Catalyst Spring 2015

[INQUIRY]

We Can Reduce the Nuclear Threat

Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser documents the history of accidents and near-misses in the U.S. arsenal.

 

Eric Schlosser explores nuclear weapons and the illusion of safety in his latest book Command and Control (Penguin 2013); he is also the author of the New York Times best sellers Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. Photo by Kodiak Greenwood.


 

You spent six years researching Command and Control. Given what you uncovered, how worried should we be about the possibility of a nuclear accident or inadvertent nuclear launch?

ES: I think the danger posed by the world’s nuclear arsenals is the single greatest national security threat we face. I’m not apocalyptic. I’m not predicting there’ll be a nuclear detonation tomorrow at 3 p.m. But there’s been remarkably little public discussion and attention paid to this issue considering what’s at stake.

Today I’m more worried about an unauthorized launch than an accidental detonation—something going wrong in the system itself so that a launch either happens by mistake or someone who shouldn’t have access to things gets access. It takes constant vigilance to make sure that doesn’t happen. And, while the nuclear weapons we have today are much safer than the ones we had in the 1970s and 1980s, our nuclear infrastructure is also aging and a lot of the equipment is outdated. So accidents absolutely are possible. The probability is greater than zero. There’s no question about that.

 

The Union of Concerned Scientists is now calling for the United States to take its land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert. How helpful do you think this step would be for our safety here at home?

ES: I support the idea of taking our land-based missiles off of hair-trigger alert. Our land-based missiles are really only useful for attacking Russia. And to take them off of hair-trigger alert is to signal to Russia that we’re not going to have a first strike with our land-based missiles. It would be great to see a similar effort on Russia’s part because there’s much more we can do in a partnership to reduce the danger. But I believe we need to do everything we can to prevent accidents with our nuclear arsenal and this seems like a sensible and important first step.

 

Back in the 1980s, a million people gathered in Central Park to call for a nuclear freeze. Why do you think the public seems to be paying such comparatively little attention to the subject now?

ES: The prospect of a nuclear war was a source of tremendous anxiety during the Cold War. And the collapse of the Soviet Union was so sudden and unexpected that I think everyone just breathed a sigh of relief. People started to believe that the danger ended with the end of the Cold War. And of course, the risk of nuclear war was greatly reduced. The nuclear arsenals in the United States and in Russia have declined in size by about 80 or 90 percent. That’s terrific. But the danger never fully went away. The danger is still with us. And, unfortunately, I think people are pretty much in denial about it.

 

By explaining in detail how close we’ve come on a number of occasions to an accidental nuclear cataclysm, your book is a terrifying read. What has the reception been like since it was published?

ES: My aim with this book has been to provoke discussion about this issue. And I’m very gratified that there seems to have been a significant uptick in attention to the issue since the book was published. This is the first book I’ve written that seems to have been read by people in power—people in the Air Force, people at the weapons labs. And, to some extent, I think it is encouraging a discussion about the safety of our nuclear infrastructure and I’m very glad about that. I’m also happy to be speaking about this with the Union of Concerned Scientists—an organization that has played an important leadership role on this issue for the past 40 years.

 

At UCS, we’re encouraging our members to get more involved and take action on the safety of our nuclear arsenal. What would you say to encourage them?

ES: Well, first of all, in the coming years, Congress will be discussing the modernization of our nuclear arsenal and infrastructure. Much of this debate will take place in secret with very little public input. There will be some people proposing to spend about $1 trillion to upgrade our nuclear weapon capabilities. So I think it is vital to learn about these issues. People need to get involved, and this country needs a vigorous, informed public debate about this spending and its goals.

Today we are witnessing the beginning of an international discussion—a serious discussion—about the abolition of nuclear weapons. From a humanitarian perspective, these weapons do not discriminate between civilians and military targets. And there are many who are making the argument that nuclear weapons should be abolished on those grounds alone. You know, we banned land mines and chemical weapons and cluster munitions. A growing number of people are working toward the abolition of nuclear weapons as well.

 The key point I want to make is that we can reduce the threat posed by our existing nuclear arsenals. There are all kinds of things we can do. Taking our land-based missiles off of hair-trigger alert is certainly one such thing. But, in order to meaningfully reduce the threat, we absolutely need to start talking about it—and stop living in denial.