Chilling PBS Doc Recounts The Nuclear Accident That Nearly Destroyed Arkansas

The Oscar-shortlisted documentary asks how to manage weapons of mass destruction without being destroyed by them.

Chilling PBS Doc Recounts The Nuclear Accident That Nearly Destroyed Arkansas
Command and Control is the long-hidden story of a deadly 1980 accident at a Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas. Portions of the film were shot in an abandoned Titan II missile silo in Arizona. [Photo: courtesy of WGBH, PBS]

WHAT: Command and Control—shortlisted for the Academy Awards documentary category—premieres on PBS’s American Experience January 10. (check local listings)


WHO: Oscar-nominated, Emmy-Winning documentary filmmaker Robert Kenner; based on the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book of the same by Eric Schlosser, who serves as producer and co-writer with Kenner.

WHY WE CARE: In 1980, a mismanaged Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas nearly exploded a missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead built by the United States—600 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. A wrench socket fell 70 feet and punctured the missile, unleashing a stream of explosive rocket fuel into the silo. Naturally, there were no contingency plans to deal with such an event. For the next eight hours, Strategic Air Command leadership frantically struggled to regain control of the thermonuclear warhead.

The film uses recently declassified documents, reenactments, and interviews with Air Force personnel, weapon designers, and first responders to piece together the chain of events that caused the accident and the feverish efforts to prevent destroying much of Arkansas (at the time, governed by Bill Clinton) and radioactive fallout across the East Coast.

Photo of the three crews preparing to compete in the Strategic AIr Comman’s Olympic Arena contest for the most competent missile wings crew. It includes Allan Childers (second from end on right), who was deputy commander of the Titan II missile crew, and fellow crew member Rodney Holder (second from left).[Photo: courtesy of USAF]

“The story of the Damascus accident is one that nobody really knows, and I’m not sure anybody’s supposed to know,” said American Experience executive producer Mark Samels. “As safe, secure, well-designed, and well-operated as our nuclear weapons system may be, it’s subject to the X-factor—human fallibility. The most powerful weapons that we’ve ever created have a threat built into them. And that threat is us.”

The U.S. has 7,000 nuclear weapons. “After an accident, everyone will be asking why we didn’t do something,” says Kenner. “We need to be asking these questions before it’s too late.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.