How close we came: Expert describes nuclear near miss

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ST. LOUIS - If you were alive in 1980 and lived in the St. Louis area, or anywhere in the Midwest, you may have no idea how close we came to a nuclear nightmare.

A thermonuclear warhead 600 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki exploded out of an underground missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas in September of 1980. The fire at the silo and dozens of near-miss disasters with the U.S. nuclear arsenal are detailed in Eric Schlosser's new book "Command and Control."

"It is amazing that a city hasn't been destroyed by a nuclear weapon since Nagasaki," Schlosser told NewsChannel 5 last week before speaking at the Lindbergh branch of the St. Louis County Library System.

"When you look at the number of weapons built in the cold war and the number of accidents we had with our own weapons, it is incredible that we haven't lost a city, or a part of a state, to our own weapons, let alone weapons from to a Soviet Union or from Russian nuclear weapon," said Schlosser, who is also known for his book, "Fast Food Nation."

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Schlosser spent six years poring through newly declassified military documents from the Cold War to put a spotlight on terrifying episodes that have never been described with such painstaking detail.

In addition to the explosion at the Titan II missile silo in Arkansas, Schlosser reports on a B-52 crash in 1961 in North Carolina. In the first week of President John F. Kennedy's term in office, the bomber, carrying two hydrogen bombs, broke apart in midair and dropped one of the thermonuclear weapons onto farmland in North Carolina. The bomb nearly completed its detonation sequence but stopped just short of going off thanks to a stopgap safety switch within the warhead.

"That specific switch was later found to be defective in many other bombs," Schlosser explained. A lethal radioactive cloud, Schlosser theorizes, would have drifted up the eastern seaboard.

But it is the infamous Damascus, Arkansas incident that accounts for most of "Command and Control."

Just over 300 miles from St. Louis, the Damascus silo housed a 110-foot tall Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile. After a freak accident with a socket wrench, a massive fuel leak ended with a fiery explosion on September 19, 1980.

The resulting blast sent the warhead, three times more powerful than all of the bombs dropped by all of the armies in World War II (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) combined, two hundred yards into the nearby woods.

The nine megaton bomb did not detonate.

"If it had detonated, it would have created firestorms throughout much of Arkansas," Schlosser said. "And the radioactive fallout would have, depending on the prevailing winds, headed towards the eastern seaboard. But if the winds were in a more circular rotation, who knows?"

One of the main themes of "Command and Control" is America's ability to create weapons of mass destruction but our nation's failure to safely care for and control the ingredients for those bombs.

Schlosser says a prime example is the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, which has radioactive waste from the Cold War.

"In the case of Mallinckrodt (in St. Louis), that plant was supplying uranium for the Manhattan Project, more than 70 years ago now. There were very well intended engineers who created that plant as part of the war effort. But they had no idea, at that point, what would happen to the waste when they buried it."

You can listen to Schlosser's entire interview with Pat McGonigle below.