KCRW

The Threat to America From Our Own Nuclear Weapons

Editor’s Note: Steven Pifer appeared on KCRW’s To the Point with host Warren Olney and Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, to discuss the dangers of nuclear weapons and the prospect for their further reduction. Below is an excerpt from the interview.

Steven Pifer: I think [Command and Control] makes a very good history. It really does underscore the dilemma that you have with nuclear weapons, between on the one hand, having a weapon that the military could use if that became necessary and there were a valid presidential order, but also having weapons that when they’re in storage are safe, secure against unauthorized use or against accidental detonation.

Warren Olney: It appears that the weapons, for a long period of time, were not safe and secure against accidental detonation and that it was, in many cases, dumb luck that prevented that from happening.

Pifer: Certainly, I think the story does bring out that at least in the 50s and the 60s, and perhaps even the early 70s, when you have that tension and that argument, the military tended to win out over people like those at the national labs, such as Sandia, who are arguing for steps to make the weapons safer and more secure.

Olney: What’s the situation now and how many ready-to-go missiles do we have under the latest New START Treaty?

Pifer: Well first of all, I do think that the military has become more conscious of the need to maintain stable, secure weapons that cannot be used unless there’s a valid order and the numbers are much lower than they were in the 70s and the 80s. The U.S. arsenal now is probably between about 4,600 to 4,700 weapons and it’s just seven different types of weapons, so you don’t have the 25 or 30 different types of weapons that you had during the Cold War.

Olney: So that was a big difference then. At the time that Eric Schlosser describes, I take it we were sort of in the process of building the arsenal.

Pifer: Certainly, in building the arsenal, and I think the good news is fewer numbers of weapons, fewer types, but as he points out in the book, these are still very, very complex pieces of equipment, and you want to be absolutely certain that they can be used only when there’s a valid order to use them.

Listen to the full interview »