looking back at the nuclear era

130930_r23936_p233Louis Menand at The New Yorker:

The Arkansas incident, in 1980, is well chosen as an illustration of Schlosser’s point. Objects fall inside silos all the time, he says. The chance that a falling socket would puncture the skin of a Titan II missile was extremely remote—but not impossible. When it happened, it triggered a set of mechanical and human responses that quickly led to a nightmare of confusion and misdirection. Once enough oxidizer leaked out and the air pressure inside the tank dropped, the missile would collapse, the remaining oxidizer would come into contact with the rocket fuel, and the missile would explode. Because a nineteen-year-old airman performing regular maintenance accidentally let a socket slip out of his wrench, a Titan II missile became a time bomb, and there was no way to turn off the timer. And the missile was armed. Schlosser says that the explosive force of the warhead on a Titan II is nine megatons, which is three times the force of all the bombs dropped in the Second World War, including the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If it had detonated, most of the state of Arkansas would have been wiped out.

more here.