Newly Released Sandia Labs Film Presents Story of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Safety Effort

Los Alamos Scientist Once Advised a U.S. Sentry to Shoot at and Disable Nukes on West German Aircraft if There Was a Danger of Unauthorized Use

Concern About Nuclear Accidents Persisted After The Cold War

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 498

Posted -December 23, 2014

Edited by William Burr

For more information contact:
202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu


Depiction of the SAC B-52 nuclear accident at Thule, Greenland, 21 January 1968 (Excerpt from Part II, chapter "A Catalyst for Change")

Washington, D.C., December 23, 2014 – A recently released Sandia Labs film contains fascinating glimpses into the U.S. government's efforts to maintain nuclear weapons safety over the years, including a late 1960 episode in which a senior Los Alamos Laboratory staffer advised a U.S. soldier in West Germany to take shots with his gun at nuclear bombs on German fighter-bombers if he ever became concerned about the possibility of their misguided or accidental use.

This startling recollection appears in Always/Never: The Quest for Safety, Control and Survivability, a documentary film completed in 2010 and recently released under the Freedom of Information Act, which the National Security Archive is presenting today in its entirety for the first time.

Produced and directed by Sandia staffer Dan Curry, Always/Never melds historical motion picture footage, still photos, interviews, movie excerpts, computer animation, and even some well-timed clips from Stanley Kubrick's classic Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Always/Never

In late 1960, when members of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy were visiting U.S. nuclear weapons storage sites in Western European NATO countries, they were accompanied by Harold Agnew, a senior staffer with Los Alamos Laboratory. According to Agnew's recollection years later, they stopped at an airbase where he noticed that German fighter-bombers were armed with nuclear weapons and that the German pilots had virtual control over them under nuclear sharing arrangements with the United States. Concerned about the possibility of misguided or accidental nuclear use, Agnew spoke to a young U.S. soldier who had responsibility for guarding the weapons and asked him what he would do if the German pilots came "running out and they're gonna take off and no one has told you that it's all right." The sentry was uncertain, so Agnew advised him to disable the weapons with his gun: "shoot at those things and don't worry about it." This startling recollection appears in Always/Never: The Quest for Safety, Control and Survivability, a documentary film recently released under the Freedom of Information Act, which the National Security Archive is presenting today for the first time.[1]

Material used in the 1974 Sandia "burned board briefings" to illustrate vulnerabilities of nuclear weapons and their component parts.

Unauthorized use was one problem but the danger of nuclear accidents was just as challenging. Always/Never recounts the story of a nuclear weapons stockpile study in the early 1970s by Sandia scientists Glenn Fowler and Robert Peurifoy who presented their findings about risks in a briefing that included a display of circuit boards that had been burned in nuclear weapons incidents. Thus the presentation was known as the "burned board briefing." One topic was the risk that heat and fire could arm a weapon by setting off its high voltage thermal battery; in this connection, the scientists' greatest concerns was the safety of Strategic Air Command weapons carried in bombers on constant runway alert. According to William Stevens, a former Sandia scientist, Peurifoy's briefing met with antagonism from military officials who believed there was "enough safety." Indeed, "people were indignant that the labs would blow the whistles on themselves." Thus, it took some years before the "burned board briefing" had an impact on actual deployments.

Completed in 2010 by Sandia National Laboratories, Always/Never is a 143-minute film that recounts the U.S. government's complex and sometimes chequered efforts to produce a safety regime for the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. The title conveys the goal of the safety effort, which was that U.S. nuclear weapons should always work and be available for use, but would never be detonated unlawfully, negligently, or accidentally.

Produced and directed by Sandia staffer Dan Curry (who produced an earlier Sandia documentary, U.S. Strategic Nuclear Policy), Always/Never melds historical motion picture footage, still photos, interviews, movie excerpts, computer animation, and even some well-timed clips from Stanley Kubrick's classic Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The large group of interviewees includes a broad range of retired and current Sandia employees with long-term roles in safety and weapons design issues, and academic experts ranging from Scott Sagan and David Holloway to John Steinbruner and Janne Nolan. Moreover, Sandia interviewed former senior military officers and government officials, including secretaries of defense Robert McNamara and James Schlesinger, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and Los Alamos Laboratory Director Harold Agnew. Moreover, among the interviewees are internal critics such as Robert Peurifoy who raised important, troubling questions during his years at Sandia. The story unfolds topically and chronologically, with the narration covering the period from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War and beyond (although substantial coverage ends in the late 1980s). Among the topics covered in this wide ranging history are:

  • The relatively primitive safety features on Little Boy and Fat Man (1945), used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945
  • U.S. decisions to assign tactical nuclear weapons to NATO countries
  • The invention of sealed-pit nuclear weapons and their role in mitigating and aggravating the safety problem
  • Recurring disagreements between (and within) the military and civilian officials, from policymakers to scientists, about the importance of safety
  • The concern about unauthorized or accidental use of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe that motivated the Kennedy administration to order the use of safety controls (Permissive Action Links/PALs) on them
  • Significant nuclear bomber accidents during the 1960s, including Goldsboro, NC (1961), Palamores, Spain (1966), and Thule, Greenland (1968)
  • Major studies during the 1970s that demonstrated continuing safety risks in the nuclear stockpile
  • The debate during the 1980s over whether the Trident II warhead should include "insensitive high explosives" to reduce dangers of an accidental detonation

Always/Never is a smoothly presented, highly sophisticated public relations effort allowing Sandia Laboratories to show off its significant institutional contribution to the cause of nuclear safety. But Always/Never is more — and generally better — than a promotional history of a government organization: rich in content, it puts the history of nuclear safety work squarely in the context of national policy, bureaucratic politics, the vagaries of external events, and complications posed by accidents waiting to happen. For example, the role of White House decisions in the making of safety policy is highlighted with visuals of documents, and White House attention to the nuclear problem comes across with seldom-seen footage of President John F. Kennedy's visit (along with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson) to SAC Headquarters in December 1962. On the whole, the documentary is highly accessible, although at a few points some viewers may wish they knew something about electrical engineering.

Always/Never has no classification markings and the writer/producer stayed carefully away from topics that he and others at Sandia believed were security classified. Thus, in the discussion of NATO issues, the European and other countries where the United States stored nuclear weapons are not identified (most of the country locations remain classified). This put limitations on which nuclear accidents could be discussed; for example, that a 1958 accident took place in Morocco (then a French colony) remains officially classified.[2] The incident that Harold Agnew discusses was plainly in West Germany (he said that the planes had Iron Crosses on them) although he did not specifically identify that country. (In any event, West Germany's role in U.S. nuclear deployments during the Cold War has been declassified since the 1990s) It is likely that secrecy policy had an impact throughout the presentation, forcing the producers to leave out some aspects of the history in order to protect, for example, officially classified information about weapons locations and design.

Comments

Even with the fine production values and the fascinating content, some caveats are in order. Always/Never sometimes glosses over or sanitizes elements of the story that some find troubling.[3] For example, the portrait of SAC Commander-in-Chief General Curtis LeMay is cleaned up. The LeMay who favored a first strike (preemption) in a serious confrontation is missing; what we hear about is the general who wanted to be able to retaliate to a "bolt from the blue" if the civilian leadership was out of commission.[4] Also absent from Always/Never are the problems of ICBM safety and launch control. The controversial launch-on-warning policy is passed over as is the general problem of nuclear delivery system safety, exemplified by the Damascus, Arkansas, 1980 Titan II accident that is central to Eric Schlosser's highly acclaimed book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety.

Perhaps with the idea of getting at the problem of ICBM control, the producer interviewed Bruce Blair, a former Minuteman launch control officer. Yet, according to Blair's account, most of the information he provided ended up on the cutting room floor. Blair appears briefly in the documentary, but some of his key examples are missing, such as SAC's "heavy reliance on launch on warning, the lack of locking codes on Minuteman missiles until 1977, and the extensive pre-delegation of presidential launch authority throughout the Cold War," as he noted in an e-mail to this writer.[5] Blair has also cited other examples, including the problem and plausibility of "numerous unauthorized launch scenarios, including the fact that two Minuteman crew members could have formatted a complete valid and authentic launch order that could have been disseminated to the entire strategic missile forces."[6] Despite the emphasis on a balance between "always" and "never," as Blair has pointed out, during many of the decades of the Cold War and since, nuclear command and control of the most destructive elements of the nuclear force has leaned "much more strongly toward always."

Another point is that the reaction to Robert Peurifoy's "burned board briefing" is somewhat sanitized. Several of Eric Schlosser's sources recalled that senior Pentagon official Donald R. Cotter, an ex-Sandian, had an antagonistic reaction — "It's our stockpile. We think it's safe." — but the film's narrator says only that Cotter found the briefing "sobering." Moreover, some Sandia officials were unhappy with the "laissez-faire" conclusions of the stockpile review that Cotter commissioned, yet Always/Never glosses this over, even suggesting that Sandia officials were pleased with the review process.[7]

Always/Never's account also elides some of the controversies in the debate over the W-88 warhead, designed for the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile. During the 1980s, weapons designers and safety experts argued that the warhead should include Insensitive High Explosives (IHE) to minimize the risk that an accident could scatter about deadly plutonium or even detonate the warhead. As Always/Never does not make entirely clear, the Navy overruled the safety experts because IHE would increase the warhead's weight which would either decrease the missile's range or decrease the number of warheads per missile. Always/Never shows how the Navy reviewed its safety procedures to compensate for any added risk but does not mention that some experts believed that dangers remained.[8]

It is worth noting that Always/Never presents a mixed message; one chapter has the title "Accidents Will Happen," but the film's conclusion is more geared to the public relations mission: a tribute to the nuclear safety effort and its "proud legacy." Even though Always/Never sometimes sanitizes or glosses over some difficult issues, Sandia deserves credit for tackling a complex and scary problem.


The Department of Energy sent the National Security Archive "Always/Never" in DVD format on 3 separate disks. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult, because of complex coding issues, to reproduce the features of the DVD, especially the interactive menus. For example, menus for each part include chapter breakdowns allowing chapters to be played separately but the Archive has found it unfeasible, so far, to reproduce that arrangement. Other menu features include biographies of the of interview subjects, time-lines for each of the three parts, audio options, and production photos. As an aid to the viewer, here follows a chapter list for each of the three parts.

PART 1:
Introduction
A Nuclearized NATO 2:17
Nuclear Sharing 8:08
A Confluence of Conditions 16:34
Separating Use from Possession 25:35
Use Control Evolves 35:27
The Always/Never Problem 46:06

PART 2:
Early Nuclear Safety
The Wooden Bomb 10:45
A Catalyst for Change 21:14
Modern Nuclear Detonation Safety 31:33
Accidents Will Happen 41:35

PART 3:
Ensuring Always
Survivability of the US Deterrent 13:15
The Nexus of Always/Never 21:40
Close & Credits 28:10

 

Part 1: Always Never
Part 2: Early Nuclear Safety
Part 3: Ensuring Always
Always Never, The Quest for Safety, Control, and Survivability
Early Nuclear Safety
Ensuring Always

EXTRAS

A Nuclearized NATO - Extended version
Robert Wertheim
James Schlesinger
US Strategic Nuclear Policy Trailer
A Nuclearized Nato
Robert Wertheim
James Schlesinger
US Strategic Nuclear Policy

BIOS

 


NOTES

[1] In association with the publication of Eric Schlosser's Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety (New York: Penguin, 2013), a few clips of the video became available earlier in 2014 at the Web site of the New Yorker, and on YouTube

[2] It is possible that the producer/writer did not know about this accident because in the discussion of the 1966 B-52 accident at Palomares, Spain, the narrator says that it was "the first accident on foreign soil."

[3] Greatly facilitating an assessment of Always/Never is the 2013 publication of Eric Schlosser's Command and Control, which covers many of the same issues and episodes and even drew on some of the same sources (for example, Robert Peurifoy provided significant information to both projects).

[4] For Lemay's first strike/preemptive approach, see Schlosser, Command and Control, 131, and L. Douglas Keeney, 15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear War (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011), 67.

[5] The documentary does mention President Eisenhower's initial predelegation instructions in 1959, but provides no follow-up.

[6] E-mail from Bruce Blair, 20 October 2014.

[7] For Cotter's reaction, see Schlosser, Command and Control, at 370. Compare the presentation at the end of the chapter "Accidents Will Happen" with the Sandia history, A Review of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Safety Program - 1945 to 1986.

[8] R. Jeffrey Smith, "Trident's Mix of Propellants with Warheads Raises Safety Questions," Washington Post, 29 May 1990; Schlosser, Command and Control, 470-471.