Are American Nukes Safe?

Unless you desire war with Iran or Iran getting a nuclear weapon, the Obama administration’s recent deal with Iran is a huge success. While one might reasonably quarrel with some of the details, the fact is that without a deal further escalation of tensions was almost definite. Many experts on nuclear weapons are very pleased with the result.

It’s important to note that though stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons has been and continues to be an important goal, the most likely danger is not Iran’s launching a nuclear attack on another country. Nuclear warfare, for every country other than the U.S., has been been war of strategy, not detonations. States in possession of nuclear weapons are able to get away with a lot more than those without them, because the threat of nuclear attack is so perilous.

Of course, Iran’s international posture notwithstanding, more nuclear weapons in the world is objectively worse than fewer, all else being equal. But in this respect, Russia and the United States have far more nuclear warheads than anyone else, each totaling around 7,000, according to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Not all of these are ready to be deployed, and some are planned to be dismantled.

But on the ground alone, the U.S. Air Force has around 450 nuclear missiles under constant surveillance, ready to be launched at any time, given an order from the President. When 60 minutes investigated the status of these missiles, the results were not encouraging.

To start, the technology is old. It was after all, created in the Cold War, much of it in the 1960s. Equipment used to receive launch orders still uses floppy disks.

Because the equipment is so old, sometimes the missiles have to be removed from their silos and transported on the roads to be repaired. Unsurprisingly, any transport is heavily surrounded by military personnel, and under tight supervision. But still–it’s deeply unsettling to think of a truck carrying a nuclear warhead getting a flat tire.

Eric Schlosser pointed out in his book Command and Control that there’s an essential tension in the management of nuclear arms. Ideally, they would be engineered so as to never go off unintentionally, but always go off when ordered to. But creating systems that strike a perfect balance is impossible, so there will always be some bias in one direction. During the Cold War, it was vital that nuclear weapons be ready to go at a moment’s notice; a bias towards detonation may still pervade our arsenal.

60 Minutes also discussed cheating scandals and incidents involving alcohol that have plagued the units charged with our nuclear arsenal. To some degree, these scandals may have been overblown–officials claim cheating took place only at the very high end of test scores, suggesting that lack of discipline, rather than lack of competence, was at fault–and any institution run by humans is going to have its fair share of misbehavior and mismanagement.

What’s troubling, of course, is that there’s such little room for error when it comes nuclear explosions. A single detonation of a nuclear warhead would be catastrophic in its own right, with human casualties in the millions possible. But an unintentional detonation even in a relatively deserted area could cause unprecedented worldwide panic, as speculation about the possibility of sabotage, duplicity, or additional unintentional explosions, could have unfathomable consequences.

This may sound overdramatic, but it’s not; in 1980, a dropped socket wrench punctured a missiles fuel tank, causing an explosion that propelled the nuclear warhead above ground. It luckily didn’t detonate. You undoubtedly would already know this story if it had.

In 1966, as Rachel Maddow recounts in Drift, a B-52 armed with four hydrogen bombs smashed into a tanker during refueling. Two fell and were recovered, while the other two exploded, though since they were not properly detonated, they functioned essentially as dirty bombs rather than causing nuclear explosions. A similar accident happened in Greenland in 1968, except that one of the four bombs was lost in the ocean and never recovered. According to Maddow, the U.S. has admitted to misplacing 11 nuclear bombs.

In 1984, a computer malfunction nearly triggered the launch of a nuclear missile, and a missileer attempted to block the launch by parking an armored vehicle over top the silo. And these are only some of the nuclear “mishaps” we’ve had, of those that we know about, in the U.S.

All of which is to say that keeping nukes away from Iran might in fact be in their best interest. Putatively, our nuclear arms are intended to be our great defense, our insurance policy against the worst possible scenarios. But without adequate containment, they have the power to be the cause of the worst case scenario, and lead to the disaster they were meant to avoid.

38 comments

Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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heather g.
heather g2 years ago

Reading this, encourages me to return to the Southern Hemisphere.

If one compares various countries' warlike behaviour - only one tops the list!

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Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y2 years ago

A 'safe' nuclear weapon seems an oxymoron, like 'jumbo shrimp' or 'smart bomb'.

But a more serious look at our arsenal shows we do need to be a lot safer and more reliable in how we store, staff, and test these things-or even how we get rid of them. The U.S. and Russia have dismantled about 2/3 of their Cold War stockpiles, and some radioactive material has gone missing (mostly in former Soviet Republics). How ironic if, after 60 years of effective deterrence and détente, and huge risks and efforts by all the nuclear powers, some stupid accident ended up triggering a conflict.

On the physics side, the good news is it's pretty hard to trigger a fission bomb, and even harder to do fusion (needs fission exploding inward concentrically on an isotope target-very tricky). That's why collisions or chemical explosions don't cause these things to blow up. And it requires huge national resources to design, build, and test effective nukes, triggers, and their delivery systems-thousands of scientists and engineers involved. So it's unlikely terrorists can do more than build or steal a dirty bomb; still a problem, but not Armageddon.

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Nikki Davey
Nikki Davey2 years ago

This of course begs the question are any nuclear weapons "safe"?
Looking at NAS A technological failures, it does seem that the older tech was safer and more reliable than the newer stuff.

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Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell2 years ago

Thank you

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Fred L.
Fred L2 years ago

No, and neither are Russian, French, British, Chinese, Pakistani, Indian, North Korean and (probably) Israeli nuclear weapons. But that's the whole point of nuclear weapons, isn't it? Remember the MAD doctrine? Mutually Assured Destruction. It'll take only one mistake, systems failure or whack job to set off a nuclear holocaust. Lunacy.

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Susan S.
Susan S2 years ago

For a country (USA) that is broke and trillions of dollars in debt, I want to know just where the hell obama is going to come up with the TRILLIONS of dollars that are included in the deal with all the rest of the technology he is giving one of the most UNSTABLE countries in the world.
Anyone have any answers for this one?????

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Janet B.
Janet B2 years ago

Thanks

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Vivianne Mosca-Clark

No nuclear anything.

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