President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor was about to wake him up in the middle of the night to inform the President that 220 Soviet nuclear missiles were headed our way, when he learned that someone had stuck a game tape into the computer by mistake.
Three years later a Soviet Lieutenant Colonel acted out the same scene, with the computer glitch on his side this time. Then in 1984 another U.S. computer glitch led to the quick decision to park an armored car on top of a missile silo to prevent the start of the apocalypse. And again in 1995, the Soviet Union almost responded to a U.S. nuclear attack that proved to be a real missile, but one with a weather satellite rather than a nuke. One Pentagon report documents 563 nuclear mistakes, malfunctions, and false alarms over the years — so far.
Then there are the accidents, of all variety. Nuclear submarines of the sort now looking for trouble in the Persian Gulf have been known to collide with other ships. At least eight nuclear submarines (one French, two American, and five Russian) are known to be rotting at the bottom of the sea, leaking uranium and plutonium. In 2003 the U.S.S. Hartford, a nuclear powered submarine, hit a rock on a tiny island north of Sardinia. The area is now highly radioactive.
In 1961 a U.S. B-52 with two nukes on board blew up over Faro, North Carolina. One of the bombs, with a parachute to slow it down, was found. Five of the six fuses designed to prevent full nuclear detonation had failed. The other nuclear bomb buried itself 20 feet deep in the ground, lighting up the sky like daylight. The military deemed that one hard to dig out, and left it there. And there it sits. This little mishap involved bombs that were each 250 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. The commander of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team, Lt. Jack B. ReVelle, remarked, “How close was it to exploding? My opinion is damn close. You might now have a very large Bay of North Carolina if that thing had gone off.”
In 1956, a B-47 carried two nuclear capsules from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, headed to a refueling over the Mediterranean, but never arrived and was never found. In 1958, a B-47 crashed into an F-86 during a combat simulation off the coast of Georgia, near Savannah. A nuclear weapon was jettisoned over water and never found.
On January 17, 1966, a U.S. B-52 carrying four live hydrogen bombs smashed into a tanker during midair refueling over Spain. Two of the bombs were blown apart like dirty bombs scattering radioactive particles all over Palomares, Spain. The United States dug up 1,400 tons of radioactive Spanish dirt and took it to Aiken, South Carolina., where the Savannah River Site has been producing nuclear weapons material, trying to dispose of the waste, and radiating people for over half a century, and where radiation was even recently detected coming all the way from the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
This was just after the U.S.S. Ticonderoga sailed from Vietnam to Japan with a nuclear-armed airplane on board and accidentally dropped the plane, complete with nuclear bomb and pilot, to the bottom of the ocean, where they remain.
Then, in 1968, another U.S. B-52 with four nukes on it crashed in Greenland. Three of the bombs exploded, while the fourth has yet to be found. It’s among 11 nuclear bombs the United States admits to having lost over the years. That’s not counting the ones it’s temporarily lost and recovered. In August 2007, a U.S. crew accidentally (or as part of a secret plan; and I’m not sure which is worse) flew six live nuclear bombs from North Dakota to Louisiana and left them sitting there unguarded until the ground crew noticed.
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