Always and never: America's nuclear weapons

This post is more than 3 years old.

There are lots of things to be worried about. War, climate change, plaque buildup, unsanitized user inputs. But somewhere near the top of your list should probably be the thousands of nuclear weapons around the world that are one miscommunication or faulty electronics part away from unexpectedly killing many, many people.

I don't usually go looking for such perturbations, I promise, but when I happened upon this recent NPR interview with Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, I was captivated:

Schlosser (perhaps best known for Fast Food Nation) talks about incidents where nuclear weapons fully capable of changing the course of history were accidentally dropped into back yards and random fields across U.S. states, one part of their firing sequence away from actually exploding. He discusses how nuclear weapons experts who have extensive safety measures and exhaustive checklists can still mess up or be unaware of critical information that endangers us all.

He addresses the tension of "always" vs. "never" in the design of modern nuclear weapons: the military wants these weapons to always be readily available to always work on short notice, while society at large has an interest in making sure they never accidentally go off and are never used in a way that's unintended. The result is that the safety mechanisms on these devices aren't always as robust as we imagine they should be. Schlosser makes the point that if the U.S. nuclear arsenal is 2,000 weapons strong, we can be really good at managing 1,999 of those but if we mess up with 1, horrible things will happen.

Fascinating, terrifying, crazy stuff. If you listen to the interview or end up reading the book (or perhaps if you're someone who has worked with nuclear weapons?), let me know what you think in the comments.

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