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The nuclear missile next door

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Eli Saslow reports in the Washington Post on what it’s like to live with a bomb stronger than 20 Hiroshimas in a time of rising worldwide tensions. (Gift link, no paywall)

WINIFRED, Montana — Ed Butcher, 78, tied up his horse, kicked mud off his cowboy boots and walked into his house for dinner. He’d been working on the ranch for most of the day, miles away from cellphone range. “What did I miss?” he asked his wife, Pam, as he turned their TV to cable news. “What part of the world is falling apart today?”

“Russia’s aggression has gone from scary to terrifying,” the TV commentator said, as Pam took their dinner out of the oven.

“We’re talking about a war that involves a very unstable nuclear power,” the commentator said, as they bent their heads over the venison casserole to say a prayer.

“This could escalate,” the commentator said. “It could explode beyond our wildest imaginations.”

Ed turned the TV off and looked out the window at miles of open prairie, where the wind rattled against their barn and blew dust clouds across Butcher Road. Ed’s family had been on this land since his grandparents homesteaded here in 1913, but rarely had life on the ranch felt so precarious. Their land was parched by record-breaking drought, neglected by a pandemic work shortage, scarred by recent wildfires, and now also connected in its own unique way to a war across the world. “I wonder sometimes what else could go wrong,” Ed said, as he looked over a hill toward the west end of their ranch, where an active U.S. government nuclear missile was buried just beneath the cow pasture.

“Do you think they’ll ever shoot it up into the sky?” Pam asked.

“I used to say, ‘No way,’ ” Ed said. “Now it’s more like, ‘Please God, don’t let us be here to see it.’ ”

The missile was called a Minuteman III, and the launch site had been on their property since the Cold War, when the Air Force paid $150 for one acre of their land as it installed an arsenal of nuclear weapons across the rural West. About 400 of those missiles remain active and ready to launch at a few seconds notice in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska. They are located on bison preserves and Indian reservations. They sit across from a national forest, behind a rodeo grandstand, down the road from a one-room schoolhouse, and on dozens of private farms like the one belonging to the Butchers, who have lived for 60 years with a nuclear missile as their closest neighbor.

It’s buried behind a chain-link fence and beneath a 110-ton door of concrete and steel. It’s 60 feet long. It weighs 79,432 pounds. It has an explosive power at least 20 times greater than the atomic bomb that killed 140,000 people in Hiroshima. An Air Force team is stationed in an underground bunker a few miles away, ready to fire the missile at any moment if the order comes. It would tear out of the silo in about 3.4 seconds and climb above the ranch at 10,000 feet per second. It was designed to rise 70 miles above Earth, fly across the world in 25 minutes and detonate within a few hundred yards of its target. The ensuing fireball would vaporize every person and every structure within a half-mile. The blast would flatten buildings across a five-mile radius. Secondary fires and fatal doses of radiation would spread over dozens more miles, resulting in what U.S. military experts have referred to as “total nuclear annihilation.”

“I bet it would fly right over our living room,” Ed said. “I wonder if we’d even see it.”

“We’d hear it. We’d feel it,” Pam said. “The whole house would be shaking.”

“And if we’re shooting off missiles, you can bet some are headed back toward us,” Ed said.

Over the years, they’d reckoned with every conceivable threat to their land. Drought killed . . .

Continue reading. (Gift link, no paywall)

Written by Leisureguy

18 April 2022 at 2:54 pm

Posted in Daily life, Military, War

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