Nuclear 'Command And Control': A History Of False Alarms And Near Catastrophes (Interview)

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tags: nuclear weapons



Eric Schlosser is the author of  "Fast Food Nation" (2012) and  "Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety" (2013), which he spent 6 years researching and writing. 

On a B-52 bomber that accidentally dropped a bomb on North Carolina in 1962

This plane was on a routine flight. At that period, we had B-52 bombers in the air 24 hours a day ready to attack the Soviet Union. So this plane took off with two very powerful hydrogen bombs. And while it was flying, the pilot noticed that there was a weight imbalance and they needed to essentially dump their fuel and get back to the base.

While they were trying to get back to the base, the weight imbalance started to break apart the plane. As the B-52 bomber broke apart midair, the crew was evacuating, there was a lanyard in the cockpit, and it was the lanyard that one of the crew members would normally pull to release the hydrogen bombs. The centrifugal forces of the plane breaking apart pulled the lanyard as though [a] human being had pulled it.

Now, these bombs are dumb machines — and they didn't know the difference between a person pulling on the lanyard or centrifugal forces. So the bombs were released as though we were over enemy territory and at war.

One of those hydrogen bombs went through all of its proper arming steps except for one, and when it hit the ground in North Carolina, there was a firing signal sent. And if that one switch in the bomb had been switched, it would've detonated a full-scale — an enormous, enormous thermonuclear explosion — in North Carolina.

On a false alarm that the United States was under Soviet attack

By the late 1970s, the great threat to the United States was Soviet missiles. These would come very quickly; the president of the United States would not have very much time whether to decide if this was a real attack or a false alarm and whether to launch our missiles — it might be as few as 10, 12 minutes to make this decision. ...

On Nov. 9, 1979, at NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] headquarters inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, Co., suddenly the screens were filled with images of a major Soviet attack on the United States. It really looked like an all-out attack and that the president [Jimmy Carter] might have to make a decision about whether or not to respond. It was investigated very quickly and other radars showed no sign of this attack. And the decision was made that this was a false alarm.

And it was soon realized that someone had inadvertently put a training tape — and the training tape was of an all-out Soviet attack — into a computer, and the computer had presented the training tape as a real attack....





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