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Human error in a nuclear facility nearly destroyed Arkansas via The Verge

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

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 9:00PM ET on the PBS series American Experience (cord cutters can also watch it online at 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.


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.


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.

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