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US nearly detonated atomic bomb over North Carolina in 1961 (theguardian.com)
182 points by gmac 1466 days ago | hide | past | web | 113 comments | favorite

We dropped bombs all over the place during the Cold War, until about '70 when we stopped carrying them in the bomb bay. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, California, Greenland, Spain (4), In the Atlantic, Pacific, etc. Broken Arrows, Bent Spears, Dull Swords. As they say in the movie, scary it happens so often we have a name for it.

Personally, I was only involved in one Bent Spear, and two Dull Swords.

Have we ever had an Empty Quiver? Or come close?


Not yet. The guarding of our nuclear stockpile was, during the Cold War, excellent. I don't know how it is now. I hear not-so-good things. Damn kids, get off my lawn.

Around 2008 the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff were fired due to a massive screw-up regarding the transport and handling of our nukes [1].

The summary that I got from the situation was that a plane heading through the heartland of America accidentally transported a nuke, when instead they thought it was just some other type of bomb which basically means a nuke was accidentally transported across the US without anyone controlling the shipment or noticing until much later.

The current chatter and inclinations are that things have improved due to more rigorous checks and inspections. For me this is very believable due to the amount of news that is made when one of the nuke squadrons fail a regular inspection due to minor mistakes [2].

[1] http://www.airforcetimes.com/article/20080605/NEWS/806050301...

[2] http://www.airforcetimes.com/article/20130819/NEWS/308190013...

> The summary that I got from the situation was that a plane heading through the heartland of America accidentally transported a nuke, when instead they thought it was just some other type of bomb which basically means a nuke was accidentally transported across the US without anyone controlling the shipment or noticing until much later.

I believe the 2008 actions were fallout from the 2007 Bent Spear involving six nuclear cruise missiles on a B52 (not a single bomb), described in the Wikipedia article cited upthread [1].

[1] here again: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_military_nuclear_...

Are you referring to "just" bombs, or to Atomic bombs? If so, sources for what you claim? (not contesting, just asking)


"Nuclear Weapon History" would be a very fun class IMO.




The new Call of Duty game will feature these weapons which have the energy of small nuclear bombs yet contain no explosive. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinetic_bombardment#Project_Tho...

Then there is this Vice video claiming that they found sources for purchasing nuclear devices: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0c4f4NJSB_4


It's near impossible to successfully invade a nuclear armed country. Countries like North Korea have small nuclear weapons and have the potential to use them if an invasion was attempted. They shelter them deep underground or in heavily reinforced bunkers to prevent a country (like the US) from blowing up all of their nuclear devices first. So the US has to develop huge bunker busters such as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_Ordnance_Penetrator to counter that threat.

Also something that is neat is Variable Yield nuclear weapons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variable_yield Many nuclear weapons can be adjusted depending on how big of a boom you want.

Many warheads http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7f/Trident_C...

> Then there is this Vice video claiming that they found sources for purchasing nuclear devices: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0c4f4NJSB_4

I'm at work so I can't respond at length, but this video is terrible. I've seen it and it seems quite clear that the device they show is not in fact a "nuke" but a dirty bomb made with radioactive waste, which is far less dangerous and pretty much is just a normal bomb with added terrorism potential due to misconceptions about the risks of radioactivity.

I am not saying you are wrong, but I am just curious about what you mean by the misconceptions about the risks of radioactivity.

I believe s/he is referring to the likelihood that a dirty bomb, detonated in an area with significant population, has the potential to cause vastly greater harm by inducing panicky actions in the populace, compared to the harm that could come from the spread of radiation by a conventional bomb.

I don't think one has ever been detonated and nobody really knows how much radioactive material would even be spread.

Theres plenty of research into this kind of matter. As part of the nuclear weapons development program they deliberately 'fizzled' a number of devices in order to see what would happen in the event of a miss-fire. Smaller scale industrial accidents involving 'dirty bomb grade' material has produced ample evidence to the effectiveness of the various materiel that might comprise a dirty bomb and the biggest of these industrial accidents such as The Chernobyl disaster have produced mountains of data on the long term effects of such contamination and its spread on a near global scale.

Depending on the size and type of material used. A dirty bomb could be anything from a local nuisance to a national disaster. car-bomb packed with mixed nuclear junk, is on the low end of danger & the authorities could contain & remediate within months anything like that. carefuly chosen isotopes ground to borderline areosol size, used via a sophisticated delivery device, you could seriously harm a double digit percentage of an entire state/country.

The author seems to think people aren't very familiar with electrical switches. But normal people are frequently only one switch away from likely death. Like if you turn off your electric lawnmower and reach inside. It's recommended to have a fail-safe, but switches don't spontaneously turn on at even 1 in a billion and most people don't write breathless articles about the one time they were only one switch away from death 50 years ago.

> Jones found that of the four safety mechanisms in the Faro bomb, designed to prevent unintended detonation, three failed to operate properly

3/4 of the safety mechanisms on a 4 megaton bomb failed over US soil.

I would hardly call this a breathless article.

> and it was only that final, highly vulnerable switch that averted calamity

What does "highly vulnerable" even mean? Could it have been triggered by the wind? If I'm the guy at the control panel, am I accidentally hitting that switch a couple of times per week? Maybe the only way that switch gets triggered is if I black out from the stress and my nose hits it on my way to the floor.

I get the significance of three/four barriers failing, but if the fourth one has a one-in-a-billion chance, is it really fair to say North Carolina was "dramatically close" to being nuked?

From http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/1961_Goldsboro_B-52_crash : Later, however, it was found that both bombs were fully functional and that a single low-voltage switch was indeed all that stood between detonation.

The switch they're referring to is the arm/safe switch on the pilot's control panel. So the bombs didn't fail, one of them armed and tried to detonate exactly as designed when dropped from an aircraft. The only reason it didn't was because the pilot's arming circuit hadn't been activated. This isn't very reassuring because that arming switch may well have simply been a toggle switch under a cover, and even if it was better protected it still almost certainly boiled down to simply closing one or a pair of contacts, which can quite conceivably happen accidentally while bailing out of a spinning aircraft. Not exactly a one-in-a-billion chance.

There is a discrepancy between what TFA says (three out of four safety circuits) and what the wiki says (five out of six arming circuits) and I can't find anything to clear that up on my phone. Either way it's a disconcerting piece of history

I think once you are dealing with an out of control aircraft that disintegrates in the air, all bets are off.

A nuclear bomb has to detonate in the right way in order to produce a nuclear explosion. Otherwise, it should just break apart. From that I assume it should be possible to design a bomb and corresponding delivery system that are highly unlikely to detonate by accident, even if your plane blows up or rips apart in midair.

It should be possible to design a nuclear power plant to operate safely after a magnitude 9 earthquake and a tsunami following it, but I would still say in that case all bets are off.

The problem is that there are certain sorts of disasters where you really can't be sure you have the unknowns down well enough..... That's why aircraft components are rigorously tested. The only really safe solution I can think of is to try to anticipate the problem and sabotage the warhead first. For example one might, say, design warheads to destroy portions of the electronics if they get a signal that the pilot ejected.

So yes, it is probably possible. Is it possible to do so reasonably perfectly? I doubt it to be honest.

(A good parallel might be software designed to continue to operate properly regardless of hardware malfunction.)

>What does "highly vulnerable" even mean? Could it have been triggered by the wind?

Maybe the breeze of the wind is less potent than a impact of the drop of a heavy metallic object from an airplane.

> the final switch that prevented disaster could easily have been shorted by an electrical jolt

I would say its fair, would you feel safe if all bombs only had this switch from the 50s?

That's like comparing losing a lottery by guessing only 3 numbers out of 4 and playing a lottery where you need to guess only one number. These are statistically very different events, since you don't guess other 3 numbers correctly every time - and all fail-safes aren't failing at the same time. That's the point of having many of them - if each of them fails one-in-a-million time, you get 10^24 of security.

Here we have a sample of 8 safety measures across two bombs with 3 failures.

That's not 1 in a million, that's 1 in 3.

Actually, according to the article, only one bomb suffered failure of 3 security measures out of 4. The second one just dropped to the ground and disintegrated on impact[1], as any well-behaved non-activated bomb should. Of course, this still leaves uranium and other stuff laying around, but that's another matter - no security system can prevent that, if you have it in the bomb and it falls down, it'll be where it fell.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1961_Goldsboro_B-52_crash

That's not how probability works, though. I could go and buy a lottery ticket tomorrow for the first time in my life and win the jackpot, it wouldn't mean that the odds of winning are 100%.

No, this isn't a problem of probability, it's a problem of "not enough data."

Based on this tiny sample, here's the lottery analogy:

The lottery will flip 4 coins that have a 37.5% chance of being heads.

If you roll 4 heads lots of people die. So, just using this very inadequate sample from a single declassified document, you could estimate that a misfired bomb has a 2% chance of detonation (37.5%^4).

Obviously none of us know the real dataset, but my point is simply that it's not comforting that so many safety measures failed. (Which, as it happens, is also the opinion of the author of the original report in the article.)

> No, this isn't a problem of probability, it's a problem of "not enough data."

That was exactly my point, that with such little data you cannot judge the probability.

So he means something like what a surge protector blocks?

I suppose they could have neglected to put a fuse in the circuit which should have protected it against a surge that would damage some very expensive equipment (not to mention cause nuclear detonation.) But I don't know. I wasn't there to see and I didn't read the report. And we all know fuses fail as well - would that be the fourth out of five failsafes?

To answer your question, no - I honestly would not feel safe. But "dramatically close" is different altogether. When I think "dramatically close" I think about the time my kid ran into the street and I grabbed him from in front of a car... I needed to act urgently to avoid disaster.

I could be wrong though (and often am.)

According to the wiki it disintegrated on impact, I'm sure that played a role in the "dramatically close" statement

If the safety mechanisms are failing catastrophically then how will the bomb even detonate? The timing mechanisms have to execute perfectly to get a full power detonation and should be designed to become inert in a catastrophic breakup anyway. If any part of the switching mechanism becomes damaged the bomb should should/could be designed not to be able to detonate without relying on any electrical switches.

That's called one-point safety. One detonation point, that is. It relies on the fact that, to achieve nuclear yield, the plutonium core must be compressed symmetrically. That requires that all the shaped charges placed around the core are set off nearly simultaneously. If they are not (e.g., if the bomb is in a fire, and the first charge cooks off), then the core is destroyed without being compressed in the manner necessary to initiate a chain reaction.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_weapon_design#Warhead_d...

Because even if "fizzles" and goes off at 1% yield, Goldsboro, NC (which is, incidentally, about 20 miles from where I live) is a crate. Even at 1% yield that is 3x the Hiroshima bomb.

A fizzle of the (relatively small, fission) primary would be some percentage of a number much lower than 4 megatons. Most of that "oomph" comes from the fusion secondary which is set off by the primary detonating as designed.

I don't know how big the primary on that bomb was, and can't find anything about that, but did find this (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Koon) test of a fusion bomb where the primary didn't fizzle but the secondary nevertheless did not ignite. The primary there was 110 kilotons. So the primary on that bomb, not fizzling, is around 5 or 6 Nagasaki blasts.

How much energy is yielded by "fusion" secondaries ([1st]fission - [2nd]fusion-fission) varies by design, but secondary's fusion is used for more efficient (eg more complete) fission. Only huge bombs have tertiary fusion stages that contribute much more yield than fission stages.


I'm not sure what you mean, the W39 was a Teller-Ulam design bomb. It wasn't a boosted fission bomb (though maybe the primary was? I don't know). I believe the Castle bombs were as well.

The W39 is a revision of the Mark 15.

According to Wikipedia, the Mark 15 had a real thermonuclear second stage that generated significant yield. However, its second stage was also packed with enriched uranium, and it obtained most of its energy from fission.

Essentially, it was a two-stage thermonuclear weapon that had a lower fusion fraction than most two-stage weaopns.

Summary of atomic weapons:

1. Pure fission. Fusion contributes 0% of yield.

2. Boosted fission: Fusion is used solely to improve the explosive yield of the fission. Fusion contributes 1% of yield.

3. Dirty two-stage thermonuclear: Fusion contributes between 1 and 50% of yield. Most of the yield comes from fissioning of the U-238 tamper by fast neutrons.

4. Clean two-stage thermonuclear: Fusion contributes 90-99% of yield. The U-238 tamper is replaced with beryllium or lead, which does not undergo fission when hit with fast neutrons.

5. Three-stage thermonuclear: Same as two-stage. Thermonuclear bombs are considered to be an "unlimited" design, because you can keep stacking stages on top of each other, until you've got enough to blow up the planet.

Edited to make sense with correct terms. Thanks.

You don't seem to understand fizzles. A fizzle would not be expected to release even a kiloton of yield. A fizzle is not merely some malfunction of the bomb that causes it to achieve very low yield. Moreover, because of the two stage nature of thermonuclear weapons a fizzle of the primary would result in the secondary not going off at all. The nominal yield of the secondary, which makes up the vast majority of the explosive power of multi-megaton bombs, is thus not even remotely relevant.

A fizzle in the Tsar bomba (a 100MT capable device) would not be expected to release 1MT of energy or even 1/10th that, it would still release likely very much less than even a single kiloton.

> The timing mechanisms have to execute perfectly to get a full power detonation and should be designed to become inert in a catastrophic breakup anyway.

Should assumes particular goals, and with almost any system you're looking at a trade off between safety and reliability. Like the sensors on a modern car; some cars refuse to start these days if the sensor's out.

The military's perspective is likely to be something like: We press a button, we want a mushroom cloud. Thank you very much. They're unlikely to want to introduce unnecessary points of failure in their system.

Timing systems, trigger mechanisms and the like will break, or be manufactured incorrectly. Nothing's perfect. Especially when you're designing something that's going to be thrown around a bit (slimmer margins.)

Which then gets weighed against the concern that that thing better not go off by itself.

I would imagine that the latter is why there were multiple safety devices on the weapon - reasoning that the chance of them all failing concurrently was very low.

Either way you do it, you're taking on some degree of risk of something - even if you make a system with a single point of failure, and make it fail safe as far as possible, that can never be entirely eliminated.

It seems rational to us that you'd err on the side of the thing not going off. But then again we're not in an arms race right now. Someone might well reason that if you introduce something that's going to introduce a certain failure rate into your system, that's going to mean you have to invest in more weapons to reach the degree of force you want. Especially if they're reasoning in a very constrained space - i.e. they primarily think about the threats they're used to - and just don't think of things like bombers going down, (which in any case they're going to find themselves encouraged not to do since it implies fault on their part) that's going to be a very easy rationalisation for them to make to themselves.

>most people don't write breathless articles about the one time they were only one switch away from death 50 years ago.

This article isn't about one person one switch away from death, it's about (potentially) millions of people one switch away from death after three of four switches failed.

The book ain't gonna sell itself -- someone's gottta do the shilling.

>It's recommended to have a fail-safe, but switches don't spontaneously turn on at even 1 in a billion and most people don't write breathless articles about the one time they were only one switch away from death 50 years ago

With the difference that law-mowers usually aren't dropped from 10,000 feet to the ground in airplane accidents.

And, when I'm not in my "let's cheerlead for engineering / throw-all caution-to-the-wind cavalier attitude", I wouldn't really guarantee that they'd stay turned off if that happened.

There's also the little known fact that lawn mowers usually don't even have the potential to kill 3 million people in an instant.

So, I'd rather go with the opinion of the expert who prepared the accident report and who was actually "a senior engineer in the Sandia national laboratories responsible for the mechanical safety of nuclear weapons".

As for the accuracy of the cheerleading: I've had fickle switches turn on on me. Much more frequently than one in a thousand even. Try some low cost electric products and you'd be surprised (nay, shocked).

FWIW, according to Daniel Ellsberg†, the switch in question was the pilot's arm/safe switch. I would think that switch would be more like the lawnmower switch and less like the other three switches, which were presumably operated by sensors and circuitry.

E.g., an automatic system senses the bomb is dropping, so it deploys the chute and charges up the firing capacitors. Then another system detects the bomb has reached firing altitude and tries to detonate, but nothing happens because the arm/safe switch is on safe.


Let's try your lawnmower experiment in freefall at 10,000 feet and see if we can reach the same confidence level.

After surviving the breaking up of the plane that was carrying it.

Electrical switches become somewhat less reliable when subjected to violent physical stresses in an airplane crash like this one was. The bomber broke up in mid-air. It's not too hard to imagine how the switch could have been smashed in such a way as to close its contacts during this event.

Also, do people really switch off their electric lawnmowers and root around inside with the thing still plugged in? Sounds like a great way to get an unnecessary amputation to me. When I work with electricity which must not be turned on, I always either cut it off with something that can't possibly be undone by accident e.g. unplugging the device entirely, or I'm at least using a much more robust circuit breaker.

Except what I'm not seeing is a description of the design of this electrical switch. It's certainly not a normal switch - dynamo-technology implies some kind of motorization to close the contacts.

Of course if there's a lesson here it's already been learned - this is more a commentary on "things we did in the Cold War".

That's an interesting point. However, I'm not sure if it matters too much. Even if the switch were absolutely indestructible, the wiring going to it is not, and a short elsewhere could easily cause the switch to "close" even if the physical switch itself is not affected.

But normal people are frequently only one switch away from likely death.

How often are hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously one (single) switch away from likely death?

Do you think that a switch on a device is more likely to fail/flip when that device has been dropped from a plane (than when it is sitting still in your garage)?

Yes, people are frequently one switch away from death, the difference is the consequences of that switch.

Also, these are pretty much standard these days: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Residual-current_device

I dunno. I try hard to avoid trusting switches with my life, or if I must, I try to make sure I have at least two or more mechanically triggered switches between myself and impending doom.

The switches in this case are likely soft switches or relays, if they could be triggered electrically. If the other three failed, there could be all sorts of reasons to be concerned about this.

Interestingly I had been told about this incident growing up in the 1980's by pro-nuclear-disarmament folks.

But the question in my mind is what would have happened if the bomb had detonated? Would we have jumped to the conclusion that the Soviets were somehow responsible? Could the accident, have triggered nuclear war?

I would feel less comfortable about the reliability of switches in a plane that was spiraling out of control and presumably heading for a catastrophic impact. The switch might never turn itself on, but it has no way to prevent things palling onto it. as for your example about home appliances, surely you are aware that there are many accidents every year from people carelessly or accidentally activating switches on power tools or the like.

I'd be pretty uncomfortable about that situation, too. There should be a nice place for me to unplug the power supply entirely before I do anything around the blade.

Looks like the other bomb disintegrated on impact.

From Wikipedia:

The second bomb plunged into a muddy field at around 700 miles per hour (310 m/s) and disintegrated. The tail was discovered about 20 feet (6.1 m) below ground. Parts of the bomb were recovered, including its tritium bottle and the plutonium. However, excavation was abandoned as a result of uncontrollable ground-water flooding. Most of the thermonuclear stage, containing uranium, was left in situ. The Army Corps of Engineers purchased a 400 feet (120 m) circular easement over the buried component. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill determined the buried depth of the secondary component to be 180 feet (55 m), plus or minus 10 feet (3.0 m).

Terrifying question: had this thing detonated, would the powers that be - with only a few minutes to decide whether to defend the homeland while they still could - have realized it was an aircraft accident and not a hostile surprise attack? I think you know the answer.

We already know the answer. There were several close calls during the Cold War, and while the powers involved always chose to respond (they had to, it was doctrine at the time), they always chose to respond cautiously. Both sides wanted to avoid a "hot" war at almost any cost. For an example of how bad things could get with both sides still responding cautiously, read about Able Archer[1].

A first strike in the cold war was expected to be all out -- many, many missiles at once in an attempt to disable the enemy before he could respond. One explosion, in the middle of nowhere, is not a sensible first strike. I'd think "accident" would be the top hypothesis, even if "What are we dealing with?" was definitely a burning question.

There were plenty of times when a much more credible first strike came up. Computer glitches that made it look like dozens of missiles were already in the air. Large exercises that looked legitimately like immediate attacks. Those were scary crises, but they were navigated with caution and skill. A lone explosion in the middle of nowhere wouldn't even rate as a close call, I don't think.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Able_Archer_83

> A first strike in the cold war was expected to be all out

Not universally. The potential for a limited exchange wasn't completely discounted -- the US or the USSR could detonate a single explosive in a side conflict or in the mainlands to signal that they're no longer posturing and are willing to deal with the diplomatic consequences of a single detonation.

Similarly, submarines and SLBMs (with MIRVs, no less,) guaranteed MAD even in the face of a full first strike; responding to a single explosion with a single retaliation (and a diplomatic message of "you knew this was going to be the response; don't escalate") was a lot less suicidal than responding with a full attempted first strike. As a side note, SLBMs also provided for the potential of decapitation strikes, which are a far more measured (...) nuclear strike than attempting to destroy the entire population.

Both sides knew that nobody wanted to suicide their entire country, and knew that both sides knew that (et cetera,) which lead to a number of responses between "do nothing" and "kill the entire world." I'd like to think that the US and USSR wouldn't've attempted a first strike even if the tanks were rolling into the capitals, but that might be idealistic.

Good point. The military should know where their own planes are, too.

Maybe. Their record for knowing where stuff is isn't that good. The Iraq adventure lost $1billion of stuff. This shouldn't be confused with the overall cost (some would also say loss here) of a few trillion dollars for the whole episode. http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500257_162-3584247.html

Funny you should mention this.

So my mom was a civil-service accountant/programmer for the armed services at NAS Moffett Field in the 1970's. She recounted story after story of conspicous waste, especially related to expensive aircraft parts (lost/stolen/missing).

Also, a guy I know became very unpopular (career ending) with COs for objecting to needlessly chewing up $1 mil helicopter turbines.

So it seems par for the course.

Iraq war estimates in the trillions involve some pretty iffy calculations of long-term effects, like guessing the impact on the price of oil.

The actually budgetary cost was much lower.

Agreed. And as soon as your reaching any figure anywhere near that high, any source of error is going to make a large difference. I'm sure everyone agrees that the cost V benefit ratio wasn't that good though.

Yes, but they said Saddam was a Hitler. A cheap, shabbier version, sort of like Hitler's wayward alcoholic brother. And minus the million-man German army, etc.

Well, losing hardware is not quite the same as losing track of flying planes with nuclear bombs on board. When the plane went down, you would sure hope that they knew to send help.

There have been a few bombs lost overtime according the the Wikipedia page, usually as the result of plane mechanical issues.

The answer is that they had both aircraft-tracking radar and "early warning" radar designed to pick up incoming ICBM re-entry vehicles by that time, so it would have been fairly easy to verify that a single nuclear detonation around a militarily and strategically innocouous site was an accident.

But don't let that stop you from panicing.

I would be highly skeptical that the President would have told the American people "Oops, our bad. That was just an accident". It's very likely that the government would have blamed the attack on someone other than the U.S. even with the evidence in their hands that it was an accident. Seriously, can you imagine a U.S. President admitting to the public that the military just 'accidently' killed millions of people?

In 1961, JFK would have been president. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when an American U-2 was shot down and the pilot killed, he chose not to retaliate. Not to. Just let the Russians shoot down one of ours, and did nothing.

He did the right thing, too. It was an already tense situation, and letting it escalate into all out war . . . no one can say where it would stop.

Whatever you think of current politicians, JFK was a great man. There's no way, no way at all, he would have started a global hot war out of sheer pride.

But beyond that, it was a very different time. The US really was in mortal combat, which is not something this generation has witnessed. "We will find those terrorists" was a popular message on 9/11. "The Russians hit us for real and we have to hit back," during the Cold War, would not have been. It would have sounded like the end of the world. The political temptation would not have been to make an accident look like a real strike, but -- if anything -- to make a real strike look like an accident.

Interesting phrasing. Wouldn't Cuba be the one expected to react? A spy plane was sent at them and they kill it and the US is the wronged party? Don't get me wrong, I don't side with Cuba over the enormously provocative way they behaved, but I don't fell sorry for the US either. The Turkey part of the saga is just as bad.

An even bigger threat than "the President goes to war to cover up an accident" is what happens with the chain of escalation when the Soviets notice the detonation and go to high alert in case the US thinks that it was a Soviet attack (since the Soviets are less likely than the Americans to know it was a US bomber accident, and therefore not necessarily confident that the US will not think that it was a successful sneak attack of some kind.)

So they blame the USSR and say they started a nuclear war? I don't think that would work out better.

Oh they'd know. The real question is would they have told the public it was an internal accident? Or do some wonderful media-spin and blame whatever country they feel like going to war with...

No one "felt like" going to war during the Cold War. Avoiding war was the top priority in everyone's mind. And I mean everyone -- leadership, public, on both sides.

That's why it was a cold war. If anyone on either side had wanted a hot one, they could have started it easily a dozen times over.

>No one "felt like" going to war during the Cold War. Avoiding war was the top priority in everyone's mind. And I mean everyone -- leadership, public, on both sides.

"Noone" felt like going to war with the big other superpower.

As for places of strategic interest, they absolutely LOVED going to war over them, Korea, Vietnam, tons of Latin America, etc etc.

>But don't let that stop you from panicing.

Yes, because radars at the time were so advanced that nothing could go wrong. They were made by the same guys that lost 2 bombs near a major metropolitan area.

Yay for engineering!

Not necessarily. What if the 'evil empire' had smuggled a small one in US soil?

I doubt it would have triggered a war. This was before the ICBM era was in full swing. The DEW line† would not have detected the expected armada of Soviet bombers coming over the pole. There would have been one missing B-52, known to be carrying, and probably one missing airbase (Seymour Johnson AFB, to which they were on approach for an emergency landing). I expect it would have been pretty obvious it was an accident.


Weirder than fiction. A decade ago it was published that the "president's code" that should be the last permission before firing the nuclear rockets was for many years "0000" and that all army officers in charge knew it.


I remember thinking "that would be the nice gag in James Bond movie, but it was real"!

This time, all this "we dropped bombs all the time" doesn't sound crazier that "Dr. Strangelove."

The idea behind the design of fail-safe controls is that there are enough to prevent accidental detonation when an atomic weapon is in a hostile environment (in this case falling out of a disintegrating aircraft). Given that the number of tests that must be done to ensure that a bomb doesn't detonate when any k of n bad events happen grows exponentially, you can only guarantee that the bomb is fail-safe to a certain degree; so it's not unreasonable that 3 of 4 switches failed to prevent detonation; the last one was designed in just as much as the first 3.

Given that there haven't (as far as I know) been any accidental nuclear detonations despite the ridiculous number of accidental drops, I'd say the fail-safe control engineers are doing a pretty good job.

Alternate title for article: Nuclear Weapons 65-Year Flawless Safety Record

Growing up in Scandinavia, I remember reading about these as a kid and being fascinated. It's amazing how far the Cold War reached globally.



Another interesting article on nuclear security in the real world:

"British nukes were protected by bike locks" - http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7097101.stm

The lesson I draw from this incident is that when you want the highest degree of safety, you want many layers. The plane failed, three safety mechanisms in the bomb failed - but the very last safety mechanism worked.

I always want more safety on those damn things. Put at least ten safeties on them, the price is basically nothing compared to an accident.

Especially with nuclear weapons

"Using freedom of information, he discovered that at least 700 "significant" accidents and incidents involving 1,250 nuclear weapons were recorded between 1950 and 1968 alone."

That's nice for when one uses official statistics to defend the safety of such things...

I wonder if any espionage/sabotage was the cause of this. I've been around the block enough to see through articles like this that overlook things LIKE HOW A B52 JUST "BROKE UP" WHILE CARRYING NUCLEAR WEAPONS. That shit really doesn't just happen at random, and the article is suspiciously void of information on how/why one of the most proven aircraft of the time just fell out of the sky... I find THAT the more interesting/terrifying object of the story here.

Picture of one of the bombs taken with a GameBoy camera.



> "large enough to have a 100% kill zone of seventeen miles"

Wow, this quote makes you realize the scale. Nuclear bombs are discussed so frequently that it's easy to forget their potential.

> "Five of the six arming mechanisms on one of the bombs activated, causing it to execute many of the steps needed to arm itself, such as charging the firing capacitors and, critically, deployment of a 100-foot-diameter (30 m) retard parachute. The parachute allowed that bomb to hit the ground with little damage."

What would cause any of the "arming mechanisms" to activate?




This is sort of a side note, but that 17 mile kill zone for a 3.8 megaton bomb would depend on it exploding in the air, which would allow more of the energy of the bomb to hit the ground rather than be forced out along the ground or be directed into excavating a useless crater or up in to the air. A ground-level blast would have a much shorter radius of lethality but it would also create vastly more radioactive fallout.

If the final safeguard wasn't in place, rather than just "5 of the 6", then wouldn't the bomb detonate at the proper altitude automatically? One of the two floated down with a parachute like it was suppose to.

Would there be any evidence of what even happened if the nuclear bomb had exploded? The plane and bomb would be completely vaporized. It would be nothing but conspiracy and rumors as to why a nuclear bomb went off that day in Goldsboro.

It's hard to say without knowing all of the details, which won't happen for a while due to the extreme secrecy surrounding the technical details of the bomb design among other things. However, the implication of the reports about the accident are that the collision with the ground was what caused most of the other safeguards to have failed, even though one of the safeguards appears to have failed during the breakup of the aircraft.

The declassified document is new, but this has been well known for some time and corroborated by multiple trusted sources:


Mr. Schlosser is doing a good job promoting his book though.

I'm curious, assume the detonation had happened:

Would you see any of the past/recent administrations blame themselves for it?

Wouldn't the blame instantly be put on terrorists/russians/iranians/etc? And wouldn't this have lead to some kind of WWIII?

I think Superman intervened personally in this case and fixed the fourth switch while the bomb was descending; However this detail is still classified ;-)

Reminded me of other nuclear hijinks, like Project A119.

Well, that explains why Michael Jordan was such a freak of nature.

The headline is kinda accurate but definitely misleading. 'Accidentally' should have been added to it, the way it is now it seems like they planned on doing it and then changed their mind last minute or something like that.

Accidents do happen.

What the article neglects to mention is that after months of searching, they never found the bomb. It's still somewhere under the silt near Tybee island, biding its time.

That's specifically not what the article fails to mention, because it states where both of the bombs were found.

You're just thinking of a different narrowly avoided nuclear catastrophe.


Holy crap. They don't even know for sure if they were real bombs? For that matter, why is carrying real nuclear weapons on a practice run even a possibility?

I actually read a good book about nuclear bombs in the pre-missile era which directly speaks to that concern: http://www.amazon.com/15-Minutes-General-Countdown-Annihilat...

You think carrying bombs on this flight is extraordinary? You don't know the half of it. They were dragging bombs all over the place, all the time, to a ridiculous extent. The practice run could turn into nuclear war while the planes were in the air.

And some of the terminology-fiddling is Fun: when they told people things like "the bombs were not armed", they meant that were only a quick switch away from being armed. in related news, the NSA doesn't have "direct access" to Google servers. :P

That was 55 years ago. It's not like incidents like that could happen nowadays.

Oh, wait.


If they never found the bomb, how did they determine what safety mechanisms did and did not fail?

According to wikipedia, they found most of the second bomb: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goldsboro,_North_Carolina#Histo...

  US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental 
  proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were
  accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina 
  on 23 January 1961
The plane was carrying 2 of those bad boys. But it sounds like the whereabouts of both may have actually been determined.

  The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke 
  up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved 
  precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave 
  in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms 
  engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented 
  untold carnage.

  As it went into a tailspin, the hydrogen bombs 
  it was carrying became separated. One fell into 
  a field near Faro, North Carolina, its parachute 
  draped in the branches of a tree; the other plummeted 
  into a meadow off Big Daddy's Road.

With the other bomb. And the fact that it didn't explode.

TIL Hacker News is Reddit

Something else I hope you'll learn today: http://ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

Reddit is better.

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