”

Schlosser says that dozens of such incidents were “kept secret or denied” by the U.S. government - and that there are many  the public remain unaware of. At the time of the Titan II incident, the Air Force Secretary described Titan II as “perfectly safe”.

“A worker dropped a tool in a Titan II missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas.  It was an innocent mistake; a socket fell off his wrench,” Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation says.

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“The socket fell about seventy feet, bounced off part of the silo, hit the missile, and tore a hole in its metal skin.  Thousands of gallons of highly explosive rocket fuel began to pour out.  The Air Force was suddenly confronted with a problem nobody had ever faced before.”

The Titan II’s thermonuclear warhead was a multi-megaton hydrogen bomb - a far more powerful weapon than the ones dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki - and it was surrounded by leaking fuel.

If it detonated, it would have destroyed buildings and caused lethal burns to anyone within 5 to 10 miles. Radioactive fallout would have devastated the surrounding area.

“The Titan II was the largest intercontinental ballistic missile ever built by the United States. And on top of it was the most powerful thermonuclear warhead the US ever put on a missile.”

Officials raced to homes within a five mile radius - and said to householders, “Don’t take time to close the doors - just get out.”

At 3.01am, technicians gave up trying to plug the leak, and began climbing out. The fuel exploded, blasting off the missile silo’s 750ft concrete cover.

One worker died, 21 others were injured. The warhead was reported to have been hurled hundreds of feet - but it didn’t go off. It was the second major nuclear incident that week - a B52 bomber carrying 32 short-range nuclear misssiles had caught fire in Dakota.

It was also the 40th major incident to affect the liquid-fuelled Titan II missiles, which were buried in silos throughout Arkansas, Arizona and Kansas.

Schlosser says that the Pentagon’s own record of “Broken Arrow” incidents, where nuclear devices were at risk, only tells part of the story, and that scientists and engineers had to struggle for decades to make America’s arsenal safe.

In the “arms race” of the Cold War, safety considerations took last place, as nations raced to create more and more devastating weapons.

“It took almost twenty years for the American military to put locks on nuclear weapons so that they couldn't be used by unauthorized personnel - that seems incredible now,” says Schlosser.
“But the challenge of keeping tens of thousands of weapons controlled was enormous.”

“I think there's a remarkable lack of awareness about the many nuclear close-calls.  Most of them were kept secret or denied by the US government when they occurred.  I didn't know any if this until I did the research for my book.”

America’s nuclear arsenal is now tightly controlled by guards, electronic safeguards, and strict protocols on how and when they can be used. But the threat posed by such weapons has not gone away.

“So long as a single fully assembled nuclear weapon exists, the risk of an accident or theft will exist, too.  We are much better at creating complex technologies than at controlling them.  But the fewer weapons there are in the world, the lower the risk will be,” he says.

“Although the risk of an all-out nuclear war has decreased, the danger of a single weapon being detonated, by accident or design, has probably increased."

“The number of nuclear weapons in the world has greatly decreased over the last few decades.  The weapons In the American arsenal now have modern safety devices.  But the threat never went away.  Many thousands of nuclear weapons are still out there, waiting to be used. Countries like Pakistan may not have adequate controls on their weapons.”

Schlosser says that the public are largely unaware of how many nuclear weapons there are - and which countries own them.

“The public's current lack of awareness makes the threat greater--and allows a small group of officials to make nuclear policy in secret. The most dangerous mentality about nuclear weapons, I think, is complacency."

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser is published by Allen Lane priced £25.