Twelve terrifying tales from the nuclear crypt.
- By Jeffrey LewisJeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
October is a scary month. And it’s not just Halloween. October also happens to be the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And if the ghosts and goblins don’t make you wet your pants, the thought of Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Castro dancing on the edge of nuclear war should.
During the Cold War, the United States twice more raised the alert status of its nuclear forces — in October 1969 and October 1973. And one of the worst reactor accidents at a military program — the fire at Britain’s Windscale reactor — also happened in October.
You might start to think there is something particularly dangerous about October. But the reality is that there have been so many accidents, false alarms, and other mishaps involving nuclear weapons that you haven’t heard about — and every month contains at least one seriously scary incident. The Department of Defense has released narrative summaries for 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980, many of which involve aircraft bearing bombs. False alarms? Please. The Department of Defense admitted 1,152 “moderately serious” false alarms between 1977 and 1984 — roughly three a week. (I love the phrase “moderately serious.” I wonder how many “seriously serious” false alarms they had?) I kind of get the feeling that if NORAD went more than a week without a serious false alarm, they would start to wonder if the computers were ok.
The hard part was choosing the most frightening moments. There is no reason to believe the apocryphal story about the British Army choosing red uniforms because they do not show blood. But after 60-odd years of nuclear accidents, incidents, and whatnot, I can recommend that the STRATCOM commander consider brown pants.
So, here’s my list of 12 seriously scary events, one for each month. This list is not comprehensive, nor is it intended to be the worst events. And yes, it’s written with a dark sense of humor, but you’d have to be very jocose not to ask some serious questions.
How responsible are the people who make decisions about our nuclear weapons? Have they been good stewards both of the weapons themselves and our trust? Why don’t we discuss these accidents and mishaps more? Is it because taking seriously the danger that nuclear weapons pose to humanity is uncomfortably akin to activism of the nuclear freeze? Are human beings, fallible as we are, just too imperfect to rely on something as destructive as nuclear weapons to keep the peace? (A lot depends on how you view what Scott Sagan, our foremost scholar of nuclear accidents, labels “close calls.”) Are we to be comforted by the fact that, for all the hair-raising moments, we’ve somehow made it through intact? Or should we be frightened by how little stood between us and catastrophe?
These are scary questions, perhaps a bit too frightening for even Halloween. I know, I know, all you want is some candy or maybe to see one of your coworkers in a skimpy nurse outfit. So, without further ado:
November: This is a fun one to get us started: Two of my favorites are the training tape incident and the Belknap fire. The training tape incident occurred on November 9, 1979, when some genius at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) played a training tape showing a massive Soviet attack, lighting up the proverbial “Big Board” — which, sadly, only exists in movies. NORAD issued warnings that went out to the entire intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force and put the president’s airborne command post in the air (without the president). After the event hit the press, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev sent a note to Carter stating “I think you will agree with me that there should be no errors in such matters.” Ah, Brezhnev, the voice of reason.) The USS Belknap incident was also pretty terrifying: a U.S. Navy cruiser in 1975 collided with an aircraft carrier and caught fire, nearly engulfing the stockpile of nuclear weapons on board.
But neither incident is as terrifying as Able Archer, a 1983 NATO command post exercise that the Soviet leadership believed might be cover for a U.S. sneak attack. Able Archer was the lowest point of the “War Scare of 1983” — an incredibly tense period that including the Soviet shootdown of a civilian airliner, KAL 007. The scariest part? Washington had no idea how close the Russians were to doing something drastic until long afterward. When Reagan’s advisers shared reports with the president detailing the depths of Soviet paranoia in early 1984, he reportedly said: “Do you suppose they really believe that?… I don’t see how they could believe that — but it’s something to think about.”
Reagan clearly took the lesson to heart. A few months later, in August 1984, he livened up a press conference with a little joke during sound check: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
Yep. Something to think about.
December: I almost went with the 1965 incident, when an A-4E Skyhawk rolled off the USS Ticonderoga carrying a 1 megaton thermonuclear weapon, but aircraft accidents are going to be overrepresented here. (And besides, the Navy merely lost the nuclear weapon to Davy Jones’s Locker. That’s happened a couple of times.)
For my money, I like the Baneberry nuclear test. In December 1970, the United States conducted a 10 kiloton underground nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site, near Las Vegas. What happened underground didn’t stay underground, though, venting a cloud of radioactive dust to an altitude of 10,000 feet. We still don’t know what caused Baneberry to vent. I was flipping through a very dry report called The Containment of Underground Nuclear Explosions, when I came across this illustration in the front matter that offers one hypothesis.
January: This is “rain death from the sky” month. B-52s armed with nuclear weapons crashed in 1962 (Goldsboro, North Carolina), 1966 (Palomares, Spain), and 1968 (Thule, Greenland). After the third crash, the Air Force finally figured out that it’s a terrible idea to keep nuclear armed bombers in the air at all times. Hey, once is an accident and twice is a coincidence, but three times? That’s a trend! For good measure, in 1978, a Soviet military satellite probably powered by a significant quantity of highly enriched uranium, Cosmos 954, fell back to Earth, spreading the good stuff across Canada. When it rains, it pours … fissile material.
Still, my pick has got to be the 1995 Norwegian rocket incident. In January 1995, the Russians mistook a Norwegian sounding rocket for a U.S. missile launch. Boris Yeltsin later claimed he had activated the Russian “football” that would allow him to order a nuclear retaliation. It’s hard to figure out how dangerous the moment was, but I like the idea of a possibly inebriated Yeltsin staring at the Russian football and yelling, “All the blinking lights! My head is killing me!” Really, anytime you can hang the fate of the world on the decision-making of Boris Yeltsin after a couple of stiff ones, I say go for it.
February: So, we’ve lost more than a few nuclear weapons, but usually in the deep sea. But after a 1958 mid-air collision, we lost on in the shallow waters around Tybee Island, near Savannah, Georgia. The Tybee bomb is the gift that keeps on giving, with periodic efforts to find the nuclear weapon. The most recent search was in 2004. After detectors found a small amount of radioactivity, teams searched for 90 days. An Air Force official “said even if the 7,600-pound bomb were found, it is probably best left where it is — entombed in an estimated 15 feet of muck.” Way to get after it, boys.
March: I have high standards for aircraft-related mishaps, but the 1958 incident at Mars Bluff is a doozy. (What’s with 1958, huh?) The B-47 crew had failed to secure the bomb in the bay and, while attempting to replace a “locking pin” in flight, accidentally tripped the bomb release. The bomb landed in a residential area in the unincorporated hamlet of Mars Bluff near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina — and exploded. Fortunately, only the high explosives detonated. But the impact crater can still be seen today. “Not too many people can say they’ve had a nuclear bomb dropped on them,” Walter Gregg, the man who lost his house to the accident, told a local newspaper. “Not too many would want to.” Gee, you think?
A runner up is the Soviet submarine K-129, which sank in March 1968 with all hands aboard and a number of nuclear weapons. The United States contracted with Howard Hughes to build the Glomar Explorer deep-sea drill ship to clandestinely retrieve much of the wreckage from the ocean floor. But this doesn’t win, as we’ve got another sunken Soviet submarine coming up later.
April: Other countries get off relatively light in this review, largely because they don’t report their nuclear weapons accidents or otherwise announce their paranoia.
Fortunately, we have the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In the midst of its 1994 nuclear crisis with the United States, announced that it would turn Seoul into a “sea of flames” — an impressively medieval threat, even by the standards of DPRK propaganda. The United States was trying to prevent North Korea from separating and weaponizing its plutonium contained in 8,000 spent fuel rods. The Clinton administration managed to avoid both a war with North Korea and kept Pyongyang from adding to its plutonium stockpile by canning the spent fuel — although Pyongyang would reprocess the spent fuel in 2002 during the George W. Bush administration. But in April 1994, a deal still seemed out of reach. Bob Gallucci, who would negotiate the Agreed Framework, would later say of those following months that “we seemed to be headed more on a road to war than we did on a road to a negotiated end to the conflict. That was a very tense time.
May: I was tempted to go with the “unexplained” 1969 loss of the USS Scorpion along with its two nuclear-armed torpedoes — an event that has triggered endless conspiracy theories that I will not dignify with a link — so I rather prefer the 1988 PEPCON disaster. PEPCON was a defense contractor in Henderson, Nevada, that made solid-rocket fuel. One day in May, some guys were using a welding torch … in a rocket-fuel factory. What could possibly go wrong?
June: In 1980, less than eight months after the training tape incident, June gave us the infamous 46-cent computer chip that failed. When it did, it showed different Soviet attacks from one moment to the next. This false alarm is usually regarded as less serious that than the training tape incident, but what gets less attention is that this was one of three false alarms over June 3 to June 6 that demonstrated how fancy new computers had introduced surprising instabilities in the nuclear command-and-control system. Although the problem wasn’t War Games-level bad, the false alarms freaked out many officials in the Carter administration.
And then there’s Operation Desert Glow — a 1989 FBI raid on the Rocky Flats plant where the United States made plutonium pits for nuclear weapons. The FBI raid followed what the Bureau describes as “illegal dumping, unsafe practices, and other dangers and crimes” occurring at Rocky Flats. These practices occurred for a long period of time, but the idea of the FBI raiding a U.S. nuclear weapons production facility still stuns many people.
July: This month has the usual spattering of accidents, but two stand out: The K-19 was an ill-starred Soviet submarine that suffered so many radiation-related accidents that it was nicknamed Hiroshima. The most severe accident occurred in July 1961, when the reactor nearly melted down on patrol, far from Mother Russia, forcing the crew to sail around with their little undersea Chernobyl for several days. Extra scary: The incident inspired a terrible film starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson called K-19: The Widowmaker.
Still worse is the 1956 bomber crash at Lakenheath Air Base in Britain. This what General Curtis LeMay, head of Strategic Air Command (SAC), cabled back home:
HAVE JUST COME FROM WRECKAGE OF B-47 WHICH PLOUGHED INTO AN IGLOO IN LAKENHEATH …. THE B-47 TORE APART THE IGLOO AND KNOCKED ABOUT 3 MARK SIXES. A/C THEN EXPLODED SHOWERING BURNING FUEL OVER ALL. CREW PERISHED. MOST OF A/C WRECKAGE PIVOTED ON IGLOO AND CAME TO REST WITH A/C NOSE JUST BEYOND IGLOO BANK WHICH KEPT MAIN FUEL FIRE OUTSIDE SMASHED IGLOO. PRELIMINARY EXAM BY BOMB DISPOSAL OFFICER SAYS A MIRACLE THAT ONE MARK SIX WITH EXPOSED DETONATORS DIDN’T GO.
A miracle, eh? Now I understand the SAC chapel.
August: Well, it’s sort of hard to overlook the fact that we dropped two bombs in August 1945. And then there’s the Berlin crisis that heated up with the construction of The Wall in 1961.
Still, I’m going to pick the 2007 munitions transfer incident — a weapons crew at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota mistakenly loaded six nuclear-armed cruise missiles onto a B-52 bomber, which then flew the nuclear weapons across the country to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The nuclear weapons were unsecured for 36 hours. The explanation is simple: the event occurred immediately prior to a four-day weekend. Somehow, I imagine Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” blaring in the bunker as the munitions team mistakenly grabs the real nuclear weapons to load on the B-52.
September: This is another month with several big scares. There’s the 1980 event in Damascus, Arkansas, when a worker accidentally dropped a wrench into an ICBM silo, puncturing a Titan II missile. It eventually exploded, blasting a 750-ton silo door a quarter of a mile away and launching the nuclear warhead into the air. (No worries, it was recovered.)
But that’s nothing compared to the 1957 accident near Kyshtym in the Soviet Union. The accident actually occurred at a closed city associated with the Soviet nuclear weapons program. A cooling system in a tank with 80 tons of liquid radioactive waste failed. The temperature rose suddenly and the tank exploded, sending a plume of radioactive nastiness like cesium and strontium over hundreds of kilometers. Until the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, this was the worst nuclear accident in history; it ranked a 6 on International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). Chernobyl and Fukushima were INES 7 events.
I was surprised, in writing this list, how much I remembered correctly, as well as how much I did not remember at all. I’ve been careful to source the short accounts accurately, but perhaps an error has slipped in here or there. And, as I say, this is hardly a comprehensive list. So, I’ll be encouraging readers at my blog, ArmsControlWonk.com to offer their favorite nuclear weapons mishap, comment on these or just wax philosophic about the epistemology of the “close call.”
And Happy Halloween everyone.
David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.
He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news.| Argument |