Hot times during the Cold War: Close calls revealed in new book on U.S. nuclear arsenal

David Kerley, Richard Coolidge, Alexandra Dukakis & Jordyn Phelps
Power Players
Hot times during the Cold War: Close calls revealed in new book on U.S. nuclear arsenal

Power Players

There have been a handful of instances over the years in which nuclear weapons have come close to detonating in America. Such "broken arrow" events have never leveled entire towns or led to nuclear fallout, but a new book by the author of “Fast Food Nation” says they could have.

“There’s been a sort of complacency because there is so little public awareness,” Eric Schlosser told “Power Players. “The accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon would be a catastrophe on a scale that we haven't seen since the Second World War.”

Schlosser’s new book, “Command and Control,” looks at the United States' nuclear weapons and the command-and-control systems put in place to prevent an accidental launch or explosion.

One close call occurred in Damascus, Ark., in 1980, when a repairman doing routine maintenance work on a Titan II missile had a socket fall off his wrench, a widely reported mishap that Schlosser says nearly detonated the United States' largest intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead attached to it.

“[The socket] fell all the way down the silo, bounced, ricocheted, hit the missile, pierced the missile and caused a fuel leak. And this fuel is highly toxic and explosive,” Schlosser said. “It was a freak accident but it set off a series of events that could have detonated a powerful thermonuclear warhead in Arkansas.”

Much of the book is based on previously classified material Schlosser discovered through the Freedom of Information Act.

And while the Cold War has officially ended, there have been publicized cases in recent years of weapons being mishandled in the Air Force that Schlosser finds equally troubling, as in 2010 when an entire squadron of Minutemen missiles lost control with their command center and went offline for an hour.

“At the time it was investigated and it was found that there was a mechanical glitch with one processor,” Schlosser told “Power Players,” “but it raised the possibility that our nuclear command and control system being hacked and the defense science board issued a report this year saying the vulnerability of this system to hacking has never been fully assessed and it's a real concern.”

But despite all the near-miss accidents with weapons in America’s nuclear arsenal, Schlosser notes at the end of his book that none of the roughly 70,000 nuclear weapons built by the United States since 1945 has ever detonated inadvertently.

“It's a remarkable achievement,” he said. “But the thing about nuclear command and control is you can do a perfect job for 20 year and there's only one error and it's catastrophic.”

For more of Schlosser’s interview with “Power Players,” including why Schlosser is able to sleep at night despite all he has learned about nuclear weapons, watch this episode of “Power Players.”

ABC’s Gary Westphalen, Hank Brown and Shari Thomas contributed to this episode.