Saturday, October 05, 2013

A Hard Six

The story was published by the AP, and was picked up by The Washington Post, online at Slate, and even made an appearance in The Times of India. Still, for all its distribution it really didn't get a lot of play, and that's not surprising. After all, there was a terrorist attack in Kenya, and the opening session of the UN. Both Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte were making their almost-final appearances in the Bronx, and it was Emmy weekend. To top it off, the events in question didn't take place yesterday or even last week, but more than 50 years ago. So when The Guardian newspaper in Britain published some declassified pages about a long-ago nuclear mishap as detailed in Jonathan Schlosser's new book "Command and Control," it's hardly surprising that it barely made a ripple.

But it was almost the end of everything.

Well, that's not technically true. It would have been the end for millions of people who lived anywhere near Goldsboro, North Carolina, not to mention those who would have been in the radiation plume that drifted north and east towards Washington, Philadelphia and New York. For the incident in question was the almost accidental detonation of a thermonuclear device over US soil, a friendly fire incident that would have rewritten history.

Seems that in January of 1961, a B52 carrying two MK39 Mod 2 hydrogen bombs had a fuel leak, and broke up in midair. As it did, the two devices were thrown clear, effectively "dropped" as if they were being used. One stayed inert, and plummeted to the ground. The other, however, sensed the conditions that it was supposed to sense in actual use, deployed a parachute and started to go into its detonation cycle.

Even at that, setting off a nuclear bomb is a lot more complicated than what Wile E. Coyote does with his Acme munitions. One does not just light a big fat fuse, which burns down and goes "BOOM!"  Rather, in the case of the MK39 Mod 2, in order for it to explode, a series of 4 triggers have to activate. Each is designed to be fail safe; that is, without a positive signal to the contrary, they are not supposed to work. But in this particular case, one mechanism didn't work in the air, and two others were rendered ineffective when the plane broke up.

So if you do the math that means we were already 75% of the way towards catastrophe. That would seem scary enough, but it gets worse. It turns out that the one switch that was still operational was a low voltage trigger, and had been tested for failure rates. As the monologist Mike Daisey explains, the tests showed that it actually remained intact at a rate close to 17%; that is, in tests it didn't fail just 17% of the time. As Daisey recounts, he played a lot of "Dungeons and Dragons" as a young man. And when you play that game, you roll a lot of dice, and so you learn to equate percentages to the roll of a six-sided die. And that 17% is about the odds of rolling a six. He puts it this way: "In order to get the world you live in right now, we had to roll a hard six. Right then. No warning. Just right then, there had to be a six. If there was a one, a two, a three, a four or a five, all this - all this - is gone."

Try it yourself. Go to the cupboard or the closet or the shelf in the basement where you stash the kids' games, and rummage through the boxes until you find a single die. Take it up to your kitchen table and cradle it in your palm. Look around at all that is your world: the little plate you bought at that crafts fair, the picture of your family from last Christmas, the drawing your daughter did in first grade. Then roll the die on the table. If it comes up six, then good for you. But it comes up anything else - anything else – all of that might not be. And after you've considered that, go find your wife, your kids or your significant other, and hug them. Because it's likely that someone somewhere else is rolling the dice again tomorrow. And they might not get that hard six.


Marc Wollin of Bedford looks forward, sort of, to reading "Command and Control." His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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