Saturday, 21 September 2013

Nuclear weapon safety

Recent articles in the media have raised interesting questions about the safety of nuclear
weapons. Whilst the media has focused on the US military the questions raised are equally applicable to the safety of both current and and past UK nuclear weapons in particular and the MOD nuclear programme in general. The media interest has been sparked by the publication of the book "Command and Control", by  journalist Eric Schlosser. The book  chronicles America's terrifying nuclear mishaps and near misses.

He recounts how in one incident in 1961, days after President John F Kennedy's inauguration, two hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped on Goldsboro, North Carolina, as a B-52 bomber went into a tailspin. Only the failure of a single low-voltage switch prevented disaster, Schlosser explained to the BBC's Katty Kay. "The bomb assumed it was being deliberately released over an enemy target - and went through all its arming mechanisms save one, and very nearly detonated over North Carolina," said Schlosser.

"And Robert McNamara had just become secretary of defence and he was terrified by this news. We nearly had a hydrogen bomb detonate a few days after JFK's inauguration that would have changed literally the course of history."


Full length interview below

Above - MIRV War-heads sitting on the delivery bus

The Guardian reported on the book and quoted the author "The US government has consistently tried to withhold information from the American people in order to prevent questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy," he said. "We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here's one that very nearly did."

Having previously read the "Limits of Safety" ( ref 1 ) by Scott D Sagan, the revelations made by Eric Schlosse the author of the book "Command and Control" are of little surprise to me as are the lessons for the UK Weapon programme.

This extract from "Limits of Safety" shows the impact on safety of failures of corporate memory when "the complete disappearance of a number of B52 airborne alert accidents from Command's organisational memory" 

Various failings in the MODs corporate memory have been highlighted which suggests the problems of of institutional memory loss are still endemic and lessons of previous incidents have not been learnt. 

Extract from "Limits to Safety" relating to the UK

The incident on the nuclear submarine HMS Astute where an officer was shot dead shows the importance of human factors and suggests that lessons from the past highlighted in the book "Limits of safety" have not been learnt.

Lack of root cause analysis of the problems on HMS Astute; this is a worrying indicator of the defects within the safety and management culture of MODs' nuclear programmes

Further information

List of military nuclear accidents

UK nuclear weapon accidents 

Broken Arrow reports/incidents

Final Switch Golsboro 1961

Reference 1
"Limits of Safety" by Scott D Sagan Princeton Press ISBN 0-691-02101-5

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