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Sep 21 2013

Forget Roswell, it’s Goldsboro that’s the problem

You know that thing where you knock a bowl of soup off the counter with your elbow? The US Air Force almost did a larger version of that in 1961, when it accidentally knocked a couple of hydrogen bombs onto North Carolina. Oops, what a mess, and that was my favorite bowl.

A secret document, published in declassified form for the first time by the Guardian today, reveals that the US Air Force came dramatically close to detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima.

The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the 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 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.

Oh gee. That would have been bad.

Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons – the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city – putting millions of lives at risk.

Watch the elbows.

The document was uncovered by Schlosser as part of his research intohis new book on the nuclear arms race, Command and Control. 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.

“The US government has consistently tried to withhold information from the American people in order to prevent questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy,” he said. “We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here’s one that very nearly did.”

Never mind, it’s totally worth it for the chance of wiping out all mammalian life on the planet.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    RainbowSlushie^.^

    Oh for the day when these weapons are no longer made. One can dream and hope, I wish they were never made and hope for a day when they’re all decommissioned.

  2. 2
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    I’m still pissed that they were made in the first place. The whole nuclear bomb idea was one of the biggest mistakes we’ve ever made as human beings.

    And dropping them…

    Jon Stewart never should have apologized. Everyone who agreed to drop those bombs should be considered a war criminal.

  3. 3
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    I mean on Hiroshima and Nagsaki in WWII, obviously…

  4. 4
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    And Nagsaki should be NagAsaki… I am now going to go back to kindergarten to learn how to spell…

  5. 5
    RainbowSlushie^.^

    I’m still pissed that they were made in the first place. The whole nuclear bomb idea was one of the biggest mistakes we’ve ever made as human beings.

    I agree, it was a tragedy they were ever made in the first place, a very real, human, tragedy of loss, trauma, and pain suffered by actual human beings.

  6. 6
    Smokey Dusty

    I’ve read a lot of Nassim Taleb on risk over the last few years. Two points stand out.

    1 Low risk means: given enough time it will happen.

    2 If the consequence of the risk is unbearable no level of risk is acceptable. He applies that idea to global warming and nuclear technology often.

    He’s also made some interesting arguments for religion, by the by. Our feeble minds mean we’ve got to be suckers for something; if not religion then what? That certainly tempered the stridency of my atheism. I probably can’t see the areas where I’m a sucker so I shouldn’t be so hard on other suckers.

    And before antibiotics were invented religion was good for your health. Anything that kept you in the temple and away from doctors was bound to improve your outcomes. The latter is a specific example of his idea that religious heuristics can be good for us. Don’t borrow. Don’t lend. Stuff like that.

  7. 7
    ekwhite

    I saw this on Raw Story, and most of the commentariat thought that a nuclear bomb detonating over North Carolina would have been a good thing. If it had, I would have died a horrible death at the age of 9. Having someone think that something that could have killed you and everyone you loved was hilarious gives you a certain perspective on humanity, doesn’t it?

  8. 8
    bad Jim

    The funny thing is, the bomb that almost exploded was easily recovered. The other one wound up buried in the ground; its plutonium and tritium were recovered, but most of the rest, including its uranium, was left behind.

  9. 9
    ekwhite

    bad Jim @8:

    I have to wonder how many excess cancer deaths were caused in Eastern North Carolina by the buried Uranium.

  10. 10
    Parlyne

    ekwhite @9:

    Most likely none. First, since the Uranium ended up buried, that would serve as shielding against direct radiation exposure. Second, most of the energy release in the explosion of a hydrogen bomb comes from hydrogen fusion, the fissile materials are just used as a trigger; so, comparatively there’s not as much of them. Third, even highly enriched Uranium isn’t actually all that radioactive (U235 has a half-life of over 700 million years) unless there’s a large enough quantity present to sustain a chain reaction.

    @Ophelia, I think the line about wiping out all mammalian life is rather strong on the hyperbole. We’re talking about a single 4 megaton bomb. If it had detonated it would have been disastrous for the US Eastern Seaboard, sure; but, the Russians actually set off a 50 megaton bomb back in the heyday of testing and we’re still here. (To be clear, I’m on the side of getting rid of all nuclear weapons; but, I’m also a physicist and I regularly find myself frustrated by the degree to which people become utterly irrational whenever any topic related to radiation or nuclear anything comes up.)

    One last thought. While it’s unquestionably scary how close this accident came to being a disaster, it’s worth recognizing that, despite everything that went wrong, the failsafes actually worked. The bomb didn’t explode. We tend to group stories like this or like Three Mile Island with the Chernobyls and Fukushimas; but, it’s worth recognizing those times where, although things went very wrong, the systems in place to prevent problems from becoming disasters actually worked as intended.

  11. 11
    Francisco Bacopa

    There’s also a nuke with no active triggers in the river sediment near Savannah and some residual contamination from some bombs jettisoned over Spain. The Georgia nuke is surely no risk at this point.

    Gotta recommend that everyone watch Dr Strangelove at this point. And remember Major Kong was presented as the perfect Air Force officer. Everything by the book and he never gave up. He held his loyal crew together after the SAM attack and pursued an innovative, but still authorized, attack plan when he was unable to fulfill his original orders. He did not want to ride the bomb, he just happened to ride the bomb and made the best of it. His crew loved him, but he made them love the mission even more. Zogg knew he was killing Kong when he pulled the lever, but Kong had taught him the mission was the most important thing.

    Another thing to watch out for: Kubrick rented a stripped down B-29 in civilian hands in the UK to film all the scenes of snow and mountains. These shots were taken over Greenland and the distinct shadow of a B-29 was visible in a few scenes of the movie. Kubrick could have used other takes, but included them as a reminder of the only plane that ever intentionally delivered nuclear weapons.

  12. 12
    Al Dente

    ekwhite

    I have to wonder how many excess cancer deaths were caused in Eastern North Carolina by the buried Uranium.

    Probably none. Uranium is an alpha emitter and alpha particles can be stopped by a sheet of paper. You could carry a lump of uranium in your pocket and the cloth would block the particles from getting to your skin.

  13. 13
    Stacy

    Gotta recommend that everyone watch Dr Strangelove at this point. And remember Major Kong was presented as the perfect Air Force officer.

    Seconded. And remember that George C. Scott’s character, General Buck Turgidson, was based on Curtis LeMay. The real general was quite influential, and we’re all lucky that his “hit ‘em with their pants down” attitude didn’t carry the day (thanks in part to Eisenhower himself.)

    Another recommendation: Phil Patton’s wonderful, and eminently readable, Dreamland. It’s about Area 51, the Cold War, and American dreams.

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    Parlyne @10 – what I said was: “Never mind, it’s totally worth it for the chance of wiping out all mammalian life on the planet.” I think it’s reasonably clear that that means the risk exemplified by this incident is worth it for the chance of a full nuclear exchange. Heavily sarcastic, obviously. Anyway I certainly wasn’t suggesting that this one accident could have wiped out all mammalian life on the planet.

  15. 15
    Ophelia Benson

    And I don’t consider it “working” when the working depended on one switch.

  16. 16
    rikitiki

    I’ve been to the Hiroshima museum in Peace Park and seen the actual, physical aftereffects of that bombing. Having witnessed those, I find it very hard to wrap my mind around “260 times more powerful”. Simply very difficult to imagine!

  17. 17
    Dunc

    Uranium is an alpha emitter and alpha particles can be stopped by a sheet of paper. You could carry a lump of uranium in your pocket and the cloth would block the particles from getting to your skin.

    True, but if you put your hand in that pocket, you should keep it well away from your nose and mouth, and wash it before you go for lunch. Stuff has a nasty habit of abrading all the time on the nanometre scale, and you don’t want to accidentally inhale or ingest a nanoparticle of an alpha emitter.

  18. 18
    rnilsson

    So can we all now forget about the Greenland dumping of nukes accident? Or do I perhaps misrecall?

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