Geoff Wilson Research Associate & Special Assistant to the President, Ploughshares Fund
This piece was co-authored with Cora Henry, a Research Assistant at Ploughshares Fund.
There are over 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. The US alone has over 7,000. Many are actively deployed on missiles, bombers and submarines, ready to launch at a moment’s notice.
With so many nuclear weapons, technical failures are a constant risk. Human error exacerbates the problem.
A recent investigation by The Associated Press into an accident at a nuclear missile silo in Colorado illustrates the danger perfectly. In 2014, airmen manning a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile severely damaged the weapon.
The Air Force has not been forthcoming about the accident, but what we do know is that a “mishap” occurred during a diagnostic test and that the “mishap crew chief” in charge of handling the problem did not “correctly adhere to technical guidance” and “lacked the necessary proficiency level” to properly “anticipate the consequences of his actions during the troubleshooting.”
While the account is cloaked in bureaucratic jargon, it raises some serious questions. Why was someone without proper training working on a nuclear weapon? And why didn’t the technician listen to technical guidance?
Whatever happened, it cost U.S. taxpayers $1.8 million in damage to the missile. It also cost the three airmen their nuclear weapons certification — but they were put back on the job a year later.
By itself, it’s a disconcerting story. What makes it truly scary is that the Air Force neglected to report it to Pentagon investigators looking into the pattern of misconduct and negligence plaguing U.S. nuclear forces.
That investigation was launched after revelations of widespread abuse and misconduct among nuclear missileers, including illegal drug use and systemic cheating on missileer proficiency tests. If the investigators missed the 2014 Minuteman incident, what other nuclear mishaps did they miss?
Accidents involving our nuclear arsenal are nothing new. On a few occasions, we almost lost a state.
In 1980, an airman dropped part of a socket wrench while performing routine maintenance on a Titan II ballistic missile in Damascus, Arkansas. The socket fell about 70 feet and punctured the aluminum skin of the missile, which started leaking liquid rocket fuel.
After eight and a half stressful hours, dramatically portrayed in Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, the fuel exploded and the 9 megaton nuclear warhead landed about 100 feet from the launch complex. To give you an idea of just how powerful that warhead was, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was only 15 kilotons. Nine megatons is about equal to three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Luckily, it didn’t explode. We could have lost Arkansas.
Perhaps the most famous U.S. nuclear weapons accident happened in 1961, when a B-52 flying over North Carolina broke apart, releasing two 4 megaton hydrogen bombs. One bomb’s parachute deployed, but the other fell all the way to earth. As Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione put it, “all of the weapon’s safety mechanisms failed, except one. It was a single low-voltage switch that prevented a hydrogen bomb from destroying a good portion of North Carolina.”
These type of incidents aren’t things of the distant past.
In 2007, a B-52 flight from North Dakota to Louisiana carried six nuclear warheads — by mistake — in violation of a Cold War era treaty not to fly nuclear weapons. “This is a major gaffe, and it’s going to cause some heads to roll down the line,” said Don Shepperd, a retired Air Force major general. The crew of the plane did not realize that they were carrying nuclear weapons. Airmen in North Dakota did not know that any nuclear weapons were missing. And nobody realized that something was amiss for 36 hours.
Just a year later, the Air Force investigated a case of gross incompetence at an ICBM launch silo after a fire in a launcher equipment room went unnoticed for five days. Again, the AP’s writeup of the incident sounds like a script for a low budget slapstick comedy, but nobody is laughing.
The fire was caused by a loose electrical connection on a battery charger that was activated when a storm knocked out the main power source. The fire ignited a shotgun storage case, incinerated shotgun shells, ignited and melted duct tape at the opening of the launch tube, charred an umbilical cable in several places, and burned through wires in a pressure monitoring cable.
The incident cost more than $1 million, and the Air Force completed an accident report.
Other revelations concerning our nuclear security aside, the incident report “uncovered the remarkable fact that the Air Force was using duct tape on cables linked to the missile,” according to the AP.
These incidents are only a small sample of our nuclear near-misses, and we do not have a comprehensive list of nuclear accidents.
Jeffrey Lewis writes in Foreign Policy, “the Department of Defense has released narrative summaries for 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980, many of which involve aircraft bearing bombs. False alarms? Please. The Department of Defense admitted 1,152 ‘moderately serious’ false alarms between 1977 and 1984 — roughly three a week.”
The point here is that if you have so many nuclear weapons that you can misplace them and don’t maintain them properly, you probably have too many.
But we’re not the only nuclear power with problems like this. There are eight other nuclear weapons states. If we have these sorts of hair-raising problems, imagine what the Russians or the Pakistanis have to deal with.
These weapons are far too dangerous to treat with such carelessness. With some 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, every year that goes by without a nuclear accident is a miracle.
In 1961, President Kennedy warned that “every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.” Today his warning still rings true.
We must reduce our nuclear arsenals before they begin to reduce us.