Self-Assured Destruction (SAD): 21 Incidents Show How Donald Trump’s 24-Hour Nuclear Alert Could Literally Backfire

Photo by Guido van Nispen | CC BY 2.0

On hair trigger status, however, the biggest threat may come from the United States’ sordid record of nuclear weapons safety. Self Assured Destruction (SAD) may be a more realistic scenario for nuclear disaster than Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) with Russia or a showdown with North Korea or Iran. At least twenty-one known accidental incidents involving nuclear weapons and the United States military could have been utterly catastrophic and are worth describing in brief. Evidence suggests that the U.S. government may have successfully kept others from public scrutiny.

After much pressure, the United States military eventually copped [pdf] to 32 “broken arrow” incidents priorto the Reagan administration. “Broken Arrow” events are extremely serious nuclear weapons risk situations that do not create the risk of all out war, a more serious situation designated by the term Nucflash. While official government statements about broken arrows consistently attempt to paint a picture of little to no public danger, an astonishing run of luck has meant the deaths, all told in these events, of hundreds orthousands of people rather than hundreds of thousands or millions. Less guarded statements from generals, other military or government officials, as well as once secret documents or expert testimony describe situations where

+ Three of four failsafe mechanisms failed on descent as a nuclear bomb dropped on a North Carolina farm

+ A mere shift in the wind could have meant a catastrophe worse than Chernobyl in North Dakota

+ At least eight “fully explosive” U.S. nuclear weapons remain unrecovered worldwide

+ A large swath of England could have been turned into a nuclear desert

+ A cancer cluster has been identified after a nuclear weapon was accidentally incinerated

+ Three completely false alarms triggered Nucflash situations

+ All of Arkansas was nearly blown to bits when a worker dropped a socket from a socket wrench from 70 feet, igniting a tank with 14,000 gallons of rocket fuel at a nuclear missile site

+ Dozens of people were killed on two separate occasions

+ Four nuclear weapons were dropped on an ally, two of which exploded as dirty bombs

Before outlining why there may be many more such incidents of which we are unaware, here is a brief look at twenty-one rather terrifying cases where the United States nuked or nearly nuked itself or a NATO ally.

The two U.S. nuclear weapons self-own incidents that saw dozens of casualties occurred a few years apart near Searcy, Arkansas in 1965 (1) and aboard the USS Scorpion in 1968 (2). Fifty-five contracted workers were hardening the protections on a Titan-II nuclear missile silo 11 miles north of Searcy when disaster struck. Conflicting accounts suggest a welder accidentally burnt through a hydraulic fuel line or that wires shorted out. In either event, as described by one of two survivors that day, three bursts of flames sucked all the oxygen out of the silo, killing fifty-three men in a few short minutes. Nearly fifty years after it disappeared, the tragedy of the USS Scorpion, which took the lives of 99 sailors on a nuclear submarine, is still considered highly sensitive by the United States military. In 2012 the Navy denied a permit for an undersea expedition proposed to attempt to discover the cause of the sub’s demise. At the time it malfunctioned, the USS Scorpion was carrying two nuclear armed torpedoes and the ship also had its own active nuclear reactor. The wreckage lies in a secretly classified location 11,800 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

In other instances, Nucflash alerts were triggered wholly falsely by a black bear climbing a fence in Duluth, Minnesota in 1962 (3) and a war games training simulation gone awry in 1979 (4). When the bear in question attempted to gain entry to a U.S. Air Force base during the Cuban Missile Crisis, she was mistaken for an intruder. A guard fired his gun at the bear and attempted to trigger a warning system notifying the rest of the base of the intrusion. The wrong alarm system rang at nearby Volk Field which quickly scrambled an entire squadron of planes with live nuclear missiles. The pilots were told as they prepared for takeoff that this was “the real thing,” all out nuclear war. While those planes never left the ground, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was jolted awake seventeen years later by a phone call stating that 250 nuclear missiles were already in the air courtesy of Moscow. A second call followed to say that nearly 2000 more missiles had joined the first 250. Brzezinski didn’t wake his wife or children but began the process of ordering retaliatory strikes. “Washington, and the majority of America would cease to exist. I wanted to be sure that we’d have company,” he would later state. A training tape of a computer program simulating Soviet attack had been wrongly connected to the main United States early warning computer system, a situation that inspired the highly successful 1983 film War Games. An extremely similar situation occurred just months later in 1980 (5) when a faulty 46 cent computer chip caused a situation again pulling Brzezinski from his sleep to news that 220 Soviet missiles were in route followed quickly by a correction that it was 2200. In any of these events, a mistaken US first strike would very likely have meant an ineffably destructive Russian response.

In six separate incidents over nineteen years, the United States nuked or nearly nuked four of its NATO allies. As its very closest allies, Canada and the United Kingdom were each the beneficiaries of two big bomb benevolences from the American military. In 1950, U.S. war planes dropped two nuclear bombs in Canadian territory, one just off the coast of British Columbia in February (6) and another into the St. Lawrence River in Quebec that Autumn (7). The conventional explosives used to help detonate the British Columbia bomb were triggered while the bomb remained in the air, but a diver searching for sea cucumbers discovered the remainder of the bomb in 2016.  At least eight nukes that are “fully-explosive bombs” are missing from the United States arsenal  Another nine contain live radioactive substances such as depleted uranium. In Quebec, the U.S. Air Force crew, following protocol, exploded the conventional munitions used to trigger nuclear reaction just a half mile above Rivière-du-Loup when they encountered engine trouble. Thankfully, the plutonium trigger was not installed, but the result scattered radioactive uranium over the entire area. For three decades, the public was led to believe that what they heard and saw was an advance-planned conventional bombing practice run.

A nuclear armed US B-47 airplane nearly turned “a part of eastern England” into a desert when it crash landed into a store of three British nuclear weapons in 1956 (8). Another US B-47 nuclear bomber burst into a fireball on a runway in Britain in 1958 (9), incinerating its weapon. The opening to an article on the event in 1996 is a real eye-opener:

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) has uncovered documents which show that for over 30 years the British and American governments deliberately covered up a serious nuclear accident at the US Air Force base in Greenham Common (UK). The accident put at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of US and British service personnel, civilians working on the base, local residents, peace campaigners, police officers and journalists. Local land and animals were contaminated. The radioactive dust from the accident continues to pose a serious threat to the local environment and to the health of local residents in an area renowned for an unexplained cancer cluster.

A decade later, two United States pilots crashed their plane a few miles from the Thule Air Force Base in Greenland in 1968 (10) while flying as part of the Operation Chrome Dome program. Chrome Dome aimed to keep nuclear missiles aloft continuously for the purpose of retaliating if Russia launched a first strike. A frantic clean-up and recovery effort over several months included “local Greenlanders and Danish workers” but failed to recover one of the four bombs that included both radioactive uranium and plutonium. The NATO ally gifted with likely the most fearsome of U.S. accidental nuclear generosity, however, is Spain. While attempting to refuel in the sky high above the beach in Palomares, a B-52 carrying four live nuclear weapons as part of the same Chrome Dome program crashed into the refueling plane in 1966 (11). The explosions killed all seven airmen and released the plane’s bombs, three of which hit land and two of which exploded as “dirty bombs,” scattering plutonium across a wide stretch of countryside. The fourth bomb took months to recover and, fifty year later, the radiation mess has still not been fully cleaned up.

Alas, it was not just allies that the United States dropped nukes on during this attempt to keep devastatingly armed planes continuously airborne in the 1950s and 1960s. Several times, the United States dropped nuclear bombs on its own population. Mercifully, while the chance for ultimate disaster seemed to grow ever closer in these incidents spread out over a couple of decades, unwitting Americans that would have been affected in major cities throughout the country were spared. While not known to have released any radiation, a U.S. plane just en route to Kirtland Air Force Base accidentally unloaded what was then “the largest hydrogen bomb in the U.S. arsenal” not far from Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1957 (12). Though the plutonium core was not engaged, per protocol, the conventional payload did create a large crater, scattering top secret technology for more than a mile.  A nuclear bomb remains buried in the water just off Tybee Island after two Air Force planes collided near Savannah, Georgia in 1958 (13). One pilot ditched his nuclear payload, as required, before landing. Competing government sources dispute whether or not the plutonium trigger was engaged and remains in the buried weapon. A retired Air Force pilot insists that the site still produces elevated radiation readings, but the U.S. government contests such readings, arguing that natural minerals in the area contribute to high radiation counts.

The United States Air Force also dropped a nuclear bomb on Mars Bluff, South Carolina in 1958 (14). While checking out the cause of a fault light that flashed on, the captain steadied himself by grabbing the emergency release for the bomb, hurtling it to the ground 15,000 feet below. While the fission core of the bomb was elsewhere on the plane, the 7,000+ pounds of traditional explosives destroyed a playhouse that minutes earlier had children in it and created a 70×25 foot crater with “a mushroom cloud that could be seen for miles.” More seriously, three of the the four failsafes were by-passed for a bomb fully-armed withits plutonium core when the Air Force dropped two nukes onto a farm in Goldsboro, North Carolina in 1961 (15). The second of the two bombs, while much less lethal, burrowed so deeply into the ground that it has never been recovered. If the first bomb, 260 times more powerful than the Hiroshima H-bomb, had detonated, it would have killed untold thousands and the fallout may have reached as far away as New York. A secret report obtained by Eric Schossler and published in declassified form by The Guardian in 2013 noted that the fourth and final safety feature could well have also failed: “If a short to an ‘arm’ line occurred in a mid-air breakup, a postulate that seems credible, the MK 39 Mod 2 bomb could have given a nuclear burst.” (Schossler’s book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety and the accompanying documentary film Command and Control are musts for those further interested in details of many of these events.)

By the same token, the incident of a US nuclear missile catching fire on the runway is also not unique to overseas. Five nuclear weapons on board a B-58 that skidded off an icy runway caught fire and released radiation at Bunker Air Force Base, Indiana in 1964 (16). Far more dangerously, the United States very narrowly avoided an explosive meltdown of twelve nuclear missiles onboard a plane that caught fire near Grand Forks, North Dakota in 1980 (17). For years, the government insisted that there was no real danger to the public, but the Chicago Tribune obtained records of testimony from a closed government hearing where an expert witness testified that if the wind had simply shifted directions that night, the fire could have reached the plutonium core of the weapons, creating an explosion and ongoing fallout that may have been worse than Chernobyl. Just three days later, a 19-year-old missile repairman used the wrong wrench and dropped a socket from it 70 feet down, piercing a 14,000 gallon nuclear fuel tank and igniting a fire. Hours later, the missile exploded, its live warhead ejected and was found lying in a ditch down the road in Damascus, Arkansas (18). If the warhead had exploded, millions may have died as the payload had “more explosive power than all the bombs dropped by all sides in World War II, including the two atomic bombs.” Twelve additional nuclear incidents, similar in nature to the previous four listed here, but of generally lesser risk or impact, occurred on U.S. soil from 1950-1968 according to the government recounting of “broken arrow” incidents linked above in the third paragraph of this article.

Lest you conclude that these are all events of by-gone decades during the bad old Cold War era, three incidents over approximately the last decade should give one pause. A 2007 event saw the firing of an Air Force Commander after six nuclear missiles, set to be decommissioned, were flown with their warheads mistakenly in place from North Dakota to Louisiana (19). Then, a computer hardware issue saw the Air Force simultaneously lose most communication with 50 nuclear missiles for nearly an hour in Wyoming in 2010 (20), raising the possibility that the arsenal is vulnerable to hackers. Finally, a “bent spear” incident in Colorado as recently as 2014 saw $1.8 Million in damage to a nuclear missile (21). The initial malfunction during that event was worsened “because the maintenance chief ‘did not correctly adhere to technical guidance’ and ‘lacked the necessary proficiency level’ to understand that what was being done to find the problem could cause greater damage to the missile.”

While these last three worrisome events would rank at our near the bottom when stacked up against the previous eighteen in terms of genuine danger to the public, they show three very different ways that things might well go catastrophically wrong as the United States, under President Donald Trump, amps up its reliance on nuclear threats in order to carry out foreign policy.

In point of fact, there are many reasons for suspecting that there may be many more unknown close calls where the United States nuked or nearly nuked itself or its allies. No incidents are listed before 1950 in the government recounting of “broken arrow” accidents. Only the second of the two 1980 accidents is listed in that document, and it would seem strange that after 31 broken arrow events from 1950-1968, there should have been but the two 1980 events from 1969-2007. This long stretch of apparent relative nuclear safety is particularly curious as the United States remained on high, 24-hour-a-day alert until 1992. In reviewing possible incidents whose nuclear nature could have been kept hidden from public view, I have noticed that nearly all plane crashes within U.S. borders in the 1980s and 1990s involving planes known to carry nuclear weapons were followed by government press releases or statements reassuring the public that no bombs were on board during the crash. Nearly all cases, that is, save one. In every news article I consulted, that standard disclaimer about weapons not being involved was missing after a B-1B nuclear bomber crashed near Abilene, Texas in early November, 1988. The pilot in that case intentionally steered the plane a good way from populated areas before ejecting near the last possible moment. Furthermore, a Federation of American Scientists inquiry found that the 2007 “bent spear” event in the previous paragraph here was not classified as such in a review that said there had been no such incidents between 1992-2008, raising the possibility that the military is no longer rigorously tracking such occasions.

While the history that we do know in these matters is terrifying enough, we may never know just how many times the United States’ stubbornly ill-conceived commitment to its nuclear arsenal has nearly obliterated whole population centers domestically or amongst those it deigns to call its friends internationally. SAD!

Doug Johnson Hatlem writes on polling, elections data, and politics. For questions, comments, or to inquire about syndicating this weekly column for the 2020 cycle in your outlet, he can be contacted on Twitter @djjohnso (DMs open) or at (subject line #10at10 Election Column).