'People Are Getting Sloppy': New Book Reveals Scary Mistakes and Incompetence With America's Nuclear Arsenal
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For his latest book, Command and Control, the American author Eric Schlosser spent six years immersed in the world of nuclear weapons. He discovered example after example of mistakes and near misses and became deeply concerned about the state of America's nuclear arsenal.
Those concerns were brought into focus again this week, when US air force officials said officers entrusted with the launch keys to long-range nuclear missiles had twice this year been caught leaving open a blast door that is intended to help prevent a terrorist or other intruder from entering their underground command post.
Earlier this month, the two-star general in charge of US intercontinental nuclear missiles was fired, for "personal misbehaviour".
I spoke to Schlosser about just what is going on with the people in charge of America's nuclear weapons.
Ed Pilkington: It’s been a lively few days in the realm of nuclear weapons mishaps. As well as the incidents mentioned above, there have been a spate of inspection failures of various nuclear units. What on earth is going on?
Eric Schlosser: It looks like there's poor morale and poor leadership in the air force units responsible for nuclear weapons. People are getting sloppy – and that's not a good thing.
EP: Having spent most of the past seven years investigating the history of US nuclear mishaps and close shaves for your new book, does this feel to you like a case of deja vu?
ES: I'm actually surprised that these problems keep happening. In 2007, after half a dozen thermonuclear weapons went missing for a day and a half, without anyone at the air force even realizing it, secretary of defense Robert Gates took some strong action. He fired two top air force officials and made clear that mistakes in the oversight of nuclear weapons are unacceptable. That was six years ago, and the air force clearly hasn't gotten the message.
EP: What do you think we can learn from the fact that mishaps like this are still occurring? And how does it tie into the theme of your book?
ES: The command and control of nuclear weapons requires constant vigilance. These are the most dangerous machines ever invented – and any complacency about them greatly increases the danger. In the book, I wrote about "the Titanic effect", an attitude that provides a false sense of security. The more impossible a serious accident seems to be, the more likely it becomes.
EP: Let’s break down the events and have a look at them a little closer. This week we learnt that there have been two incidents this year – one in April at the 91st Missile Wing at Minot air force base in North Dakota, the other in May at Malmstrom air force in Montana – in which blast doors were left open while one of two launch officers was sleeping,which is against the rules designed to prevent intrusion. In one case, an officer even lied about having been asleep, before later admitting it, and in the other one of the officers left the concrete and steel door ajar so they could receive a food delivery. How serious is that as a breach of regulations, and should we be worried about it?
ES: We should be concerned. As I learned during my research, for every incident like this we hear about, countless others take place without ever being made public. Checklists, standard operating procedures and strict rules are absolutely essential for nuclear weapon safety. Leaving a blast door open when someone's taking a nap is a sign of poor discipline. Launch officers shouldn't be breaking rules and then lying about it.