How secure is America’s nuclear arsenal? A brief look at recent headlines shows that the deadliest weapons on the planet have been at the center of a series of mishaps that could have easily turned into catastrophic disaster. Yet the American public’s apathy toward potential nuclear accidents — not even including the civilian energy variety — is disturbing.
Newly-released declassified documents reveal that a B52 bomber, which broke in half over North Carolina, dropped two nuclear bombs into a field just outside of Goldsboro, a city of nearly 35,000. Its failure to detonate was only “by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross,” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said.
Estimates on the size of the nation’s arsenal vary. Official government reports suggest that it is over 5,000 warheads, while the Federation of American Scientists say that it is closer to 8,000.
Regardless of the total, they are stored in silos in several different states across the country. Troubling issues have taken place at sites in Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana.
At one of the facilities an outer door meant to protect the weapons from unauthorized entry is broken and cannot be closed. Instead of fixing it, it is propped open with a crow bar and tagged with a “DANGER” sign. Great security there.
The AP reported on two separate incidents in 2013 at bases in North Dakota and Montana:
Twice this year alone, Air Force officers entrusted with the launch keys to nuclear-tipped missiles have been caught leaving open a blast door that is intended to help prevent a terrorist or other intruder from entering their underground command post, Air Force officials have told The Associated Press.
The blast doors are never to be left open if one of the crew members inside is asleep — as was the case in both these instances — out of concern for the damage an intruder could cause, including the compromising of secret launch codes.
Bruce Blair, an ICBM launch control officer from the 1970s who the AP interviewed, warned that “this transgression might help enable outsiders to gain access to the launch center and to its super-secret codes.” If that were to happen, the intruders could potentially launch one of the weapons or “invalidation might effectively neutralize for an extended period of time the entire U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal and the president’s ability to launch strategic forces while the Pentagon scrambles to re-issue new codes.”
In North Dakota’s case, failing grades for missile operators was only avoided due to the combining of its results with support staff. As the AP reported in March:
Airmen responsible for missile operations at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., would have failed their portion of a major inspection in March 2013 but managed a ‘marginal’ rating because their poor marks were blended with the better performance of support staff — like cooks and facilities managers — and they got a boost from the base’s highly rated training program.
At Montana’s base, thirty-four US Air Force nuclear launch officers were stripped of certification. The reason? They were caught cheating on tests through text messaging. Other recent instances of misconduct include sleeping guards and drunk commanders.
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These issues bring a number of questions to mind. How are failing grades, rampant cheating, and stunningly frequent violations acceptable for the people who manage our nuclear arsenal? Why are we still set in an outdated Cold War mentality that we need enough nuclear weapons to wipe out all of mankind several times over? Wouldn’t just, say, a couple hundred nukes be plenty as a deterrent? Or would we rather accidentally annihilate ourselves, as seems increasingly possible with each passing case of gross negligence?