Eric Schlosser burrows into one of the U.S.’s biggest nuclear threats: our own weapons

An MK6 Titan II nuclear missile
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/DoD

In the autumn of 1980, at a massive underground missile silo in rural Arkansas, the course of human history almost changed forever.

When celebrated journalist Eric Schlosser learned how just a small bit of clumsiness nearly led to the detonation of a thermonuclear warhead on American soil — one with the equivalent of four pounds of high explosives for every person then living on Earth — his course certainly did change.

That course, into the dark heart of America’s nuclear weapons, began in Colorado Springs, as he was researching a very different, but similarly mighty force — our nation’s fast food industry. That research ultimately culminated with his bestselling book Fast Food Nation, a groundbreaking exposé that forever altered the way Americans view fast food. As he was seeking for the right project to take on next, he began spending time with local Air Force personnel, and began hearing again and again about nuclear near disasters that had been kept from the public. And then he heard about the Damascus accident (see excerpt below), a chilling event that nearly unleashed a firestorm big enough to consume the state of Arkansas. As he began to learn more about that incident, he realized that just under the surface was something much bigger and scarier than a single, devastating accident — the past and present dangers of our nuclear arsenal. After five years of research and another one in writing, he has brought us a harrowing, page-turning book that is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in nuclear — and American — security.

* * * *

The following is an excerpt from Eric Schlosser’s book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. It has been reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Eric Schlosser, 2013.

On September 18, 1980, at about 6:30pm, Senior Airman David F. Powell and Airman Jeffrey L. Plumb walked into the silo at Launch Complex 374-7, a few miles north of Damascus, Arkansas. They were planning to do a routine maintenance procedure on a Titan II missile. They’d spent countless hours underground at complexes like this one. But no matter how many times they entered the silo, the Titan II always looked impressive. It was the largest intercontinental ballistic missile ever built by the United States: 10 feet in diameter and 103 feet tall, roughly the height of a nine-story building. It had an aluminum skin with a matte finish and U.S. AIR FORCE painted in big letters down the side. The nose cone on top of the Titan II was deep black, and inside it sat a W-53 thermonuclear warhead, the most powerful weapon ever carried by an American missile. The warhead had a yield of 9 megatons — about three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.

Day or night, winter or spring, the silo always felt the same. It was eerily quiet, and mercury vapor lights on the walls bathed the missile in a bright white glow. When you opened the door on a lower level and stepped into the launch duct, the Titan II loomed above you like an immense blacktipped silver bullet, loaded in a concrete gun barrel, primed, cocked, ready to go, and pointed at the sky.

The missile was designed to launch within a minute and hit a target as far as six thousand miles away. In order to do that, the Titan II relied upon a pair of liquid propellants — a rocket fuel and an oxidizer — that were “hypergolic.” The moment they came into contact with each other, they’d instantly and forcefully ignite. The missile had two stages, and inside both of them, an oxidizer tank rested on top of a fuel tank, with pipes leading down to an engine. Stage 1, which extended about seventy feet upward from the bottom of the missile, contained about 85,000 pounds of fuel and 163,000 pounds of oxidizer. Stage 2, the upper section where the warhead sat, was smaller and held about one fourth of those amounts. If the missile were launched, fuel and oxidizer would flow through the stage 1 pipes, mix inside the combustion chambers of the engine, catch on fire, emit hot gases, and send almost half a million pounds of thrust through the supersonic convergent-divergent nozzles beneath it. Within a few minutes, the Titan II would be fifty miles off the ground.

The two propellants were extremely efficient — and extremely dangerous. The fuel, Aerozine-50, could spontaneously ignite when it came into contact with everyday things like wool, rags, or rust. As a liquid, Aerozine-50 was clear and colorless. As a vapor, it reacted with the water and the oxygen in the air and became a whitish cloud with a fishy smell. This fuel vapor could be explosive in proportions as low as 2 percent. Inhaling it could cause breathing difficulties, a reduced heart rate, vomiting, convulsions, tremors, and death. The fuel was also highly carcinogenic and easily absorbed through the skin.

The missile’s oxidizer, nitrogen tetroxide, was even more hazardous. Under federal law, it was classified as a “Poison A,” the most deadly category of man-made chemicals. In its liquid form, the oxidizer was a translucent, yellowy brown. Although not as flammable as the fuel, it could spontaneously ignite if it touched leather, paper, cloth, or wood. And its boiling point was only 70 degrees Fahrenheit. At temperatures any higher, the liquid oxidizer boiled into a reddish brown vapor that smelled like ammonia. Contact with water turned the vapor into a corrosive acid that could react with the moisture in a person’s eyes or skin and cause severe burns. When inhaled, the oxidizer could destroy tissue in the upper respiratory system and the lungs. The damage might not be felt immediately. Six to twelve hours after being inhaled, the stuff could suddenly cause headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, pneumonia, and pulmonary edema leading to death.

Powell and Plumb were missile repairmen. They belonged to Propellant Transfer System (PTS) Team A of the 308th Strategic Missile Wing, whose headquarters was about an hour or so away at Little Rock Air Force Base. They’d been called to the site that day because a warning light had signaled that pressure was low in the stage 2 oxidizer tank. If the pressure fell too low, the oxidizer wouldn’t flow smoothly to the engine. A “low light” could mean a serious problem — a rupture, a leak. But it was far more likely that a slight change in temperature had lowered the pressure inside the tank. Air-conditioning units in the silo were supposed to keep the missile cooled to about 60 degrees. If Powell and Plumb didn’t find any leaks, they’d simply unscrew the cap on the oxidizer tank and add more nitrogen gas. The nitrogen maintained a steady pressure on the liquid inside, pushing downward. It was a simple, mundane task, like putting air in your tires before a long drive.

Powell had served on a PTS team for almost three years and knew the hazards of the Titan II. During his first visit to a launch complex, an oxidizer leak created a toxic cloud that shut down operations for three days. He was twenty-one years old, a proud “hillbilly” from rural Kentucky who loved the job and planned to reenlist at the end of the year.

Plumb had been with the 308th for just nine months. He wasn’t qualified to do this sort of missile maintenance or to handle these propellants. Accompanying Powell and watching everything that Powell did was considered Plumb’s “OJT,” his on-the-job training. Plumb was nineteen, raised in suburban Detroit.

Although an oxidizer low light wasn’t unusual, Air Force technical orders required that both men wear Category I protective gear when entering the silo to investigate it. “Going Category I” meant getting into a Rocket Fuel Handler’s Clothing Outfit (RFHCO) — an airtight, liquidproof, vaporproof, fire-resistant combination of gear designed to protect them from the oxidizer and the fuel. The men called it a “ref-co.” A RFHCO looked like a space suit from an early-1960s science fiction movie. It had a white detachable bubble helmet with a voice-actuated radio and a transparent Plexiglas face screen. The suit was off white, with a long zipper extending from the top of the left shoulder, across the torso, to the right knee. You stepped into the RFHCO and wore long johns underneath it. The black vinyl gloves and boots weren’t attached, so the RFHCO had roll-down cuffs at the wrists and the ankles to maintain a tight seal. The suit weighed about twenty-two pounds. The RFHCO backpack weighed an additional thirty-five and carried about an hour’s worth of air. The outfit was heavy and cumbersome. It could be hot, sticky, and uncomfortable, especially when worn outside the air-conditioned silo. But it could also save your life.

The stage 2 oxidizer pressure cap was about two thirds of the way up the missile. In order to reach it, Powell and Plumb had to walk across a retractable steel platform that extended from the silo wall. The tall, hollow cylinder in which the Titan II stood was enclosed by another concrete cylinder with nine interior levels, housing equipment. Level 1 was near the top of the missile; level 9 about twenty feet beneath the missile. The steel work platforms folded down from the walls hydraulically. Each one had a stiff rubber edge to prevent the Titan II from getting scratched, while keeping the gap between the platform and the missile as narrow as possible.

The airmen entered the launch duct at level 2. Far above their heads was a concrete silo door. It was supposed to protect the missile from the wind and the rain and the effects of a nuclear weapon detonating nearby. The door weighed 740 tons. Far below the men, beneath the Titan II, a concrete flame deflector shaped like a W was installed to guide the hot gases downward at launch, then upward through exhaust vents and out of the silo. The missile stood on a thrust mount, a steel ring at level 7 that weighed about 26,000 pounds. The thrust mount was attached to the walls by large springs, so that the Titan II could ride out a nuclear attack, bounce instead of break, and then take off.

Eric Schlosser’s interviews with people at the Damascus Incident indicate the warhead could have detonated. | Photo by David Schmalz

In addition to the W-53 warhead and a few hundred thousand pounds of propellants, many other things in the silo could detonate. Electro-explosive devices were used after ignition to free the missile from the thrust mount, separate stage 2 from stage 1, release the nose cone. The missile also housed numerous small rocket engines with flammable solid fuel to adjust the pitch and the roll of the warhead midflight. The Titan II launch complex had been carefully designed to minimize the risk of having so many flammables and explosives within it. Fire detectors, fire suppression systems, toxic vapor detectors, and decontamination showers were scattered throughout the nine levels of the silo. These safety devices were bolstered by strict safety rules.

Whenever a PTS team member put on a RFHCO, he had to be accompanied by someone else in a RFHCO, with two other people waiting as backup, ready to put on their suits. Every Category I task had to be performed according to a standardized checklist, which the team chief usually read aloud over the radio communications network. There was one way to do everything — and only one way. Technical Order 21M-LGM25C-2-12, Figure 2-18, told Powell and Plumb exactly what to do as they stood on the platform near the missile.

“Step four,” the PTS team chief said over the radio. “Remove airborne disconnect pressure cap.”

“Roger,” Powell replied.

“Caution. When complying with step four, do not exceed one hundred sixty foot-pounds of torque. Overtorquing may result in damage to the missile skin.”


As Powell used a socket wrench to unscrew the pressure cap, the socket fell off. It struck the platform and bounced. Powell grabbed for it but missed.

Plumb watched the nine-pound socket slip through the narrow gap between the platform and the missile, fall about seventy feet, hit the thrust mount, and then ricochet off the Titan II. It seemed to happen in slow motion. A moment later, fuel sprayed from a hole in the missile like water from a garden hose.

“Oh man,” Plumb thought. “This is not good.”

* * * *

The unraveling progression of that incident in Damascus threads the narrative of Command and Control, which examines the development and proliferation of America’s nuclear arsenal, the many accidents and near-misses that have occurred over the years since its inception, and the grave risk we still face from the very mega-weapons that were designed to protect us.

I first became acquainted with the book back in March, when unexpected circumstances forced Schlosser to bring in another fact-checker in the closing moments before his deadline. I met him at his house on a Sunday at around 5 p.m., and he presented me with a cardboard box stacked with documents and books. The first thing he demanded was that I remain sworn to secrecy about everything I read until the book was published. He then presented me with a section of text that needed checking, highlighting certain points and advising me where I might find the relevant source material.

“So, do you want all this done tonight?” I asked, a little incredulous.

“I don’t even know if it’s possible,” he said, “but if you can get it done, that would be great.”

He made little attempt to veil his desperation, and my heart sank — the last thing I wanted was to disappoint one of my idols. I put on a good face and vowed to do my best, but privately I was terrified of coming up short.

After feverishly working until 3 a.m. (and almost, but not quite, finishing), I arrived back at his house the next morning, where I would spend the next five days doing much of the same: scanning through hundreds of pages of documents, books and articles. Often times, I would flip through a dull, declassified Air Force report a few hundred pages long and find only a handful of sentences highlighted. The depth of Schlosser’s research, seen firsthand, was awe-inspiring.

The office he disappeared into every day to finish his endnotes was, in my mind, a top-secret laboratory. He never let me look inside. But every afternoon we would hang out briefly on his patio and bask in the sun, and he would talk candidly about nuclear weapons, and writing. More than once, he likened himself to a farmer, laboring for six years in research and writing to make this book come alive. Or as he said it, “for the crop to come in.”

But from an outsider’s perspective looking in, his work to create Command and Control seemed more akin to a nuclear weapons designer: He delved deep into complex problems. He focused on elegant structure, ensuring all the pieces fit together just right. He wrestled with the darkest of all eventualities. And in the end, he wrote a book that is masterfully researched and conceived, that is both explosive and haunting, and most urgently, intended to make this country safer.

* * * *

While in Colorado Springs, Schlosser was interested in learning more about space warfare. But as he spent more time with Air Force personnel stationed there — many of whom had formerly spent time working in missile silos — the subject of nuclear weapons kept creeping into conversation.

“I found myself more interested in the stories they were telling me of near-misses than I was in space,” Schlosser says.

And then he heard about Damascus.

What began initially as an account of that incident alone became, through research, something much bigger. Though he’d been interested in nuclear weapons in his youth, and had studied nuclear strategy and game theory at Princeton, he realized his ignorance about the past and present realities of our nuclear arsenal “was profound.”

“The story got bigger,” he says, “and to me, it became much more important than the thrilling story of just one accident. It became the story of just how close we came to having many, many accidents.”

The first near miss of the nuclear age, we learn from his book, happened at its very beginning, in July 1945. On the night before testing the first atomic bomb near Carrizozo, N.M., a young Harvard-trained chemist named Donald Hornig was ordered, for security purposes, to guard the weapon until morning (he drew the short straw on account of his youth). It just so happened that on that night there was a violent electrical storm, one that threatened to set off the bomb’s “X-unit,” a detonating component that was highly sensitive to electricity. It was a fact that Hornig was all too aware of — he had designed the X-unit, and a week prior one had fired prematurely (outside of a bomb) due to a lightning storm. At midnight, Hornig was given permission to abandon his post, which he did happily. The bomb survived the night, and at 5:30 the next morning, scientists and military personnel witnessed the world’s first atomic explosion, a mushroom cloud that reached eight miles into the sky.

“It didn’t happen,” Schlosser says of that first near miss, “but it really could’ve.”

The same truth holds, he says, for the many near misses since. “The fine line has always been there.”

A quick run through of some of the accidents that Schlosser has gleaned from declassified documents is a terrifying exercise: In 1958, on a runway in Morocco, a B-47 carrying a hydrogen bomb blew a tire and quickly caught fire, consuming the bomb, which burned but did not detonate. The U.S. government kept the incident secret, informing only the King of Morocco.

Not even one month later, due to the mechanical failure of a locking pin, an atomic bomb fell out of a B-47 and landed in a yard in South Carolina. Though it lacked a nuclear core, the high explosives it contained carved a crater 50 feet wide and 35 feet deep, blowing the doors off a nearby house. Thankfully only a half dozen chickens were killed.

In 1961, a B-52 carrying two hydrogen bombs took off from Goldsboro, N.C., for a routine circular route along the East Coast. As it finished its second loop, the plane sprung a fuel leak and soon began spinning out of control. As it fell, a bomb was pulled from the plane by g-forces, its arming wires yanked out. When that bomb parachuted to the ground in a field outside Faro, N.C., its nose sent a firing signal, but the core did not explode — only a single ready/safe switch in the cockpit had prevented a thermonuclear detonation. The other bomb’s chute failed to open, and it sank more than 70 feet into the ground, never to be recovered.

These examples are a few of many that Schlosser has uncovered, and they vividly illustrate a point that he brings home repeatedly.

“It’s hard to think of a machine that we use in our lives that doesn’t screw up occasionally,” he says. “But there are some machines that, when they go wrong, have much greater consequences.”

His examination of recent mishaps is no less troubling and — given the technological advancements of the age — maybe even more so. Take an incident that occurred in 2007, when six cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52 in North Dakota. They sat on the plane overnight, and were flown the next morning to a base in Louisiana (in violation of U.S. law), where they sat for nine hours before anybody realized they were missing. Occasional human error, Schlosser reminds us, is every bit as unavoidable as the mechanical kind.

That event thankfully led to the recent (and long overdue) advent of bar codes on nuclear weapons in lieu of serial numbers that had to be written down when they changed hands. Finally, our military can now track its nuclear weapons like FedEx can track its packages.

* * * *

With degrees in history from both Princeton and Oxford, Schlosser’s command of the past and his talent for research are on full display in Command and Control. The endnotes alone are more than 100 pages long, in small print. (“My notes are insane,” he says. “If someone reads the book and doesn’t even look at the notes, it wouldn’t bother me at all. I wanted to put them there to be completely transparent, the opposite of the government.”)

But it is Schlosser’s gift for storytelling that brings the book to life. He assembles the Damascus narrative through countless hours of interviews with men who were there. He describes how they looked, their personalities, their backgrounds, their family lives. But most revealing of all, he tells us their thoughts in the moments as the disaster unfolds, and ultimately escalates. The result is a hair-raising, minute-by-minute account of the most rarefied order.

The last piece I fact-checked for Command and Control was the climactic finish to the Damascus
accident. Truth be told, I had difficulty interrupting my reading to
check on the facts. Even more difficult was to not be able to talk
about it with anyone but Eric. Keeping that story to myself over the
last six months has been the hardest secret I’ve had to keep.

* * * *

“If I had been talking about food, that place would have been packed,” Schlosser told me recently, after a talk he gave in San Francisco. We were back at his hotel, one-on-one for the first time since March. I denied him his right to sulk, and told him he had been great.

And he was. In a too-sparsely filled auditorium that evening, Schlosser summarized key points. His voice retained its characteristic passion, and the crowd stayed rapt. And though on the exterior he was cool, calm and collected as always, it was apparent to my eyes that I was looking at a man on fire. The urgency he feels about the subject of nuclear weapons burns within, impossible to fully contain.

“This problem never went away, this danger never went away,” he said in closing, “but our memory of it has, our thinking about it has. And ultimately, the point of my book is to remind people these weapons are out there, they’re ready to be used … and that we need to have a national discussion and debate on these sorts of questions. How many nuclear weapons do we need? What do we need them for? Where will we aim them? Why would we use them? When would we use them? Do we need to get rid of them entirely? These are issues of fundamental importance, and without a national debate on them, decisions are going to be made as they were made throughout the Cold War — by a small number of policymakers in Washington D.C., acting in secret.”

“Good things can happen,” he continued, “and I think the president of the United States right now is right on the mark on these issues, and all he’s lacking is a movement.”

The impact of Command and Control might not be immediate, but it will be game-changing. The alarming risks of retaining a nuclear arsenal of America’s size (at the time of Schlosser’s writing, approximately 4,650 nuclear weapons) are meticulously illustrated, and seem to dwarf the threat they were designed to protect us from. This book will bring nuclear weapons back to the forefront of the nation’s psyche. It’s that powerful.

And hopefully, it can spark the kind of popular movement that Schlosser says Obama is lacking, and America’s nuclear age can end in the same way it began: as a near miss.