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Eric Schlosser: If We Don't Slash Our Nukes, "a Major City Is Going to Be Destroyed"

The "Fast Food Nation" author on his frightening new exposé of America's nuclear weapons mishaps.

| Sun Sep. 15, 2013 12:01 AM PDT

ES: Good question, and that's probably very top secret. What happened was, as there was a great realization that Washington could be destroyed by the Soviets with little or no warning, there was a need to delegate the presidential authority so that if the president were killed, the United States could mount a retaliation. But once you start delegating authority—essentially sharing the launch codes—you introduce the possibility that somebody could start using our weapons without the authorization of the president. And this was particularly of concern with NATO, because it's clear that the supreme allied commander in Europe had been delegated the authority to use nuclear weapons; if there was a communications breakdown between the United States and Europe, the NATO officers on their own could initiate the use of nuclear weapons, and things could spiral completely out of control very quickly. It's not clear to me who is delegated to authorize their use today.

MJ: NATO no longer has that authority?

Lesson from the Titan II disaster: "If you're going to have nuclear weapons, you must spare no expense" to maintain them.

ES: NATO doesn't really have nuclear weapons on alert anymore—there are some delegated to NATO through submarines, and there are maybe 200 tactical nuclear bombs, but they're not mounted on airplanes.

MJ: Your book's central narrative involves the deadly explosion you mentioned, which took place at a Titan II missile silo in Arkansas in 1980. What were the key lessons of that disaster, and do you think the military has learned them?

ES: I'm quite concerned. One of the lessons would be, if you're going to have nuclear weapons, you must spare no expense in the proper maintenance of them. The Titan II was widely regarded as obsolete. They were running out of spare parts. There were frequent leaks, and the warhead was acknowledged not to have adequate safety devices. The people working on it were often poorly trained, poorly paid, overworked. There were shortages of trained technicians. In retrospect, it was completely irresponsible to have all of those things occurring with a missile carrying the most powerful warhead ever put on an Air Force missile. It's just extraordinary! And there were high rates of drug use. I spoke to people who had been involved in sensitive nuclear positions who were smoking pot at the time. You don't want people smoking pot and handling nuclear weapons. So those are some of the crucial takeaways. And yet our land-based missile, the Minuteman III, is upward of 40 years old. The B-52 bomber hasn't been manufactured since John F. Kennedy was president, and some of those bombers are getting close to 65 years old. We really should either invest in our weapons systems or get rid of them.

17 Air Force launch officers "were taken off duty earlier this year for safety violations; there's a sense of a lack of direction, and mismanagement."

Look at what happened with the Air Force, starting with that 2007 incident when they lost those hydrogen bombs. A few years ago, they lost communication with an entire squadron of Minutemen missiles—50 missiles!—for almost an hour. They had to decertify the maintenance crew that looks after the biggest Air Force storage facility in New Mexico. Seventeen launch officers were taken off duty earlier this year for safety violations. There's a sense of a lack of direction, and mismanagement right now—particularly in the Air Force. And it's intolerable. It's unacceptable.

MJ: Obviously, the warhead on that Titan II didn't detonate. But even barring a nuclear explosion, should we be worried about a dirty-bomb type scenario where, say, plutonium is dispersed over a populated area?

ES: Yes. That warhead didn't contain plutonium, but the warheads on top of our Trident II missiles do. They are mounted around the third stage of the missile in a way so that if the rocket fuel were to detonate, you could have a major scattering—and that's still a major issue with our Trident bases in Washington state and in Georgia. You have to be extremely careful about how these warheads are mounted on the missiles and how the missiles are put in the submarines. These are dangerous devices. And I'm not the first person to say that. I know that the Navy is quite aware of it, but I don't think the general public is.

"In college, I studied game theory and nuclear strategy, but doing this book, I realized that my ignorance was profound."

In college, I studied game theory and nuclear strategy, and I was interested in the nuclear freeze movement, so I read an enormous amount about nuclear weapons. But doing this book, I realized that my ignorance was profound. And this is important knowledge for American citizens to have, because we need to have a meaningful debate about nuclear weapons, about nuclear strategy, and why we have them and when we use them and how many we need. That's pretty much why I wrote the book.

MJ: Curtis LeMay, who ran the Strategic Air Command back in the day, was almost this kind of caricature of a military hawk. On the other hand, it seems like America's nuclear weapons were under far tighter control on his watch.

ES: Yeah. LeMay at one point was considered a great American hero, protecting us from the Soviets. He later became widely reviled in the United States, the symbol of a warmongering general who was caricatured in Dr. Strangelove as the mad general played by George C. Scott. LeMay's politics are different from mine, and many of his theories of nuclear warfare are ones that I don't endorse, but I think he was one of our truly great generals. He was an engineer by training, and if you're going to have nuclear weapons, you want them managed by someone who has absolutely no tolerance for error, who's a great believer in checklists and proper organization. He was all of those things. LeMay was absolutely ruthless with his men about ensuring that there was no sloppiness.

The other thing I think made him a great general was that he was brave and willing to take risks himself. During the Second World War, he flew the lead plane during some dangerous bombing missions just to show his men that the plan was a sound one. He was the sort of commander that's more and more sort of missing in America.

With this nuclear weapon accident in Arkansas, there was a remarkable lack of accountability. The people who were held responsible and punished for it were the low-level enlisted men, and not some of the high-ranking officers and generals who had made the crucial decisions that contributed to the disaster. So, LeMay certainly made mistakes, but if you look at how our nuclear weapons are being managed now, we could use a little bit more of Curtis LeMay.

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