America’s Secret History of Atomic Accidents

Gregory D. Koblenz in Foreign Affairs:

Fat_Man_Assembled_Tinian_1945_0Between 1950 and 1980, the United States experienced a reported 32 “broken arrows,” the military’s term for accidents involving nuclear weapons. The last of these occurred in September 1980, at a U.S. Air Force base in Damascus, Arkansas. It started when a young technician performing routine maintenance on a Titan II missile housed in an underground silo dropped a socket wrench. The wrench punctured the missile’s fuel tank. As the highly toxic and flammable fuel leaked from the missile, officers and airmen scrambled to diagnose the problem and fix it. Their efforts ultimately failed, and eight hours after the fuel tank ruptured, it exploded with tremendous force. The detonation of the missile’s liquid fuel was powerful enough to throw the silo’s 740-ton blast door more than 200 yards and send a fireball hundreds of feet into the night sky. The missile’s nine-megaton thermo­nuclear warhead — the most powerful ever deployed by the United States — was found, relatively intact, in a ditch 200 yards away from the silo.

The Damascus accident epitomizes the hidden risk of what the sociologist Charles Perrow has dubbed “normal accidents,” or mishaps that become virtually inevitable once a system grows so complex that seemingly trivial miscues can cause chain reactions with catastrophic results. As the journalist Eric Schlosser explains in his new book, Command and Control, “The Titan II explosion at Damascus was a normal accident, set in motion by a trivial event (the dropped socket) and caused by a tightly coupled, interactive system.” That system, he writes, was so overly complex that technicians in the control room could not determine what was happening inside the silo. And basic human negligence had only made things worse: “Warnings had been ignored, unnecessary risks taken, sloppy work done.”

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