Nuclear accidents are terrifying.
The documentary “Command and Control” exposes the truth about the management of America’s nuclear arsenal and shows what can happen when the weapons built to protect Americans threaten to destroy.
The film will air at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 10. on KNME, Channel 5.1, as part of the “American Experience” series.
“Command and Control” also features former Sandia National Laboratories employee Bob Peurifoy.
Peurifoy was an engineer who joined the nuclear weapons lab in 1952 and subsequently became its leading advocate for nuclear weapon safety.
“I had the privilege of working difficult times with improvements to weapons safety,” he says. “I’m proud of what we’ve done, and the (nuclear) stockpile is considerably safer right now than it was a bunch of years ago.”
During his time there, Peurifoy was immersed in nuclear weapon design.
“When I joined Sandia, things were entirely different,” he says. “The Cold War was just starting, and we were concerned, properly so, that the Soviets might provoke, cause or start a war.”
Peurifoy says Sandia was a spinoff from Los Alamos.
“We were an engineering laboratory,” he says. “We designed things, and we didn’t invent. Los Alamos did that. We were a team, and our purpose was deterrence. The world had changed with the invention of the atom bomb.”
The film recounts, in chilling, minute-by-minute detail, the story of a deadly 1980 accident at a Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Ark.
Through the first-person accounts of Air Force personnel, weapon designers and first responders who were on the scene, the film reveals the unlikely chain of events that caused the accident and the feverish efforts to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States – 600 times more powerful than the bomb that devastated Hiroshima.
On the evening of Sept. 18, 1980, Airmen David F. Powell and Jeffrey L. Plumb were performing routine maintenance at the Titan II silo near Damascus, Ark. At the age of 21, Powell was considered a highly experienced missile technician; Plumb, who had just turned 19, was still in training.
As the two stood on a platform near the top of the Titan II, a socket fell from Powell’s wrench, plummeted 70 feet and, shockingly, punctured the missile. A stream of highly explosive rocket fuel began pouring into the silo.
“The story of the Damascus accident is one that nobody really knows, and in fact, I’m not sure anybody’s supposed to know,” says Mark Samels, producer of “Command and Control” and executive producer of “American Experience.” “As safe and secure and as well-designed and well-operated as our nuclear weapons system may be, it’s subject to the X factor. And the X factor is human fallibility. The most powerful weapons that we’ve ever created as human beings have a threat built into them. And that threat is us.”
The film is directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Robert Kenner and based on the critically acclaimed book of the same title by Eric Schlosser.
“Today, the U.S. still has approximately 7,000 nuclear weapons. ‘Command and Control’ teaches us that these weapons not only pose a threat to our enemies, but also to ourselves,” Kenner says. “After an accident, everyone will be asking why we didn’t do something. We need to be asking these questions before it’s too late.”