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Command and Control

Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

By Eric Schlosser
19-minute read
Audio available
Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser

Command and Control (2013) uncovers the disturbing truth behind the troubled and accident-prone US nuclear weapons program. Find out what’s really been going on since World War II, when the first nuclear bomb was invented, and how lucky we are to still be here despite numerous accidents and close calls that could have kicked off Armageddon. If you think the stockpile of nuclear weapons in the United States has always been safely stored under lock and key – think again!

  • Readers interested in nuclear threats past and present
  • History buffs
  • Anti-nuke advocates

Eric Schlosser, an investigative journalist, is the best-selling author of Fast Food Nation. His work has also appeared in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and the Atlantic, among other publications.

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Command and Control

Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

By Eric Schlosser
  • Read in 19 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 12 key ideas
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Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser
Synopsis

Command and Control (2013) uncovers the disturbing truth behind the troubled and accident-prone US nuclear weapons program. Find out what’s really been going on since World War II, when the first nuclear bomb was invented, and how lucky we are to still be here despite numerous accidents and close calls that could have kicked off Armageddon. If you think the stockpile of nuclear weapons in the United States has always been safely stored under lock and key – think again!

Key idea 1 of 12

A nuclear bomb contains a mix of high explosives which trigger a devastating chain reaction.

On July 12, 1945, in a small New Mexico farmhouse, a plutonium core was placed inside the first nuclear bomb.

This event was the culmination of approximately three years of work conducted by the team behind the Manhattan Project – a group of British, US and Canadian physicists who were put together as an allied response to the German physicists who were busy creating their own super bomb.

The bomb about to be tested in New Mexico housed a plutonium core surrounded by a series of high explosives, each of which pointed inward toward the core. When the explosives detonated, they would all fire at precisely the same instant, thus imploding the core and causing a chain-reaction explosion the likes of which had never before been seen.

After years of intense research, the scientists had eventually discovered that there were two materials that could cause this kind of explosion: uranium-235 and plutonium-239.

Nuclear bombs rely on fission – when atoms split and release energy. Both uranium-235 and plutonium-239 have a high proton count, making it easier to start a fission reaction. The idea was to split the atoms in the bomb’s core, releasing a massive amount of energy – and causing an unprecedented explosion.

When fission happens under strictly controlled circumstances, such as in a nuclear power plant, the produced energy can be used to fuel electrical generators.

However, on July 17, 1945, during the first bomb test, no one was exactly sure what was going to happen.

They knew the detonation had to trigger all the explosives at exactly the same time if the reaction was to be successful, so the scientist Donald Horning came up with the X-Unit. This was an electronic triggering device that would simultaneously set off all 32 explosives in the bomb. These explosives completely surrounded the core in the shape of 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons; it looked like a big soccer ball.

Horning’s triggering device worked perfectly, and the first test produced a mushroom cloud that bloomed eight miles into the sky. The sight, along with the accompanying roar, caused at least one technician to think that this must be what doomsday would look like.

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