A little over 50 years ago a South Carolina doctor (and the grandfather of this reviewer) treated a family for injuries sustained when a sudden, inexplicable explosion tore through their backyard. The injuries were not serious, and after spending the night at the doctor’s house they returned home to discover that the object in the 50-foot crater left behind their house was an atomic bomb that had fallen from a passing Air Force plane. The bomb had not been “armed” with its nuclear core; the blast came from the explosives intended to trigger a chain reaction. The crater can still be seen today.
That incident, which led to an anti-nuclear movement in Britain, where the plane was bound, is one of many stories Eric Schlosser, the author of “Fast Food Nation,” tells in “Command and Control.” During the cold war, nuclear bombs fell out of the sky, burned up in plane crashes and were lost at sea. In the incident Schlosser describes in greatest detail, “the Damascus accident” of Sept. 18, 1980, the warhead from a Titan II missile was ejected after a series of mishaps that began when a repairman dropped a socket wrench and pierced a fuel tank. Tactical nuclear weapons scattered across Europe had minimal security; misplaced tools and failed repairs triggered serious accidents; inadequate safety procedures and poor oversight led to dozens of close brushes with nuclear explosions. People have died in these accidents, sometimes as a result of their own carelessness or bad luck, but often while doing their best to protect the rest of us from an accidental nuclear blast.