Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have become more advanced and more powerful, but they have not become “safer”. When President Trump said “there’s no threat from North Korea” he may have been correct in one respect – the United States has almost nuked itself more times than North Korea has.
There have been many incidents that were close calls that would have started world wars or destroyed the United States, but we got lucky. Most are unknown to the public, but with no policy changes as a result of from these accidents, we should be concerned about another accident turning into a real disaster.
To say the least, these six incidents were bad:
1. The Goldsboro Incident
On January 24th, 1961 a B-52 carrying two nuclear bombs experienced a mechanical error, releasing the two bombs above North Carolina. One of the weapons’ parachute opened, allowing the bomb to land safely. The other parachute did not open and the bomb crashed into the ground.
Fortunately, neither nuclear bombs detonated due to perfect accidents. The first weapon’s safing pins had been yanked off during the freefall, which prevented the bomb from going off. The impact of hitting the ground had broken a key part of the second weapon.
Both weapons were in the “armed” setting, meaning the weapon was ready to explode. The United States narrowly escaped two multi-megaton nuclear bombs detonating on American soil, both far more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
2. Just some H-Bombs Skydiving in Spain
Refueling a plane is a common procedure, however when it goes wrong, it can go very wrong. In Palomares, Spain, four hydrogen bombs almost killed millions of Europeans.
On January 17, 1966, a B-52 was on a routine flyover near the Italian coast when a refueling attempt – transmitting fuel from one plane to another – turned horribly wrong. The plane, which was carrying multiple hydrogen bombs, was going too fast and hit the refueling plane, spilling fuel over both. Both planes caught fire and ultimately ripped apart.
The four hydrogen bombs on board the B-52 soon plummeted towards the southeastern coast of Spain.
By some miracle, one bomb landed without exploding and another landed in the sea. The other two bombs were largely buried due to their impacts and only the non-nuclear explosives went off, scattering minimal amounts of radioactive plutonium.
Until 2008, the United States was still in the process of decontaminating the soil in Palomares.
3. Lost and Never Found
On February 5, 1958 over the Savannah River in Georgia, a nuclear weapon was purposely ejected from a B-47 that had collided with another airplane during a training exercise.
Why in the world did this happen? Well, to make these training exercises more real, nuclear warheads were loaded into these B-47s. During the training exercise, the B-47 carrying the deadly bomb was pretending to be a Russian bomber attacking the United States. Then, as part of the exercise, a fighter plane attempted to intercept it, but instead crashed into it, causing an explosion that damaged the B-47. The pilot ejected the nuclear bomb over the river, and proceeded to land the plane safely.
Fortunately, throwing the nuclear warhead out of the airplane did not cause any explosions to occur, and we still have Georgia today.
However, for almost 60 years the United States has failed to locate this nuclear warhead. Apparently this warhead containing 400 pounds of explosives and highly enriched uranium is a lost cause.
4. Black Bear Scare
In 1962, the United States decided to move multiple fighter jets loaded with nuclear warheads to a remote airfield in Volk Field, Minnesota to avoid a possible Soviet attack.
On October 25th, a black bear tried to climb a fence surrounding the airfield and was mistaken for a Soviet intruder. We were on Defcon 3 at this point – military readiness is above normal and troops could be deployed in 6 hours – so this was a serious issue.
Due to an electrical mistake, instead of being alerted that there was an intruder, it alerted pilots that enemy planes were approaching. The only control tower was in Duluth, where the false alert was received. Being the only point of contact for the pilots at Volk Field, Duluth ordered the pilots to take off immediately and attack planes over the United States with nuclear weapons – but the only planes flying over the United States at the time would have been American planes. With only minutes to spare, the command center at Volk Field was able to send emergency jeeps to block the pilots’ paths and explain the mix-up.
Luckily, it was cleared up in time, and WWIII was not started due to a black bear.
5. Am I Supposed to Fix or Destroy?
September 18, 1980, also called “the day we almost lost Arkansas,” a mechanic was performing maintenance on a nuclear missile when a wrench socket fell eighty feet, puncturing the missile’s fuel tank.
This leak eventually caused the missile to self-destruct in the silo. Somehow, the nuclear warhead itself was thrown from the missile, and its safety features saved it from detonating.
Had the United States not been so lucky, we may have had our first nuclear attack against ourselves.
6. The 3 A.M Phone Call
At 3 A.M. on November 9th, 1979 the United State’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was given an option: start nuclear war with the Soviets or go back to bed.
The first phone call Brzezinski received alerted him that 250 Soviet missiles had been launched at the United States. Soon, another phone call let him know it was actually 2,000 missiles and the United States had three to five minutes to react. Finally, one minute before Brzezinski called President Jimmy Carter, a third phone call said it was a false alarm.
A training tape that showed a large-scale Soviet attack had been left in a computer. Due to a microchip malfunction, the computer transmitted a fake warning from the training tape to the actual early warning network.
One microchip costing less than a dollar had turned a training tape into a real warning, almost waking the President up at 3 A.M. to start World War Three. Thankfully, the error was caught just in time.
All six of these incidents could have killed millions—most of them Americans.
These are not the only near-misses the United States has experienced; unfortunately, there have been at least 50 other occasions when the United States almost blew itself up or started a war with another country because of an accident. Today, 11 nuclear weapons are still missing.
Pure luck got us this far. But the thing about luck is, sooner or later it runs out.
To ensure we never have to play these odds again, we need to get back to zero. And in the meantime, we need clear-eyed policies like No First Use that would ensure an unhinged President could never start a nuclear war with the roll of the die.