Donald Trump's Glib Talk about Nuclear Weapons Obscures a Greater Danger; America Has 7,000 Nuclear Weapons-A Disastrous Accident Is Just a Matter of Time, According to a New Documentary

By Stein, Jeff | Newsweek, September 2, 2016 | Go to article overview

Donald Trump's Glib Talk about Nuclear Weapons Obscures a Greater Danger; America Has 7,000 Nuclear Weapons-A Disastrous Accident Is Just a Matter of Time, According to a New Documentary


Stein, Jeff, Newsweek


Byline: Jeff Stein

A nuclear holocaust, like death itself, is something we'd rather not think about. So we don't, much, except when some figure of note starts talking about using hydrogen bombs to settle a problem. Someone like Donald Trump.

But the shock and outrage over Trump's recent loose talk about making Japan and South Korea develop their own nukes or dropping a bomb on the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS, obscures a more prosaic but arguably more imminent danger, according to a new documentary--a warhead going off by accident.

Command and Control, directed by veteran filmmaker Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) and based on a best-selling book of the same name by Eric Schlosser, aims to widen the discussion about the threat posed by the thousands of nuclear weapons in U.S. hands (and, by extension, other countries' as well). Developed in concert with PBS's long-running American Experience series but slated for a limited September theatrical debut in New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., the uncommonly gripping documentary focuses more on the frightening number of weapons mishaps than the missteps that could trigger a nuclear war. It skips over near-disasters involving panicky U.S. and Russian radar crews picking up incoming missile "ghosts" and nearly launching massive counterstrike orders. Instead, citing recently declassified Energy Department figures, it burrows into one of the "more than a thousand accidents and incidents involving our nuclear weapons," including the loss of eight warheads, one still buried somewhere in the soil of North Carolina.

Why any one of these incidents hasn't ended in a mass disaster is "pure luck," Schlosser says in the film. "And the problem with luck is it eventually runs out." Think about your laptop or car, he suggests. "Nuclear weapons are machines," he says. "And every machine ever invented eventually goes wrong."

Command and Control is hardly the first film or book to address atomic horrors, of course. Nuclear war has been a preoccupation of writers and filmmakers since the 1950s, when armed conflict with the USSR periodically seemed imminent, and American schoolchildren famously practiced "duck and cover" drills under their desks. In the 1960s, there was Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe. The 1980s brought WarGames, with its unforgettable climax of an exhausted computer running through all the possible nuclear-victory scenarios and concluding, "The only winning move is not to play." And a recent episode of FX's spy drama The Americans revisited the night of November 20, 1983, when 100 million people sat down to watch The Day After, ABC-TV's grim docu-drama on how a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange would play out. And so on.

In sharp contrast, a nuclear bomb accident nearly causing millions of fatalities has yet to capture the imagination of the doomsday moviemaking set. Kenner, however, has masterfully mined enough dramatic material from a near-catastrophe in Arkansas to fill a movie theater at the local mall.

"This powerful film," says Janne Nolan, chairwoman of the Nuclear Security Working Group at George Washington University, "is bound to spark a sobering and long-overdue national conversation about the costs and risks of maintaining a strategy of nuclear deterrence."

On the night of September 18, 1980, Robert Peurifoy, a scientist at the Sandia nuclear weapons lab, got a startling telephone call. A technician working high up on a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile in a silo outside of Damascus, Arkansas, had dropped a 6-pound socket several feet, punching a hole in its first-stage fuel tank. The spewing fuel threatened to trigger a massive explosion that could have armed the warhead. The four-man missile crew had to exit from an escape hatch. …

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