SCARBOROUGH — A recent story in the Maine Sunday Telegram (“Report: Former nuclear leader possibly made counterfeit poker chips,” Nov. 23) paints a frightening picture of unreliability rampant in the ranks of those who manage the U.S. nuclear force, the most powerful and dangerous arsenal ever devised. Addiction, morale problems, safety lapses and other disciplinary problems exemplify the human weaknesses that could someday contribute to a disastrous accident.

Another aspect of this unsettling situation was not mentioned in the story: It is the long and well-documented history of so-called “broken arrows” (the military’s euphemistic term for a series of near-miss nuclear accidents that have been occurring every few years since the 1950s).

The 2013 book “Command and Control,” Eric Schlosser’s scholarly and comprehensive history of the evolution of nuclear weapons dating from the Manhattan Project to the present, describes many such alarming mishaps:

Fiery crashes of Strategic Air Command B-52s carrying nuclear bombs.

 Accidental drops of combat-ready weapons from their bomb bays in locations from South Carolina to Morocco.

 Instances of nuclear weapons sitting unguarded in aircraft or storage silos in both NATO nations and the U.S.

It gets even more chilling. At tense times during the Cold War, all-out nuclear exchanges between the U.S. and Russia were narrowly averted when early warning radar arrays detected a flock of geese, unusual weather patterns or, on one occasion, a peacetime test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

In the precarious moments, when mistaken for an enemy’s nuclear “first strike,” any one of these false alarms could have triggered a massive retaliatory launch by one superpower or the other.

A central drama in Schlosser’s book is the 1980 accident involving a Titan II ICBM in a silo near rural Damascus, Arkansas. During routine maintenance, an airman dropped a socket, which bounced from the bottom of the silo and created a small rupture in the skin of the missile’s fuel tank.

Toxic vapor began leaking, resulting in a relentless cascade of further events, including a fire and, ultimately, a spectacular series of explosions that blew off the 740-ton concrete silo door, actually catapulted the second stage of the missile several hundred yards from the silo and left its W-53 warhead lying in a nearby ditch.

Had the missile detonated, a thermonuclear explosion thousands of times the force of the Hiroshima bomb would have destroyed much of Arkansas, instantly killed or sickened hundreds of thousands of its residents and rendered an enormous area of the state uninhabitable.

Mismanagement and communication problems were rampant during the incident, which did claim the life of one airman at the scene and severely injured several others heroically attempting to try control the fires, explosions and toxic vapor releases at the Titan missile site.

As the author points out, by remarkable good luck or the grace of God, none of the many accidents involving these weapons have yet resulted in a full-scale nuclear explosion, although in some cases the shaped high-explosive charges surrounding the uranium or plutonium cores have detonated, causing loss of life and property.

We have known since the 1960s that a full-scale nuclear war could devastate the planet, with dramatic climate change leading to famine among survivors. More recent models have warned that even a relatively small conflict on the other side of the planet – for example, involving Pakistan’s and India’s 100 known weapons – would put enough smoke, dust and debris into the atmosphere to create a “nuclear winter” as described by Carl Sagan.

As many military and world leaders have long recognized, prevention of nuclear war is essential. More than 150 nations, only recently including the U.S., have called for a treaty to abolish all use of nuclear weapons on humanitarian grounds.

To add your voice to this rapidly expanding world consensus, sign an online petition at and write to Sens. Susan Collins (www.collins. and Angus King (, asking them to support a reduction in U.S. funding for the modernization of nuclear weapons and the fulfillment of the U.S. commitment to nuclear disarmament under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968.