Journalist Eric Schlosser

The investigative journalist and best-selling author unpacks his text on nuclear safety and the arsenal of the U.S., entitled Command and Control.

Journalist Eric Schlosser tries to explore subjects ignored by mainstream media and give a voice to people at the margins of society. He's turned those explorations into such best-selling books as Fast Food Nation—which was adapted into a feature film—and Reefer Madness, stories of marijuana growers and pornographers and the victims of violent crime. Before turning to nonfiction, Schlosser worked for an indie film company and was a playwright (two of his plays have been produced in London). He began his journalism career as a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. In his latest book, Command and Control, he examines the dangers of America's nuclear age.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: We hear a great deal about weapons of mass destruction and it seems that we’ve come very close to accidentally detonating a few of those bombs, incidents that have long been kept secret until now.

Award-winning investigative journalist Eric Schlosser has pulled back the curtain on what has been kept hidden in a new text called “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety.” Eric, good to have you on this program.

Eric Schlosser: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: Thanks for all the research that went into making this possible.

Schlosser: Thank you.

Tavis: Let’s start our conversation, if I can, on a personal note. As you know, you referenced this the minute you walked on our set before we went on camera here. I grew up in a place called Bunker Hill, Indiana. There’s an Air Force Base there called Grissom Air Force Base.

My dad served in the Air Force for 37 years. I grew up on this Air Force Base and little did I know that, in 1964, the year I was born, there was a major accident in Bunker Hill, Indiana.

Schlosser: Yeah. A B-58 bomber was taxiing on the runway and the plane in front of it hit it with a gust of exhaust. Runway was icy, bomber slid off the runway, caught on fire. Two of the three crewmen got out safely, one was killed. But there were five hydrogen bombs on that plane. Two of them were unharmed, one of them was scorched. One of them caught on fire and one of them melted completely into the runway.

These were weapons that didn’t have adequate safety devices yet. In this case, they didn’t detonate, but it could have been a real problem for Kokomo and that base. That base had lots of other nuclear weapons on it and it was just very fortunate that none of these weapons detonated.

Tavis: Wow – the stuff you learn about your own life [laugh]. I mean, you start -

Schlosser: I mean, that base could have just been completely obliterated.

Tavis: Obliterated, yeah, yeah. The story of what happened at Grissom Air Force Base where I grew up, how common are these stories that we don’t hear about?

Schlosser: A lot more common than we’ve been led to believe.

Tavis: Right.

Schlosser: The book is based on interviews and lots of documents I got through the Freedom of Information Act. During the Cold War, the government really didn’t want people to question nuclear weapons or be concerned about them. So their standard line was there was never any chance of these things detonating accidentally and, whenever there was an accident, they would neither confirm nor deny a nuclear weapon was involved.

What concerns me is we invented this technology. I think that we build the safest nuclear weapons of any country, and yet if we’ve had this many problems with our weapons, it really makes you wonder about countries like Pakistan, India, Russia, and how they’re managing these arsenals today.

Tavis: That raises a few questions, not the least of which is given all the accidents or near accidents that you have now brought to our attention that we heretofore did not know about, why it is that we’re in the business – and I’m not naive in asking this question.

But why are we in the business of even making nuclear weapons – and I’ll come later to our trying to check other folk for having the same technology we have, particularly some of who we helped develop it and then we want to turn on them later on.

But let’s just start with the first question. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Why are we in the business still of making nuclear weapons?

Schlosser: That’s a good question. And we’re not making new nuclear weapons, but we have thousands of them right now. They’re held over from the Cold War. One of the reasons I wrote the book is to just remind people these things are still out there. At the heart of the book is the story of a weapons accident in Damascus, Arkansas where we almost had a major warhead explode.

By looking at that accident, I’m trying to remind people of the risk of the complexity of these things. It’s hard to explain why we still have them. We don’t have a major enemy like the Soviet Union anymore and we need to think about this issue, think about how many do we need, how should they be deployed, why do we have them, where are they aimed at? These things are discussed in terms of Iran, but they’re not discussed in terms of the United States.

Tavis: How vast is our supply?

Schlosser: It’s huge. At the peak of the Cold War, we had about 32,000 nuclear weapons. Now we have closer to 5,000, of which about 1,800 are ready to be used at a moment’s notice. But just one of these weapons is powerful and destructive beyond our imagination.

Tavis: So why do we need – again, I’m not naive in asking this. But if one is that powerful, why do we need to blow the world up like 100 million times?

Schlosser: Yeah. I guess because Russia still has so many and there’s still this mentality from the nuclear arms race of the Cold War that we can’t let someone else have more than we have, whereas 300 nuclear weapons would be enough to completely annihilate any country that there is on Earth.

Tavis: Tell me more about this Damascus incident.

Schlosser: Well, Damascus, Arkansas is a small town in the foothills of the Ozarks, and one day in 1980 they were doing routine maintenance in a missile silo. This was the biggest missile we ever built, with the most powerful warhead we ever put on a missile.

One of the workmen on a steel platform dropped a socket off of his wrench. It was just a routine accident. The socket fell in between the work platform and the missile; fell about 70 feet, bounced, hit the missile and pierced a hole in the metal skin of the missile.

Suddenly, incredibly explosive dangerous rocket fuel was filling the silo and the Air Force had no idea what to do. It shows how much of a challenge it is to manage these incredibly complex technological systems.

Tavis: You started to intimate this a moment ago. Give me some sense of how, in a worst case scenario, how deadly would that accident have been had it not been contained at the last minute?

Schlosser: It would have incinerated the state of Arkansas.

Tavis: The entire state?

Schlosser: The state. It would have sent deadly radioactive fallout up the East Coast. We tested one weapon in 1954; to give you the sense of the power of one hydrogen bomb, this was a very powerful hydrogen bomb.

If you had dropped that one bomb on Washington, D.C., it would have killed everyone in Washington, everyone in Philadelphia, everyone in Baltimore who couldn’t find shelter in a fallout shelter, and it would have killed half the people in New York City.

This is just one nuclear weapon, one powerful hydrogen bomb. Again, at one point, we have 32,000 of them. So this is just an incredible amount of explosive force, very complicated machines, being run by fallible human beings.

I just want to say one of the other major themes of the book is the incredible heroism of ordinary servicemen during the Cold War, many of whom risked their lives, and in this case lost their lives, trying to prevent these nuclear catastrophes.

I don’t know what your father’s duties were, but we haven’t really heard about the heroism of a lot of these Cold War veterans in the same way we now know about Vietnam War veterans and we honor our Second World War veterans.

Tavis: What’s your sense of that level of heroism? Are there numbers we can attach? I’m trying to get a ballpark of what the sacrifice has been by these individuals.

Schlosser: The greatest sacrifice would be loss of life, and certainly dozens of members of air crews and first responders lost their lives. But in looking at the people in this book, it’s not a simplistic “bad war-mongering people with nuclear weapons.”

This system was so complicated and the implications of going to war were so unbelievable that the daily stress of these jobs involving nuclear weapons was enormous.

If you had a top security clearance to be working on these nuclear weapons, you couldn’t talk to your family about it; you couldn’t talk to your friends outside of the military about it. Yet lots of people live with this knowledge that there was a very thin margin between peace time and, I’m not exaggerating, just total annihilation and nuclear war. We are so fortunate that we got out of the Cold War without a major city being destroyed by a nuclear weapon.

My concern is as a new generation of young people has no knowledge of these weapons, the risk increases. The more of these weapons there are in the world, the more countries have them, the greater a chance that a city’s going to be destroyed and we haven’t seen anything like that since the Second World War.

Tavis: Can you give me any solace, any consolation, about the fact that we now have better policies for how to store, for how to care for, the bombs that we do have? Because this whole book is about all the near accidents. Are we better at least at controlling the arsenal that we do have?

Schlosser: We are better, and our weapons and our bombs are safer than they were 30 years ago. One of my concerns, though, is that a lot of the weapons they’re attached to, the bombers, the missiles, are aging. Some of them are 30, 40, 50 years old. Some of the infrastructure is aging, so we’ve continued to have problems.

In 2010, we lost communications with 50 of our land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles for an hour. The launch control centers, the crews, couldn’t communicate with our missiles. This was traced back to a single computer chip that had failed in a processor.

But there’s some concern, and this sounds like a Hollywood movie; there’s some concern that’s been brought out this year in senate testimony about the threat of someone hacking into our nuclear command and control system. You don’t want a hacker being able to disable our missiles or even launching one.

Now the odds of that are not great, but the fact that it’s even conceivable means we have to invest in these systems, pay attention to them, and if we are going to have nuclear weapons, make sure that the people managing them are top rate. We had two of our three Minuteman squadrons this year were cited for safety violations.

So things are better than during the Cold War. The fact that we have fewer weapons makes it easier to manage them than when we had 32,000. But you’ve got to be constantly vigilant and there’s no room for one serious mistake because one of these things going off would be a catastrophe.

Tavis: See, that’s an argument I think I’m going to pull to my side. You helped me with my argument because I believe that hackers these days and certainly into the future are capable of doing just about anything. I’m not so convinced that, at some point down the road, hackers couldn’t figure this out. They seem to figure out everything else.

Schlosser: Absolutely.

Tavis: You set your devious mind to it; you can figure this stuff out which, I think, makes the argument for why we don’t need to have them. If you don’t have them, they’re not going to be hacked.

Schlosser: Well if you had said five years ago that a low-level software guy at the NSA would get the most top secrets of the most secret agency, you would have said that’s a Hollywood movie.

Tavis: Stop, Eric, stop, stop. You’re making my point [laugh].

Schlosser: Yeah. No, I agree. I agree with that.

Tavis: Yeah. All jokes aside, though. So I want to come back to this in case somebody tuned in this conversation late. So you have done us, I think, a great national service by putting this information, this intelligence, out there. What do we do with it at the moment?

Schlosser: First step is to become aware, second thing is to do something about it. There are different organizations now working on nuclear weapons issues. One is called Global Zero; one is called the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Just by getting aware and active and letting our politicians know that we care about this issue has an impact, because if the elected officials don’t hear anything from their constituents, they don’t do anything on an issue. Again, we have a president who, I think, really understands this, is really trying to do the right thing, and needs some backup on it.

Tavis: His name is Eric Schlosser. His new book is called “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.” Eric, thank you for your work, and thanks for coming on the program.

Schlosser: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: Appreciate it.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: March 31, 2014 at 2:35 pm