COOPERSTOWN, NORTH DAKOTA - When the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, it marked the beginning of the age of nuclear weapons. Although the development and deployment of these weapons peaked during the Cold War, large arsenals still exist in the United States and Russia - and are on a a heightened state of alert. Recent scandals involving those responsible for handling nuclear weapons in the U.S. military have renewed debate about the risk, and the need, for such weapons.
Below the surface of the Oscar Zero launch facility outside Cooperstown, North Dakota, the fate of millions hinged on a simple decision to turn a nuclear missile launch key.
Once that key activated a nuclear tipped Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM, there would have been no turning back - and no limit to the death and destruction it would cause.
“The people that had these jobs, these missileers, took their jobs very seriously," said Gwen Hinman.
Hinman is the site supervisor at the Oscar Zero complex, now a kind of Cold War museum. Decommissioned in 1998 in compliance with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty 2, or START 2, Hinman says this facility gives visitors a unique look into the lives of those who served and continue to serve in some of the most isolated conditions.
“This bank of machinery behind me is something that is still currently being used," he said.
Used in an operational facility just a few hundred kilometers away, says Hinman. Lax security in such facilities in other states, a cheating scandal among some currently serving as missileers, and an overall lack of mission focus since the end of the Cold War has drawn attention to an almost forgotten part of the U.S. military.
“These are complex systems, and they are run by humans who make errors," said Kennette Benedict.
Benedict is the executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a publication established by those who created the first atomic bomb in the 1940s as a way to warn the public about the consequences of using nuclear weapons.
The Bulletin also manages the Doomsday Clock, a graphic representation of how close the world is to a nuclear catastrophe. The closer the clock gets to midnight, the greater the danger. The clock currently stands at five minutes to midnight, not solely because of the danger of war says Benedict, but by the danger posed by mishandling a nuclear weapon.
“Over the course of these last 60 or 70 years, at least in our arsenal, there have been more than 1200 accidents," she said.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force removed 50 nuclear missiles from their silos, bringing the total number of launch ready land-based ICBM’s to about 400, the lowest level since the Cold War. Benedict says there should be a stand down of all the missiles.
“The thing we’ve been asking this president and many presidents to do is to just take them off of a high launch readiness. There’s no reason that these weapons need to be ready to be launched within 10 minutes of an order. Nobody does this except for the United States and Russia," she said.
The current agreement between the United States and Russia limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear missiles to 700 for each country.