The U.S. federal government is lathered up and hell-bent on spending money to
safeguard the nuclear weapons stockpile. I hope so. The nuclear weapons stockpile is a politically benign way to discuss the U.S.’ pile of nuclear weapons. Of necessity it includes the people and infrastructure needed to maintain and deliver them. Secretary of Defense Hagel employs the phrase ‘nuclear deterrence system’ to describe the same stuff; nukes and what it takes to deploy them. I am happy the listen to the lip service being given to safeguarding the nukes by SecDef and the President, but I will believe it when I see it. So far, so good, but all that’s visible to date is Missileers falling on their swords and lip service to problems well-known to military management and policy makers since at least the 1980s. Everyone living in the U.S. as well as all of its neighbors should be worried about political follow-through, because one little rogue nuke can ruin your day.
It was the middle of September in 1980 when famers and residents of Damascus,
Arkansas woke up to every Americans’ worst nightmare and most never knew it was happening until the injured began to roll in. It wasn’t the first or last incident, but it is a documented incident that went before the President, SecDef, and Congress. They knew. A simple dropped socket wrench on a routine service call at the Titan II Launch Complex 374-7 just north of Damascus triggered a series of events that should frighten the collective daylights out of U.S. citizens:
“…On September 18, 1980, at about 6:30 p.m., an airman conducting maintenance on the Titan II missile dropped a wrench socket, which fell about eighty feet before hitting and piercing the skin on the rocket’s first-stage fuel tank, causing it to leak. The commander of the 308th Strategic Missile Wing quickly formed a potential-hazard team, and by 9:00 p.m., the Air Force personnel manning the site were evacuated. About one hour later, Air Force security police began evacuating nearby civilian residents as efforts continued to determine the status of the missile and the fuel leak.
Senior Airman David Livingston and Sergeant Jeff K. Kennedy entered the launch
complex early on the morning of September 19 to get readings of airborne fuel concentrations, which they found to be at their maximum. At about 3:00 a.m., the two men returned to the surface to await further instructions. Just as they sat down on the concrete edge of the access portal, the missile exploded, blowing the 740-ton launch duct closure door 200 feet into the air and some 600 feet northeast of the launch complex. The W-53 nuclear warhead landed about 100 feet from the launch complex’s entry gate; its safety features operated correctly and prevented any loss of radioactive material. Kennedy, his leg broken, was blown 150 feet from the silo. Livingston lay amid the rubble of the launch duct for some time before security personnel located and evacuated him. Livingston died of his injuries that day. Twenty-one people were injured by the explosion or during rescue efforts….”
Two items of note. First this wasn’t the first accident at the Titan II Launch Complex 374-7. There was a serious accident at this site in 1978. Second, the W-53 nuclear warhead is rated at about 9-megatons and could be used as either an airburst or contact weapon. According to John Walker’s (June 2005), “Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer”. Assuming a detonation at optimum height, a 9 megaton blast would result in a fireball with an approximate 2.9 to 3.4 mi (4.7 to 5.5 km) diameter. The radiated heat would be sufficient to cause lethal burns to any unprotected person within a 20-mile radius (1,250 sq. mi). Blast effects would be sufficient to collapse most residential and industrial structures within a 9 mi radius (254 sq. mi); within 3.65 mi (42 sq. mi) virtually all above-ground structures would be destroyed and blast effects would inflict near 100% fatalities. Within 2.25 mi a 500 rem dose of ionizing radiation would be received by the average person, sufficient to cause a 50% to 90% casualty rate independent of thermal or blast effects at this distance. The W-53 warhead was retired when the Titan IIs were retired, but its sister, the B-53 bomb, was in the enduring stockpile as of 1997.
If the Damascus incidents excite your curiosity, Eric Schlosser’s Book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety is gripping. Schlosser brings all of the skills of an investigative reporter with a keen analytical mind together with recently declassified material to deliver an exciting and informative read.
In the early 1950s President Eisenhower realized that a heavy bomber platform for
delivering nukes to a target was being bypassed by missile technology. Ike threw out the old playbook and put his back into diversifying nuclear weapons delivery systems. The national laboratory system responded with vigor. The ever creative nuclear physicists and other scientists developed systems that made the military complex salivate. Nuclear weapons designs proliferated. The development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs), and nuclear submarines as well as surface ships were all in Eisenhower’s wheel house. Great big nukes, little tiny nukes, artillery nukes and nukes for every conceivable use were fast-tracked. Farm fields, remote areas and populated areas, like New York City, were ripped up and ICBM launch facilities were constructed in haste. As the missiles were mounted or dropped into their silos they were tipped with nuclear warheads of many configurations. Like Amazon, the military built and maintained distribution centers to store and maintain the missiles and their warheads. By 1965, the U.S. had over 30,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled.
The launch of the nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus, in 1954 marked the birth of the nuclear Navy. Admiral Rickover took personal control and drove the Navy’s nuclear program. By 1962, less than a decade after the launch of the USS Nautilus, the U.S. Navy had 26 nuclear submarines operational and 30 under construction. And there were nuclear surface ships.
Beginning in the Eisenhower administration and continuing through the Reagan administration, Missileers were the elite. It was a demanding, tough job that required a special suite of skills and a particular personality, but it was a job that inspired envy and attracted the best. Then it was over. The Berlin Wall came down during the Reagan administration and, 1991, President Clinton declared the Cold War over. Nuclear weapons reduction treaties were negotiated, then negotiated again. Today, we have about 2,000 treaty nukes and other warheads kept for a variety of reasons. What does that really mean? “According to the most authoritative account, by Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris, the U.S. deploys about 2,150 nuclear weapons on aircraft, and land-based and submarine-based missiles. It has an additional estimated 2,500 weapons in reserve storage, for a total arsenal of about 4,650. On top of that, there are some 3,000 weapons awaiting dismantlement, for a grand total of roughly 7,700.” No one seems to really know for certain, but 7,700 is probably close to real.
The federal government historically invests great sums of money to create impressive public infrastructure fast-dams, highways, nuclear deterrence capacity-and almost immediately begins to starve the maintenance of that same infrastructure. When a dam or the roads fail, the taxpayer pays attention immediately. The neglect of the nuclear weapons stockpile, people and support facilities is not so noticeable. As nukes fell from grace so did morale. The top-notch people weren’t that interested in the program and the dedicated, skilled professionals who stayed suffered the natural outcome of underfunding; the inability to keep the system going through sheer will-power. Finally they were down to one specialty wrench they had to FedEx to one another.
What is unforgiveable is the blatant disregard of SecDef, Congress and the President, and not just this one. Since the 1980 incident in Damascus, Arkansas there have been twelve SecDefs (including Chuck Hagel), a continuity in congress, and six presidents. They all knew and they did little or nothing. On November 14th, 2014, the negligence was acknowledged when SecDef Hagel spoke at a Pentagon news conference:
“…“We just have kind of taken our eye off the ball here,” Hagel said.
The defense secretary also released two Pentagon reviews showing “systemic problems across the nuclear enterprise” that have led to low morale and widespread cheating on tests among the airmen in charge of launching missiles and sailors who maintain nuclear reactors and sea-launched missiles aboard submarines….”
Nukes and their supporting infrastructure are dangerous and located throughout the U.S. Most nuclear weapons’ activity is cloaked in secrecy and highly classified. The people who live in the U.S. and foot the federal program tabs are completely dependent on the integrity of the federal government to keep them safe. That’s the stuff of nightmares. The nuclear warheads, bombs and other devices in the stockpile have been in service, without testing, for decades. The last nuclear test was in 1991, over 20 years ago. No safety testing has occurred and no new design tests; it’s all done on computers. There are some weapons in the stockpile for which no plans exist. The designers are long gone and no one really wants to take them apart. Nuclear weapons design, you see, is part science and part art, which is why the testing is important. If testing isn’t part of the equation, get rid of the weapons. Oh, that’s right, there are no plans so getting rid of the weapons is problematic.
The U.S. enjoys an outstanding nuclear safety record in its combined nuclear programs. While it’s true two U.S. nuclear subs, the Thresher in 1963 and the Scorpion in 1968, sunk neither incident involved anything nuclear. Both the Thresher and the Scorpion exceeded crush depths due to failures of other systems. The Soviets lost four nuclear submarines and the Russians lost two for a variety of reasons; reactor failure, weapons systems explosions, fire, weather, etc. Additionally, the Soviets lost a Gulf II diesel-electric boat, K-129, equipped with nuclear ballistic missiles. The difference in safety records is not the policy makers, it is the pride and motivation of the personnel maintaining the systems. Individuals, each with a job to do, and doing it well. That is the American way. It wasn’t policy that kept the W-53 warhead from exploding in Damascus, Arkansas, it was an individual or team of individuals who did their job and made certain the failsafe circuitry worked. If that individual or team of individuals had chosen a lunch-break over doing their job right as is frequently the case in a collective government, the outcome might have been catastrophic. Policy comes into play to set the stage for individual success or failure.
Fixing it will require more than the bloody massacre of the lives and careers of a few worker bees and their bosses or the incessant reorganization to avoid responsibility ever-present in the federal government. Fixing it will take more than throwing money at it. Policy makers must face harsh nuclear weaponry reality head on and address some exacting truth. If the U.S. cannot be responsible for the stewardship of the nuclear dragon, it needs to get out of the business. We can all guess how that is going to end. Pretty soon, the last wrench will be lost in the FedEx system.
 The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture; Titan II Missile Explosion; http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=2543
 Wikipedia; B53 nuclear bomb; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B53_nuclear_bomb#cite_note-14
 Federation of American Scientists; May.03, 2010; United States Discloses Size of Nuclear Weapons Stockpile; http://fas.org/blogs/security/2010/05/stockpilenumber/
 Union of Concerned Scientists; 12/17/2013; Lisbeth Gronlund; How Many Nuclear Weapons Does the U.S. Have? Don’t Ask Congress…; http://blog.ucsusa.org/how-many-nuclear-weapons-does-the-united-states-have-347
 Military.com; 11/14/14; Hagel Outlines Nuclear Overhaul Following Systematic Decay; http://www.military.com/daily-news/2014/11/14/hagel-outlines-nuclear-overhaul-following-systematic-decay.html?comp=1198882887570&rank=2