Command and Control: How a Socket Wrench and a Nuclear Missile Nearly Destroyed Arkansas
October 19, 2016 Gar Smith / Berkeley Daily Planet
Director Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) and writer Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) have combined their proven story-telling prowess to create a film of unimaginable true-life horror that will have you gripping the seat upholstery at the local cinema. Based on an incident reported in depth in Schlosser's book, "Command and Control," Kenner's latest film recreates a nearly forgotten incident that demonstrates, in chilling detail, the folly of pretending nuclear weapons are subject to human "command" or "control."
Command and Control:
How a Socket Wrench and a Nuclear Missile Nearly Destroyed Arkansas Opens Nationwide in October
Gar Smith / Berkeley Daily Planet
Director Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) and writer Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) have combined their proven story-telling prowess to create a film of unimaginable true-life horror that will have you gripping the seat upholstery at the local cinema.
Based on an incident reported in depth in Schlosser's book, Command and Control, this film recreates a nearly forgotten incident that demonstrates the folly of pretending nuclear weapons are subject to human "command."
Incidents of "friendly fire" have become such an embarrassment that the military had to invent this euphemism to make self-inflicted mayhem sound semi-cuddly. But there is no comfort to be had in the phrase "nuclear friendly fire."
In 1980, the Pentagon poseurs who claim it is their job to "Keep America Safe" nearly blew Arkansas off the US map when a freak accident created an explosive situation well beyond anyone's ability to "control."
Thanks to recent "reforms" in the parallel universe of US health care, resident doctors can no longer be forced to work more than 80 hours a week. In another victory for the profession, their shifts cannot exceed 24 hours at a stretch.
How can any government "of the people" justify placing such demands on the very people who are called upon to make life-and-death decisions?
You might ask the same question about the working conditions of the soldiers responsible for maintaining (and potentially launching) the most destructive weapons of war ever devised -- nuclear missiles.
The stunning truth is that some of the teams entrusted with maintaining the Pentagon's nuclear arsenal are required to work 24-hour "tours."
Command on Control introduces us to one such team of nuclear workers who were stationed near Damascus, Arkansas, in September 1980. They included members of the pressurization teams entrusted with the safety of the combustible contents encased inside liquid-fueled Titan II missiles. They were required to work 12-to-16-hour shifts after which they were rewarded with five hours of sleep before putting in another 12-to-14-hour day.
The Titan missiles were blasted aloft by the powerful combination of rocket fuel and liquid oxygen. The two hyper-explosive ingredients were confined to two separate tanks stacked one-atop-the-other inside the body of the missile.
As one of the former crewmembers told the filmmakers in an interview, the launch crews were never told what targets their missiles were programmed to hit. This was done so "we wouldn't know who we were going to destroy. You had to be prepared to destroy an entire civilization and we were trained on that. As heartless as it sounds, I never had a problem with it. I was doing it to protect my country."
Another nuclear missile techie explains: "Deterrence is worthless if you don't demonstrate that you're willing to do it. I would turn those keys and kill 11 million people and never hesitate."
If those comments suggest a level of brainwashing that can only exist in an individual driven to inhabit a parallel reality, Command and Control also offers reflections that are indisputably grounded in fact and experience. As one of the airmen notes: "Working on a weapon of mass destruction, you're counting on everything working perfect all the time. And things just don't work perfect all the time."
On the fateful day (recreated with stunning realism and archival detail by the filmmakers), we revisit Site 47 as the young airmen (now haunted, middle-aged survivors) prepare to attend to the needs of a single nuclear missile in the bowels of a hidden silo.
The cone of their Titan rocket -- sitting atop the 330,000-pound missile towering eight stories above the workers on the launch platform -- contained a nine-megaton thermonuclear warhead -- a bomb three times as powerful as all the bombs dropped during WWII (and that includes both atomic bombs the US dropped on Japan).
The Titan II was powered by the explosive combination of hydrazine-based fuel and a huge cylinder of nitrogen tetroxide that served as an oxidizer. One of the missile tenders' major concerns was to make sure the contents of those two tanks never mingled -- unless the missile was ordered launched.
The small crew had already on been on duty for 11 hours. Heading into the silo, a worker named Dave Powell realized he'd left his torque wrench in his vehicle. Instead of going back and losing precious time, he grabbed a ratchet wrench that he'd used many times before to remove the Titan's fuel caps.
The ratchet measured about 3-feet long. The socket that needed to be removed weighed about eight pounds.
As Powell set about testing the pressurization of the Stage 2 oxidation tank, the rachet slipped, allowing the socket to pop free. Powell and his teammate froze.
They watched in horror as the heavy piece of metal plummeted 70 feet down the shaft. Powell says he remembers the moment every day of his life: "It was like it was moving in slow-motion."
When the heavy metal ring hit the thrust mount, it bounced hard against the side of the missile, puncturing a hole that immediately began spewing a steady cloud of toxic fuel.
The silo began to fill with vapor.
A good half hour passed before the silo crew in the Command Center actually spoke to the two workers and learned what had happened. By then, the fuel loss was out of control.
This had never happened before. No one knew what to do. But somebody had better damn well do something because, if all the fuel was expelled from the lower tank, the missile would likely collapse on itself -- owing to the weight of the oxidizer in the tank above. And if the fuel and oxidizer mixed, there would be one hell of an explosion.
It became clear to local police that something unusual was happening at the missile base. A Missile Protection Accident Team had been flown in. The site had been blocked off.
When the local sheriff arrived on the scene -- along with radio reporters and TV news crews -- the first question was: "Is there a nuclear bomb at the launch site?" The response from the Air Force commander was a curt: "I cannot confirm or deny."
That night in Little Rock -- just 45 miles from the chemically hemorrhaging missile inside the seething silo -- Walter Mondale and Bill Clinton were involved in political campaigning. As word began to leak out that there was a leak out at the missile site, the press turned to Arkansas Gov. Clinton for reassurance. Clinton's response was both stark and useless: "As regards to a nuclear explosion, all we can do is trust the experts."
Meanwhile, out at Site 47, 24 guys in their 20s got suited up like astronauts and set out to plunge into the silo to "fix the problem."
With no one left in the silo's buried Command Center, the Strategic Air Command ordered several teams to take turns in an attempt to breach the hardened site. This entailed breaking through nine 6,000-pound blast-proof doors -- a feat that had never been done before. Each team was given only 30 minutes to accomplish its portion of the task.
By this time, the exhaust duct readings of combustible gases in the concrete silo were peaking at 255 ppm (concentrated enough to melt the protective suits the volunteers were wearing). At that point, anything could trigger an ignition.
Sgt. Jeff Kennedy and David Livingston were the second team to go in. Kennedy was team chief. As we watch a reenactment of the two men starting down the hundreds of steps in the buried bunker, Livingston's chilling warning reverberates on the soundtrack: "Someone's going to die out here tonight."
They were inside, enveloped in toxic mist when everything went to hell.
Though seriously injured, Kenney somehow survived. Instead of being treated as a hero, however, he was slapped with a letter of reprimand. Although he died years ago, Kennedy's voice and presence -- vividly captured on audiotape and film -- reach beyond the grave to rage at his treatment by the government he promised to serve.
Similarly, Greg Devlin, a senior airman who sustained a shattered ankle in the explosion, was drummed out of the Air Force.
Command and Control does not end with a reassuring or hopeful message. To the contrary, Kenner and Schlosser emphasize that oversight and attention has only gotten worse. This is due, in part, to the fact that most people have no idea there are still 7,000 US nuclear weapons attached to launch-ready missiles packed away in silos hidden around the country.
During the Cold War, the US built a stockpile of 31,255 nuclear weapons; the Soviet Union had more than 35,000. There used to be 54 Titan II missiles deployed at bases in Kansas, Arizona, and Arkansas.
Many of today's nuclear warheads are about 20 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan. Each of America's 14 missile submarines caries enough sea-launched warheads to destroyed more than 100 cities.
The two Presidents Bush were responsible for the largest reductions in America's nuclear arsenal, cutting the number of warheads by half. Despite his acclaimed "nuclear abolition" speech in Prague, Barack Obama's record has been abysmal. Today there are more than 15,000 warheads left in the world with the US and Russia accounting for more than 90% of them. And Obama has announced a plan to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to build a new arsenal of nukes that will be smaller, more powerful, and more difficult to intercept.
For their part, the Russians have invented a new ballistic missile that doesn't fly on a pre-set trajectory. It can bob-and-weave unpredictably in flight, making all existing US "defenses" useless.
"Nuclear weapons are machines and every machine ever invented eventually goes wrong," one of the Site 47 survivors observes. "Nuclear weapons will always have the chance of an accidental detonation. It will happen. "
A Short History of Domestic Nuclear Near-Misses
The Pentagon admits that, during the Cold War, the US was responsible for 32 "broken arrows" -- an opaque code for nuclear weapons accidents. It is believed the actual number could top 1,000. Human error was cited repeatedly as a major contributing cause. In his book, Schlosser cites a few of those near-misses, including:
January 24, 1961: A B-52 bomber broke apart over Goldboro, North Carolina. Two hydrogen bombs fell from the sky and smashed into the ground, triggering a firing signal designed to start the countdown to detonation. A single safety switch prevented a nuclear explosion that would have obliterated most of North Carolina and blanketed much of the East Coast in deadly fallout. In a subsequent inspection, the "fail-safe" safety switch was found to be defective in many of the Pentagon's warheads.
September 15, 1980: An engine on a B-52 bomber caught fire with four hydrogen bombs and eight nuclear-tipped missiles on board. An explosion would have eradicated Grand Forks and irradiated the state.
August 30, 2007: Six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles we're mistakenly loaded on a B-52 bomber and flown to an air base in Louisiana where it was left unguarded overnight.
May 28, 2008: A maintenance team discovered a fire had erupted and burned itself out inside a Minuteman missile silo. The fire went unnoticed because the alarm system failed to work. The missile inside was armed with a nuclear warhead.
May 17 2014: During routine maintenance, a work crew damaged a Minuteman missile in a silo in Colorado. The Air Force still refuses to disclose what happened, whether the missile was damaged, or whether there was any possibility of an accidental detonation.
March 2016: 14 airmen responsible for the safety of nuclear warheads and Minutemen missiles at the Warner Air Force Base were suspended for using illegal drugs, including cocaine.
US Atomic Missile Accidentally Blown to Bits in 1962
One little-known incident of atomic "friendly fire" involved the destruction of a nuclear warhead that caused the radioactive contamination of a US missile site on Johnson Island in the Pacific Ocean. The accident occurred during secret US tests to detonate nuclear warheads in space.
On July 25, 1962, "a one-of-a-kind missile misadventure caused by a sticking fuel valve," caused a Thor missile to explode on the launchpad. The explosion was captured on film and can be seen beginning at the 42-second mark in the following video: