Accidents Will Happen: With His Book on Nuclear Weapons, Eric Schlosser Proves Himself a Leading Bard of Technological Folly

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COMMAND AND CONTROL: NUCLEAR WEAPONS, THE DAMASCUS ACCIDENT, AND THE ILLUSION OF SAFETY

BY ERIC SCHLOSSER

The Penguin Press

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It took decades after the invention of nuclear weapons for today's taboos against them to take hold. Some witnesses to the first nuclear explosions apprehended their horror immediately. Some planners, civilian and military, fell in love. In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. built nuclear reactors in Iran, Pakistan, and dozens of other countries; in the 1960s and 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission made plans to use nuclear explosions to dig a canal in Nicaragua and carve a pass-through in the California mountains for Interstate 40. Influential strategists like Herman Kahn were enthralled by the potential of nuclear weapons to reshape the world. On Thermonuclear War, Kahn's best-known book, contains scenarios not only for how nuclear weapons would work in World War III but also in World Wars IV, V, VI, and VII.

All too often, the history of nuclear weapons has been told as a history of those schemes, a history of plans for wars that never took place. The genesis of nuclear weapons has also been a locus of fascination, for good reason. But these two threads leave out a crucial history of the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, which, like any other technological artifact, differed in reality from the idealization. Eric Schlosser's Command and Control fills that gap, telling of the weapons in their silos and in bombers. (Schlosser says little about submarines, the third part of the so-called nuclear triad.)

Schlosser does not dwell on the nuclear weapons the United States has blown up in 1,054 tests since 1945, but instead focuses on the bombs that almost went off but didn't. "The need for a nuclear weapon to be safe and the need for it to be reliable were often in conflict. A safety mechanism that made a bomb less likely to explode during an accident could also, during wartime, render it more likely to be a dud," he explains. That conflict is the central one in Command and Control. As Schlosser acknowledges, no American bomb ever exploded accidentally. But he tells us just how close we came. The repeat narrow escapes that Schlosser enumerates occurred because military planners took reckless chances for decades.

ON MAY 21, 1946, Louis Slotin, one of the designers of the first atomic bomb, was lowering a beryllium shell--which reflected neutrons and so brought plutonium closer to a chain reaction--over a sphere of plutonium. The screwdriver he was using to hold the beryllium slipped, "the core went supercritical, and a blue flash filled the room." Slotin's parents were flown in to say goodbye, and his death throes were videotaped, a mournful lesson in what radiation can do to a man. As Schlosser notes, thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki died in similar agony.

Schlosser's story extends from the mid-1940s to the end of the Cold War. He documents just how slow and contingent--and perhaps avoidable--the buildup of nuclear weapons was. He talks about an April 1947 meeting in the White House, in which Harry Truman discusses the top-secret size of America's available nuclear arsenal: one. The weapons still under development were haphazard devices:

   The Mark 3 bomb had a number
   of inherent shortcomings. It was a
   handmade, complicated, delicate
   thing with a brief shelf life. The
   electrical system was powered
   by a ear battery, which had to
   be charged for three days before
   being put into the bomb. The battery
   could be recharged twice
   inside the Mark 3, but had to be
   replaced within a week--and to
   change the battery, you had to
   take apart the whole weapon.
   The plutonium cores radiated so
   much heat that they'd melt the
   explosive lenses if left in a bomb
   for too long. And the polonium
   initiators inside the cores had to
   be replaced every few months.

Early nuclear weapons were particularly vulnerable to accidental detonation. …