American investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, whose new book, Command and Control, did an interview on Monday 14th October with Jon Snow of Channel 4.
The focus of the interview was the book – which details the results of researches into the realities of cold war nuclear gung ho, which make the seminal Peter Sellars film, Dr Strangelove, look uncannily like a documentary.
Schlosser’s researches were undertaken in the USA and here in the UK – which he found to be significantly the more secretive of the two.
It emerges that on two occasions, America was saved from the most unimaginable nuclear holocaust by miraculous technical malfunction.
A nuclear warhead, three times the power of ALL of the bombs used by all combatants in the entire second World War – including the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – fell on Damascus Arkansas in 1980. Had it detonated, it would, in Schlosser’s words ‘have incinerated the whole state’. Schlosser’s book [and yes, it's at Amazon] apparently describes this issue in virtually a second-by-second fashion.
Then there was the Carolina incident, where a nuclear bomb 260 times more powerful than the Hiroshoma atomic bomb, deployed its parachute after its carrier B52 aircraft developed a fuel leak – with the correct signal sent to detonate – this time prevented only by a faulty safety switch which blocked the nuclear trigger.
Here in the UK, in 1956, at RAF Lakenheath, long used an air base by the American air force and home to the USAF 48th Fighter Wing – aka The Liberty Wing – a B47 crashed into a bunker full of nuclear warheads.
When Snow asked Schlosser for reassurance that all is safer today, Schlosser agreed that nuclear weapons are very much safer than they were.
However, he noted that as long as 20 years ago ‘some safety issues’ around the Trident missile system were notified to the US Congress. Today, the UK’s system nuclear deterrent, is based at Coulport and Faslane on Argyll’s Clyde coast, and carried on patrol from and to Faslane by the Vanguard submarines.
The issue with the Trident missiles, according to Schlosser, is that, unusually for such missiles, the warhead is not carried on top of the missile but surrounds the third stage rocket engine whose propellant ‘explodes easily if dropped’.
Schlosser said laconically: ‘I hope in Scotland that they’re very careful when they’re loading and unloading the missiles’.
These are, of course, the danger points. It is known that a warhead was dropped at Faslane in such a sequence.
There are other points of risk with nuclear warheads – both at Coulport itself and at the points there of the departure and return of the warheads for servicing – in which they are disassembled and rebuilt – at the notorious Gravel Gerties at AWE Burghfield, near Reading in Berkshire.
However, it is clear from what Schlosser said that the greatest rock comes from dropping a warhead-carrying Trident missile, rather than the warhead alone; so the loading onto and unloading from the submarines is the danger point.
Watch the Snow/Schlosser interview here for yourself. Since the interview is clearly being done by Schlosser to promote his book, we felt that his remarks on ‘some safety issues’ around Trident , made after a marked pause, were not removed from commercial motivation.
We say this objectively, from the position of being committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Just because some things may be used to support one’s position does not mean that they should be used in that service if they cannot securely justify it.