Nuclear numpties


There have been 32 reported “near misses” of American nuclear devices over American soil. Eric Schlosser, the author of a new (five-week-old) book on the topic, Command & Control, believes hundreds more have gone unreported.

Have you ever been entrusted with a really big responsibility, like making sure Grandma takes her medication while your parents are on holiday, but you get flustered, forget and suddenly Grandma is a four megaton nuclear device hurtling along its detonation sequence over North Carolina?

Promoting his book on the BBC, Mr Schlosser revealed that “more than a thousand nuclear weapons had been involved in accidents at one time or another.” His discovery only came after he submitted a Freedom of Information request; only 32 of these apocalyptic ‘oopsies’ were officially reported. Although, would you blame anyone for not wanting to admit a mistake like that?

In January 1961, just three days after the inauguration of John F Kennedy, a B-52 bomber broke up over the state of North Carolina, flinging two hydrogen bombs into the air. The bombs – quite reasonably – believed they had been released in anger over enemy territory. Safety device after safety device failed on the weapons; one bomb went all the way through its detonation sequence barring a single switch that heroically stayed in place. The other dropped into a lake, its uranium core sank to the lake-bed and to this date it has not been found.


So what of the hundreds of other near misses: what do they involve? Mr Schlosser paints a picture of a world constantly 20 seconds from blowing itself up. Disasters came close on both sides of the cold war. In September 1983, Russian satellites – in a scene straight out of Fail Safe or Dr Strangelove – picked up a non-existent American missile launch. The Soviet nuclear response went into red alert; the system was waiting solely on Lieutenant Stanislav Petrov – a man stuffed in a Siberian bunker surrounded by sirens and flashing red lights – calling up the Kremlin and giving the ‘Go’ signal. He was under orders to do so and should have had a missile response in the air within minutes; no-one had any reason to believe the computers were lying. He gambled on the computer failing, however, doing nothing and watching the blip on the screen hurtle towards his country. When after 20 minutes he hadn’t heard about armageddon, Lt Petrov knew he was right. His disobeying of orders single-handedly prevented World War Three.

The problem was that both countries were racing to develop delicate long range missile detectors to the end of blowing the other guy up before they themselves were obliterated. In the early days of the technology, things did not always work as they should. US detectors once went into alert for a suspected Soviet missile, only to later realise they were seeing the moon rising for the night. In 1963, the USSR and US established a hotline between Washington and Moscow to quickly resolve false alarms like these; the Tzar could now explain to Mr President about the big bright ball in the sky.

Apart from the above and dozens of other examples a Google search away, everything is fine. Don’t worry, you haven’t been blown up yet, have you? Have you? Hello?

If anyone’s out there, remember: for all the latest on five-week-old stories about events 50 years ago, stay tuned to The Saint, the world’s most dangerous student newspaper.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


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