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A Burning B-52 Nearly Caused A Nuclear Catastrophe (thedrive.com)
145 points by vinnyglennon 22 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments



If this topic is an area of interest to you I can't recommend Eric Schlosser's book enough: "Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety". It is a whole history of known accidents in the missle and aircraft domains that involved nuclear weapons.


The militaries' stewardship of nuclear weapons really puts the modern state surveillance panopticon into perspective. Collateral damage of tens of thousands of civilians accidentally dying in a fireball because these weapons "had" to be developed quickly so "the evil guys" didn't get ahead. And a similar dynamic where only civilian oversight can impart prudence, but the military works to escape any such oversight, so the only check is leaked anecdotes decades later.

Our trajectory seems bleak nowadays, but really we should be thankful the powermongers are just playing with data rather than inventing new weapons of mass destruction. With hope that topic will resolve itself with pervasive encryption.


> we should be thankful the powermongers are just playing with data rather than inventing new weapons of mass destruction.

Just playing with the data?

https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2019-04/news/trump-budget-bo...

"Consistent with the recommendations of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request would continue plans to expand U.S. nuclear weapon capabilities."

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politic...

"Donald Trump suggested firing nuclear weapons into hurricanes to prevent them hitting the US, reports in Washington claim.

The president is said to have raised the idea of bombing hurricanes with senior Homeland Security and national security officials on numerous occasions, dating back as far as 2017."


I was speaking at the level of novel technologies, not new implementations of existing technologies. New designs of nuclear weapons have a better opportunity to spend the time engineering safeguards against senseless failures, or at least we'd hope.

Note that I also wasn't speaking on the deliberate outcomes of mutually assured destruction, or the perhaps-even-worse outcome of some actor using a small number of nuclear weapons and getting away with it.


One might argue that use of a nuclear weapon - as intended - qualifies as a “senseless failure”, just not of the weapon.


The rumor that Trump suggested nuking hurricanes presumes that Trump would know of the history behind research around nuking hurricanes.

> “I got it. I got it. Why don’t we nuke them?” the president evidently interrupted, according to Swan’s source. “They start forming off the coast of Africa, as they’re moving across the Atlantic, we drop a bomb inside the eye of the hurricane and it disrupts it. Why can’t we do that?”

Really, in this alternate reality Trump is asking about disrupting the eye wall of a hurricane with super-heated air? I think both Trump lovers and haters can actually agree this is entirely not credible (for each their chosen reasons).


James Mahaffey's "Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima" is also worth reading - the scope is broader. It covers a period where research reactors were decommissioned explosively by pushing them to supercriticality and accidents in supporting plants amongst other things.


Agreed, this was a really good book.

"American Experince" also turned the book into a film, which was pretty true to the book and worth a watch.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Command_and_Control_(film)


Ah, I didn't know it was based on a book. Now I need to find the book. I suspect they will be very different experiences. Seeing the deep emotion of the interviewed really did well to convey the human elements.



The film (which was very good) mostly focused on the Damascus, AR incident. That was just one chapter of the book though.


+1


Another good one to illustrate the fragility of the world we live in: One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War by Michael Dobbs.

To me it was eye-opening to read about all the close shaves which could easily have ended in catastrophic misinterpretation by one side, and to wonder what might be going on along similar lines today.

The events described in this book were also dramatized in the movie "Thirteen Days".


I agree on the recommendation for Dobbs' book.

"Thirteen Days" is an enjoyable movie, but it does overlook the recklessness of some of the Kennedy administration's actions. For a more critical view, see this article: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/01/the-rea...


I just read the chapter about this yesterday. The book is excellent.


> Worse still – and unmentioned by Batzel – a design flaw in the B28 bomb meant that if exposed to prolonged heat, two wires too close to the casing could short circuit, arm the bomb, trigger an accidental detonation of the HE [high explosives] surrounding the core, and set off a nuclear explosion"

P0 - WontFix


It's a feature really. A bomb that is too safe has lower detterance value. And because we really don't want to have a nuclear war it would be irresponsible to have bombs that are too safe.


This was an actual reason for not having authentication devices, and why the Minuteman force had a password of 00000000 for a couple of decades. But it doesn’t apply to safety in a fire.


Dr Strangelove? Is that you?


yee haw!


Took nearly 10 years after this for a decision to first modify, then later, decommision the W69, based on how unsafe it was in a fire. https://www.dailypress.com/news/dp-xpm-19900524-1990-05-24-9...


here's another close call which almost ended very badly:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/1961_Goldsboro_B-52_crash

"He also said the size of each bomb was more than 250 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb, large enough to create a 100% kill zone within a radius of 8.5 miles (13.7 km)."


"Lieutenant, we found the arm/safe switch." And I said, "Great." He said, "Not great. It's on arm."

Oof.


iirc this incident is one of several captured in the book "Command and Control", awesome read.


B-52 collides with KC-135 during in-flight refuelling.

Four H-bombs rain down on sleepy Spanish fishing village ...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1966_Palomares_B-52_crash


Aren't nuclear warheads supposed to only detonate when triggered the right way?


The W69 in particular was an older warhead that lacked the Enhanced Nuclear Detonation Safety system.


Clearly I am wrong, but my understanding was a fire would not be enough to initiate the nuclear reaction. Don't two unstable masses have to slam into each other at super high velocity to release enough nuetrons to start the chain reaction?


According to the article, the W69 would not have detonated their nuclear payload, but there was a significant risk of their conventional explosives (used to compress the nuclear mass for detonation) as well as rocket engines igniting and spreading the radioactive payload in a "dirty bomb" manner.

Also, in the other type of bomb that was on board there apparently was a design flaw that could've actually triggered the nuclear detonation after prolonged exposure to extreme heat.


> Also, in the other type of bomb that was on board there apparently was a design flaw that could've actually triggered the nuclear detonation after prolonged exposure to extreme heat.

So who found that bug and how? I mean... Yikes.


It was a known issue that setting explosives on fire makes them...quite unhappy (hence why nowadays the detonators mostly use insensitive explosives [1]).

In the context of a partial/asymmetrical detonation around a warhead - they tried it! [0]

0: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_57

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insensitive_munition


If the conventional explosives around a warhead go off in an uncontrolled manner then they are almost certainly not going to kick off a nuclear chain reaction. Things have to happen at a very specific time.

But what you're going to get is a massive plume of weapons grade plutonium flying in all directions. Depending on where this happens and the wind this could be the end of a few million people.


If you read the literature it turns out that's in some cases wishful thinking. You'd never get full yield, but no chain reaction turns out to not be guaranteed in the older designs.


Can you point me towards what you read on this outside of the article? Not doubting you it's just been like 500 years since I studied nuclear chem and I'm not sure what literature you're talking about.


A good introduction is Eric Schlosser's Command and Control. For the points here the concept of one-point safe is the idea of if a nuclear device is likely to detonate in an uncontrolled situation. A good definition I found was[0]:

> What is one-point safe?

> Apart from preventing unauthorized use, it is equally important to ensure that the weapons do not explode accidentally. For example, if it is accidentally dropped dur­ing transportation (such incidents have occurred), it should not explode. A nuclear weapon is one-point safe if, when the High Explosive inside the weapon is initiated and detonated at any single point, the probability of producing a nuclear yield exceeding 4 pounds TNT equivalent is less than 1 in one million.

A surprising number of early nuclear devices were not one-point safe.

[0] http://www.nucleardarkness.org/nuclear/nuclearandconventiona...


That only applies to most modern warheads. Older warheads had much less safety features.

W69 was designed in early 70s when they had much less safety features. W69 had a design error that made it nuclear detonation possible in the event of a fire.


An even more dangerous bomb was the Violet Club [1], an airplane couldn't land with one on board.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violet_Club


They literally put a bag of ball bearings into the hollow interior of an enriched uranium sphere (to prevent its accidental implosion which would set off the bomb). Even scarier they didn't really know if this would actually work, but it was better than doing nothing.


The Atomic Weapons Establishment was doing Minimum Viable Product before it was cool to build MVPs!

More seriously, most of the reason they cobbled this together was because the US suddenly cut off access to research after WW2 (because of the McMahon Act [2]) and the UK had to look as if they were an independent member of the Big (nuclear) Boy's Club. Between this and the Windscale fire [1], that could've led to absolute disaster.

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windscale_fire

2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_Energy_Act_of_1946


"At least one accident, dated 1960, was reported in the press when the plastic bung was removed and 133,000 steel ball bearings exited onto the aircraft hangar floor, leaving the bomb armed and vulnerable." Wow. Real Dr Strangelove stuff.


No. That's how only one bomb worked (little boy). All other bombs use the implosion technique. One mass and the implosion changes its shape/density.


That's covered in the article:

> If this had happened in the 1980 accident, the rocket motors in the SRAMs, as well as the conventional explosives inside their W69 warheads, used to initiate the thermonuclear reaction, would very likely have exploded. While this may not have triggered a nuclear explosion, it would have thrown a plume of highly radioactive plutonium into the air, easily covering a 60 square mile area, which would have included parts of North Dakota and Minnesota.


There's a part further down where they mention that the other type of bomb had a design flaw that could have led to a nuclear detonation under the conditions.


"Oops"


The high explosives surrounding the core are triggered by electronic firing (today). I assume this is the most "weak" part of the firing chain physically.



Worse than Chernobyl, not even close.




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