Nuclear weapons are different.
If a nuclear weapon exploded in a major city, the blast center would be hotter than the surface of the sun; tornado-strength winds would spread the flames; and a million or more people could die. Survivors would have no electricity, phones and hospitals would be overwhelmed…if they were still standing.
The opportunities for catastrophe are wide and terrifying with nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. The possibility of an accidental, mistaken or unauthorized launch is real. The scenarios below show how close we've come.
More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia still keep roughly 1,800 nuclear weapons ready for immediate launch against each other. This dangerous "hair trigger status" means leaders in a crisis would have just minutes to check facts and decide whether to use nuclear weapons. Command and control systems are not perfect. People make mistakes. Sabotage can happen. Technology has flaws and systems fail.
A nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia could end human life on earth—and could be triggered by a false warning planted by a cyber-terrorist. We know that terrorists are seeking nuclear weapons themselves.
Seven more countries—in addition to the U.S. and Russia—have nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan, China, France, the United Kingdom, Israel and North Korea. Any one of these countries could be the cause of a catastrophe.
How long will we continue to rely on luck?
The Russian Nuclear Football
On June 25, 1995, a U.S. scientific missile lifted off from an island near the coast of Norway to study the northern lights. Across northern Russia, radars tracked the missile, and an early warning center read the rocket as a nuclear missile launched from a U.S. submarine, capable of hitting Moscow with hundreds of nuclear warheads in 15 minutes. President Boris Yeltsin and his top nuclear advisors went into crisis mode. His advisors opened up the nuclear briefcase, placed the button on Yeltsin’s desk and said: "We're under attack." President Yeltsin had ten minutes to decide whether or not to launch Russian missiles in response. Two minutes before the decision deadline, the warning center’s senior duty officer told President Yeltsin that the missile's flight path posed no threat. Days after the crisis, the Russians discovered that the U.S. notification of an upcoming satellite launch never made it up the chain of command.
The Computer Chip
Hours before dawn on June 3, 1980, President Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was awakened with the news that Soviet submarines had launched 220 missiles at the United States. It was a time of intense hostility between the superpowers. The Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan and the U.S. and its allies responded by boycotting the Moscow Olympics – dealing an international humiliation to the Soviets. Brzezinski asked for confirmation; seconds later, he was told that not 220 but 2,200 missiles were on their way. The Pentagon called a Threat Assessment Conference. Crews started the engines on their nuclear bombers. Missile crews opened their safes. As Brzezinski was calling the President to recommend a retaliatory strike, fresh data came: the command centers and radar sites disagreed again. This time, there were no radar warnings of a missile attack, and the incident was declared a false alarm. The culprit? A defective computer chip that was replaced for under a dollar.
Nukes Over North Carolina
Three days after President Kennedy was inaugurated, a B-52 nuclear bomber carrying two 4-megaton hydrogen bombs took off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base for an airborne alert patrol. After more than ten hours in the air, the plane began to leak fuel and broke apart at 10,000 feet over Faro, North Carolina. The locking pins came out of one of the nuclear weapons, and the bomb fell from the plane. Despite precautions, the bomb behaved as if it had been released above a target. The parachutes activated. But when the bomb hit the ground, a firing signal was sent. Incredibly, the bomb did not explode. Every safety mechanism designed to prevent detonation failed except one. A single safety switch prevented a nuclear catastrophe. Had it exploded, the bomb – which had the power of 250 Hiroshimas – would have caused lethal radioactive fallout over Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City – and forced an evacuation of Washington, D.C.
Who's Minding the Nukes?
On August 29, 2007, at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, 12 cruise missiles were scheduled to be flown to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to be decommissioned. Instead, six cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads were strapped onto one of the wings of a B-52 bomber not certified to carry nuclear weapons. The nuclear missiles were flown by pilots who did not know they were carrying nuclear weapons to an airbase that did not know they were coming. Once in Louisiana, the weapons sat on the tarmac overnight unguarded. By the time the mistake was discovered by a maintenance crew, the six thermonuclear weapons had been missing for a day and a half and no one in the U.S. Air Force noticed. A former head of the nation’s strategic command said: “I have been in the nuclear business since 1966 and am not aware of any incident more disturbing.”
A Costly Fumble
The Titan II missile is the largest intercontinental ballistic missile ever built by the United States, and is equipped to carry the most powerful thermonuclear warhead ever carried by a U.S. missile – with 600 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. In 1980, an airman in rural Arkansas was doing standard maintenance on a Titan II, with the 9-megaton nuclear warhead in its nose cone, when he accidentally dropped a socket wrench between the platform and the missile. The wrench fell 70 feet and opened a leak that filled the silo with rocket fuel. The rocket fuel eventually caused the missile to explode, flinging the nuclear warhead into a ditch 200 yards away. It did not detonate.
This story is the cornerstone of the book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser, a key source of the details for these harrowing close calls. When Schlosser first learned about the Titan II missile explosion, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request to gather more data on nuclear accidents in the United States. He received a document that ran 245 pages and covered just ten years of the Cold War. That prompted him to “write the book” on near-catastrophes of the nuclear age.
Order the book.
How long does the U.S. president have to decide whether to launch a nuclear weapon? Check out the timeline here.