Author Eric Schlosser spent six years researching the safety record of the keepers of America’s diminished but still vast nuclear arsenal. The most shocking thing he’s learned? “That the difference between safety and catastrophe in the United States has come down to a single switch or a single wire.” Schlosser, the author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, says, “We’ve had numerous accidents with our own nuclear weapons that could have destroyed American cities.”
But what really keeps him up at night is wondering how bad the record of other nuclear powers might be considering how poorly the relatively sophisticated nuclear guardians in the United States have faired.
“I’m very critical of the management of the American arsenal in my book,” he says, “but at the same time I met a lot of the people who ran our nuclear complex and they were very patriotic, very competent people.
“We invented this [technology]; we have more experience with it than any other country, so I would hate to see what a similar book about the Russian arsenal would say or the Pakistani arsenal."
Schlosser says, “This is very high risk technology and the margin of error is slim, and if there’s a serious mistake you could have a major catastrophe.”
New nuclear powers have not been through the dangerous learning curve already experienced by the United States in managing nuclear arsenals. Any country that maintains nuclear weapons fully assembled puts itself at risk of a devastating accident, Schlosser says. “You could argue, for some countries, having these weapons is more dangerous that any threat they may face from their potential adversary.”
After the first Gulf War, one UN inspector who reviewed the Iraqi military’s blueprints for nuclear weapons it hoped to build determined that “those things would have detonated if they fell off a table” and that “they could have been detonated with a bullet.”
Abolition “sounds like a pretty radical idea and yet it was supported by President Truman, President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, Carter, Reagan and now Obama,” also “quite a few of the Reagan foreign policy and defense officials.”
“How you get to zero is a subject that’s open to all kinds of discussion and debate,” but Schlosser thinks we need to be trying to get there. “What we need to do is reduce the number for the countries that have them possess in their arsenal and prevent other nations from getting them.
“One less weapon is one less accident, one less potential act of mass murder.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin may have of late derailed the process, but in recent years real progress has been made—the United States and Russia have reduced their stockpiles by as much as 85 percent from cold war highs of approximately 70,000 warheads down to 17,000.
Now a growing civil society movement, concerned by the existential threat posed nuclear weapons, is sounding a drumbeat for their complete abolition. Schlosser says for decades the Catholic Church has had a leadership role, pressing for nuclear disarmament, and he thinks it should take the lead now on abolition. The movement could really use a “celebrity” spokesperson, according to Schlosser, and Pope Francis strikes him as just the man for the job. “He would be better than Taylor Swift," the author says with a smile.