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Human error in a nuclear facility nearly destroyed Arkansas

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The new documentary, Command and Control, digs into the forgotten near-miss and premieres January 10th on PBS

A Titan II missile
Command and Control

Here in the US, we like to think that our nuclear weapons exist to prevent our enemies from detonating a nuclear explosion on US soil — that is, when we think about them at all. The thing is, nuclear weapons are just machines. And like all machines, sometimes they break, and sometimes, there’s user error. When the system that controls these civilization-ending weapons isn’t prepared for the inevitable technological and human screw ups, then we’re in real trouble.

Because the consequences for a mistake are enormous. We’re reminded of that by Robert Kenner, the producer and director of Command and Control, a spectacularly gripping documentary premiering tonight at 9PM ET on the PBS series American Experience (cord-cutters can also watch it online at pbs.org and purchase it on iTunes). The film documents a series of events that almost led to a catastrophic nuclear accident in Damascus, Arkansas that would have spread radiation along the Eastern Seaboard. And it places this single accident into an alarmingly vast landscape of close-calls involving our aging nuclear infrastructure.

“For me the scariest statement in the film is [former Secretary of Defense] Harold Brown saying accidents are not unusual in the defense department, they happen every day,” Kenner told The Verge. “There are numbers and numbers of these accidents. For me, the scariest thing is that this is just one of many. But, this one had real heroes in it, and it was pretty good to see how they helped try to keep us safe, and risked their lives in doing so.”

Kenner’s documentary about human error and human bravery is based on the nonfiction book also called Command and Control by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser. The film starts in September 1980, when a 21-year-old missile technician named Dave Powell dropped the socket from a socket-wrench. Dropping a socket isn’t that unusual, but what followed was.

Powell was working on a Titan II missile fitted with a thermonuclear warhead, tucked away underground in Damascus, Arkansas. When the socket fell, it plunged 70 feet to pierce the side of the Titan II missile. The puncture released pressurized rocket fuel and set off a chaotic series of events and decisions that highlighted a chain of command ill-prepared to deal with disaster. One young man died as a result.

The film is driven by a series of moving interviews with the Air Force crew members who were on the base, as well as with the scientists, policy makers, and military higher-ups connected with the accident. Many, it’s clear, have still not recovered from that September night in 1980.


I spoke with Kenner, who previously directed the Emmy-winning documentary Food, Inc., about his experience making the film:

How did this film develop from the book?

Eric wrote a very impressive book bringing our attention to a subject that we don’t think about much. But I wasn’t sure how to change that into a film.

Command and Control

Eric and I have collaborated in the past and wanted to collaborate again, but I wasn’t sure how to do it, and it wasn’t until we got access to the last remaining Titan II missile silo [in Arizona, outside of Tucson] that it became a possibility. Both the Air Force and the people who run the silo at first agreed to let us in and then gradually became more and more and more enthusiastic about having us. [They] allowed us to put the drone in the silo, which is about four, four-and-a-half feet between the missile and the walls.

They basically opened everything up to us and allowed us to in effect create images where there were no images that night. Obviously, there were Air Force training films leading up to that night. There was footage from the exterior [from that night] that we used, and we tried to match it with the footage that we shot inside. And the fact is, the silo we shot in was absolutely identical to the silo in Damascus, because I think there were 54 silos and they were all absolutely identical so if you took a missileer from one, and put him in another, there would be no confusion whatsoever.

Was there a missile inside the silo when you were filming with the drone?

Yeah, there was a missile, there was not a warhead. And the missile did not have liquid fuel in it. Actually, the warhead had a hole taken out of the exterior of the warhead just so that the Russians could come and verify that there was nothing in it every year.

I'm surprised that the Air Force was so on board with this given that the film doesn't paint them in the best light.

This night was not the Air Force’s best night, to put it mildly. A lot of mistakes were made, but there were many heroes that night from the men that worked there. Unfortunately, many of them were reprimanded after putting their lives on the line. Many of them have since been honored since the film was shown. The fact of the matter is, these weapons are terrifying.

Many in the Air Force are the only ones thinking about them. I don't think it makes them happy to know that we as a country are not thinking about these incredibly dangerous weapons that are there to make us safer from our enemies, but also pose a threat to ourselves — as this film shows. And this is one of many, many, many incidences that have happened and that continue to happen to this day. So I think on some levels the Air Force doesn't want to be the only ones thinking about it. Today we’re talking about creating a new arms race but I think we have to know that there's as much of a danger for us as there is for anyone we might be thinking of protecting ourselves from.

I mean the timing of this release is pretty spot on. Did you predict that nuclear weapons would be on everybody's minds quite as much as they are?

What I did know is that there’s a big decision to be made whether we’re going to modernize the system or not. And I think that it’s important that more than a few people are part of this conversation. We're about to spend billions and billions of dollars, or not spend billions and billions of dollars, and I think it should be something that the American public is conscious of — aware of the dangers, and aware of the benefits. We should know what's happening — and this shouldn't be a decision that's made by very few people, because it’s far too important.

How long did this film take you to make?

It took a few years to track these people down. David Powell, the man who dropped the socket was very hesitant to come talk. When he did come talk, he just had a hard time talking about this subject. It’s obviously affected him greatly. And I asked Dave to come back. He had shaved his mustache, but I told him I'd wait for his mustache to come back. And then, he talked about how this has affected him every day. Dave had not told his mother about this incident, which is over 30 years old, until he took her to see a screening of the film. So, these things were buried in a lot of these guys’ minds. And as I say, I think there were some real heroes out there that night, men that were never really honored who are now hopefully beginning to get that recognition that they deserve. So, it took us a few years to make it.

Was there ever a point where you were making it and you were like, if we don't get this one lynchpin, this whole thing is going to fall apart? And what was the lynchpin?

Getting the silo. If I didn’t get the silo I don’t think I could have made the film. But once I went to scout the silo, turned out, they still had all the [safety] suits and everything there. We actually started to shoot during our scout and I was thinking this is amazing, these images are extraordinary. This would cost millions of dollars to do as a Hollywood thriller. And we set out to make this a thriller, and I think, hopefully we succeeded. It just happens to be a real life story, which is kind of scary. But in a weird way I was looking to make an entertaining, non-stop thriller. A techno-thriller, I should say.

A techno-thriller?

Yeah, where things just don’t work right. And the problem here is that the consequences are immeasurable.

Were there any reactions to the film that surprised you?

We’ve been invited into the halls of power to screen this film, I think that's been a big surprise. The woman who was the assistant undersecretary of the Air Force at that time wanted to publicly apologize to the men. Numbers of secretaries of defense have gone up to the men to offer their support. But I was surprised at the level of interest in military circles to discuss these issues. Having made Food, Inc., there was a lot of blow back, that has not been the case with this film whatsoever.

Why do you think that is?

I think the people who are in charge of these weapons are concerned by them. And no one is thinking about them and as former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown said, on the one hand these weapons are safer today. On the other hand, we pay far less attention to them, so it’s made them more dangerous.

I think this is a story about human error, that human beings make mistakes, and that we’ve built this incredible technology, but it’s still dependent on us. But we do make mistakes and the consequences are so large.


An exclusive clip from the documentary “Command and Control”