Sunday, June 25, 2017

Nuclear accident: Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

Nuclear weapons are immensely powerful, with the potential damage from an explosion being of much higher levels than all previous such weapons. The explosions of a nuclear weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan that caused the end of the second world war showed the immense power of nuclear weapons, and those were on the smaller scale. Modern nuclear weapons, especially the hydrogen bombs, are of a scale that is much more powerful than the ones that were used in Japan. And the number of these weapons (stored in missile systems) are in the thousands, spread all over the country. Most people staying near to these missile silos are totally unaware of how close they live to such destructive power; although these warheads are supposed to be designed that they will not explode unless a specific series of processes are carried out, and hence the risk of detonating accidentally is ruled out.
This book showcases that while even a powerful explosion next to the warhead did not explode it, there is always some amount of uncertainty when dealing with such a weapon. Even the fact that the missile has a large amount of very dangerous fuel adds to the complication in dealing with such matters.

The Titan missiles were a significant part of the US strategic missile fleet and were mated to a 9 megaton warhead, the most powerful warhead in the US stockpile of nuclear weapons. These were sited in silos across many parts of the country and were loaded with a fuel that was more stable than previous (although stability is always a relative measure - these propellants were far more dangerous and unstable than the petrol or gasoline we use in our normal vehicles). One of these silos was near Damascus in rural Arkansas, close to Little Rock. A missile is essentially a metal pipe that contains a lot of high explosive power propellant with a much more explosive warhead on top.
Imagine a regular maintenance of the missile, and a socket drops from the personnel who are doing the maintenance. They watch in horror while the socket plummets down into the silo, finally hitting the body of the missile and cause the fuel to start gushing out from the hole. From then on, it becomes like a real life high speed film, with disaster starting everyone in the area, conflicting scenes of responsibility, local authorities knowing that some disaster is unfolding but not having control of the area (that control was with the military), and finally sending in volunteers to control the situation, followed immediately by such a huge explosion that the warhead was thrown some distance away (and recovered).
The incident has been covered in books and in documentaries, and when you see the documentary, the theory that a warhead is totally safer even under these circumstances seems like theory, not something that you really want to see being under test.

Eric Schlosser - Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

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