We spent the Cold War in perpetual fear that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. would start an intentional nuclear conflict. The truth is, we came far closer to blowing ourselves up with nuclear weapons than we ever came to WWIII.
Nuclear incidents have a bunch of ominous military code names, like Broken Arrow, Faded Giant or NUCFLASH. There are actually dozens of instances like these, but here are five major ones that happened in the U.S. If we were to consider Soviet activity, the list could go on for hours. The Russians either lost a nuclear sub, lost a sub with nuclear weapons on board, had a nuclear sub’s reactor melt down, or all three roughly every other week. Kompetentnyh? Nyet.
Travis Air Force Base, 1950 — Broken Arrow
During the Korean War, U.S. military and political officials gave serious consideration to the use of atomic weapons. In August of 1950, ten B-29 Superfortress bombers took off from what was then called Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base in California, headed for Guam. Each was carrying a Mark IV atom bomb, which was about twice as powerful as the bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.
Shortly after takeoff, one of the B-29s had engine trouble. On board was General Robert Travis. He commanded the plane to turn back to the base when the landing gear refused to retract. Sensing the plane was going down, the pilot tried to avoid some base housing before crashing at the northwest corner of the base. The initial impact killed 12 of the 20 people aboard, including General Travis. The resulting fire eventually detonated the 5,000 pounds of conventional explosives that were part of the Mark IV. That massive explosion killed seven people on the ground. Had the bomb been armed with its fissile capsule, the immediate death toll may have reached six figures.
The Air Force covered up the incident, blaming it on conventional bombs loaded for a training flight. The base was renamed for General Travis just a few months later. The term Broken Arrow refers to nuclear incidents which are not likely to start a nuclear war.
Fermi 1 breeder reactor, 1966 — Faded Giant
This incident was immortalized as the night “We Almost Lost Detroit” by both John Fuller’s book of the same name (with the terrifying cover), and Gil Scott-Heron’s groovy slow jam about nuclear nightmares.
What happened at Fermi 1 was the result of engineering mistakes, lax safety standards and simple inexperience at building nuclear reactors. The designers made changes to the cooling system without documenting them, so the engineers working on the reactor didn’t know that there were extra dispersion plates in the liquid sodium containment tank. When one of the tanks blocked the coolant pipes, the reactor core overheated to 700 degrees F and partially melted down.
In a meltdown, the reactor fuel overheats beyond the point that the cooling system can handle. It eventually begins to melt the infrastructure surrounding it, such as containment casings, cooling systems and, in extreme cases, the floor of the installation. In a full meltdown, the fuel catches fire and sustains itself at about 2,000 degrees F. Although the term wasn’t in use in 1966, the hypothetical (and technically impossible) chance of a burning reactor melting its way through the Earth all the way to China gives us the term “China Syndrome.”
Fermi 1 actually sits in between Detroit and Toledo, but I guess “We Almost Lost Toledo” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Faded Giant, by the way, is the codeword for a non-weapon nuclear incident like this (who actually goes around using these code words, I have no idea).
Tybee Island, 1958 — Broken Arrow
In the waters off Tybee Island, Georgia, right at the Georgia/South Carolina border and not far from Savannah, buried in about 10 feet of silt is a hydrogen bomb. It’s been there for more than 50 years.
In 1958, a B-47 Stratojet bomber suffered a mid-air collision during training exercises. It was carrying a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb at the time – a lightweight bomb 12 feet long and carrying 400 pounds of explosives and highly enriched uranium. The damaged bomber’s crew decided that this wasn’t the sort of thing they wanted to be carrying when they attempted a crash landing, so they asked for and received permission to dump the bomb in the ocean. It did not explode when it hit the water, and was never seen again.
There is some discrepancy as to whether the bomb was fully armed. Some reports suggest it was, but the Air Force officially lists it as containing a dummy capsule. Several attempts have been made to locate it, but the natural radiation of the surrounding geology has made this difficult. If it had been armed, and had detonated, the city of Savannah would have pretty much disappeared.
Idaho Falls, 1961 — Faded Giant
You’re probably expecting to find Three-Mile Island on this list. That was potentially a serious disaster, and it did release radioactive gas into a populated area. But the Idaho Falls incident stands out as the most gruesome U.S. nuclear disaster, and it’s relatively little known.
The SL-1 reactor was an experimental reactor run by the U.S. Army near Idaho Falls, Idaho. On the night of January 3, 1961, heat alarms went off. Nearby emergency personnel made their way to the scene. They could not reach the control room for more than an hour and a half because of high radiation levels. When they did, they found two victims, one clinging to life (he died not long after). Even after being removed from the reactor building, the corpses themselves were so radioactive they had to be buried in lead and concrete tombs.
The worst was still to come. Several days later, rescue crews found the third operator. He had been standing atop the reactor when the incident occurred, and the force of the explosion had blasted a control rod up and through his chest, pinning him to the ceiling.
The key to the incident was the crew’s ability to control the rate of the reaction. A sustainable reaction requires each fission event to generate enough neutrons to strike an additional atom, generating one more fission event. Control is maintained by manipulating the probability of a neutron causing fission, mainly through control rods of a material that harmlessly absorbs the neutrons. Putting more controls rods into the reactor slows the reaction. SL-1 was undergoing maintenance that required a few inches of the main control rod to be removed. Since this reactor design used one big control rod, a single mistake (withdrawing almost the entire control rod) caused the reaction to instantly go supercritical – fission events occurring and exponentially multiplying.
The massive jump in energy output vaporized the water coolant and parts of the reactor itself, resulting in a powerful explosion. The explosion itself caused the reaction to halt. I’m still waiting for Gil Scott-Heron to write “We Almost Lost Idaho Falls.”
NORAD, 1979 — NUCFLASH (almost)
This is how NORAD learned not to run computer simulations of Soviet nuclear attacks on the systems used to respond to actual Soviet nuclear attacks. The missile defense agency received alarming indications that a full scale battery of Russian nukes were heading toward the U.S. Planes were scrambled with fully armed nuclear weapons. The president’s shielded emergency plane was put into the air too (although they couldn’t get the president on it in time).
Fingers hovered over buttons. Commanders of flight crews waited for word to strike. For six tense minutes, no one was sure if World War III was happening…and oddly, no one used the “red phone” hotline to ask the Soviets. Finally, word came from Advanced Early Warning radar and satellites that no missiles were detected. The culprit? A training tape had accidentally been run and generated the false positive signals. In military parlance, a NUCFLASH is an actual nuclear detonation that might lead to an outbreak of nuclear war.
An honorable mention goes to the Duluth bear, in which a guard saw a bear climbing a fence at an Air Force base and rang an alarm. The alarm connected to other nearby bases, but one of them was wired wrong, so instead of “intruder alert!” they got the “Nuke Russia Now!” alarm. Nuclear armed jets were on the runways ready to take off before the mistake was rectified.
If that doesn’t seem scary enough, there are dozens more incidents like these on the U.S. side alone. We haven’t even touched on the Cuban Missile Crisis. The sad lesson is that we have less to fear from naked aggression than we do from incompetence and bad engineering.
Farmer, James H. “Korea and the A-Bomb.” Flight Journal, Dec. 2010.
“The SL-1 Reactor Accident.” Radiationworks.
“Nuclear Accidents.” Georgia State University.
“Criticality Accidents.” Trinity Atomic Website.
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Not to thread-jack, but what’s the point of having the reactionary nuke launches even as a methodology?
If the US just got blitzed by actual nukes (not just some computer or radar error), what’s the point of shooting back? Hundreds of millions of people would be dead, and launching nukes in response would just take that into the billions, for what? Two burning countries?
I understand that the whole nuclear stalemate is such that nobody wants to fire and risk mutual destruction. But once it’s passed that point and the deterrent has failed, why kill billions of innocent civilians? Might as well fold up that card table and go home.
It may not be the most patriotic thing, but I would rather see the US invaded and perhaps even occupied (though I don’t see how it would be possible or profitable) by a foreign state than see the planet nuked back into the stone age.
I’m surprised we all survived the cold war; such idiocy. Reply
“The sad lesson is that we have less to fear from naked aggression than we do from incompetence and bad engineering.”
Awesome article…awesome closing statement…
Though I am curious, could those misbegotten atom bombs really have ‘cooked’ off ? You actually need really precise timing to achieve a fission detonation, IIRC unless the detonator is used properly you won’t get an atomic explosion, you’ll just get a conventional if ‘dirty’ (ie with radioactive fallout) explosion.
I could be wrong though…that might apply mainly to Hydrogen bombs… Reply
And yet, nuclear power has cost the least lives of all kinds of energy creation. Waaaay less than coal in any case.
Despite the nuclear scare that certain political movements produce constantly, it is the savest and among the cleanest energy sources that we have.
Not a very well-known fact, but there was a brilliant math scientist in Romania that figured out in the 70s that the cold war and the nuclear standoff is doomed sooner or later to produce such incidents, pretty much bringing inadvertently the two superpowers on the verge of extinction through a series of mistakes.
He was called Bernard Bereanu and was given the rare chance by Nixon himself to lecture on this aspect in game theory in western universities.
Pretty much he single-handedly told the big guys with the nuclear sticks that their hardware, software or people will sooner or later cause the unthinkable – without the need,heed, will or command from the top – i.e. the game of chicken is gonna burn the two sides beyond repair.
I don’t know how many sane people actually listened and realized the consequences of these pure math conclusions, but this guy, Bereanu, was despised in cold-war era Romania to the point of being “suicided” by Securitate for his openness and critique of the regime back then. His son Vladimir Bereanu helped topple down Ceausescu in 89 from Bulgaria, so Karma has its way… Reply
A nuke on a training exercise, that tells you how ready the Americans are. Don’t mess with them. ReplyTyrunn promoted this comment
They never did find the 2nd bomb in the Goldsboro, NC crash of 1961. It’s still buried in a farmer’s field.
Also I’m pretty sure that Faded Giant is only used for Navy equipment. As SL-1 was a US Army installation, the classification is incorrect. Reply
“The designers made changes to the cooling system without documenting them, so the engineers working on the reactor didn’t know that there were extra dispersion plates in the liquid sodium containment tank.”
For fuck’s sake, people. Reply
There was a time an asteroid almost led to a nuclear war. It exploded in the sky, like the siberan one a century ago, but was too small to do more than make noise. But it freaked out a military base and they almost launched.
And, waiting, is the “Dead Hand”
See, Ray-Gun raved that “Star Wars” had no hostile intention, and that his astrologer told him he was the reincarnation of the man who invented the first shield. Well, the Russian leader went “This man is an incredible actor. I believe he believes that like of —– he just spoke. To say that with a straight face… No man that senile, that dottering could be allowed to rule such a nation. He must be lying.”
So, he went to his scientists and had them analyze “Star Wars”. Note that due to a series of traitors, such as Aldrich Ames, they had tons of data on it.
Their scientists said; “There is no way this Star Wars could defend America from a nuclear strike. Even if they bankrupt their nation, twice. However, it could mitigate the damage to very minimal levels -if- they strike first and massively with absolute surprise. Note the speed of their “Minutemen” missiles…”
So they worked on the “Dead Hand” that was an automated system that would override and instantly launch all the nukes if a few “Triggers” were pulled. Designed for nuclear war, and while very unlikely, natural events and human disaster could trigger it. For instance, if there had been an earthquake or there was another Siberan Explosion at the time of Chernobyl…
And they intended to publish it. “IF you mean peace, this is no threat. But if you intend a first strike, it will not work…” But then the wall fell and Russians became more concerned with Vodka and human trafficking and hacking…
It’s still in place.
Just vodka/meth heads doing “Copper theft” won’t set it off, but if some other things happen, it’s more and more frayed every day… ReplyErinaceus promoted this comment
Misleading! None of the Faded Giant/Broken Arrow accidents could have resulted in nuclear yield. Since the 1950s, warheads have been designed with built in safety mechanisms. The chance of accidental nuclear yield is nearly 0. Reply
If by “nuked” you mean a nuclear explosion, then really the NORAD incident is the only time. Travis and Tybee don’t count because nuclear weapons don’t work that way. SL-1 and Fermi are reactors, which are quite different than bombs. Chernobyl? Maybe. Hiroshima? No.
I don’t mean to take any of these incidents lightly, but lumping all of these together as possible nuclear explosions contributes to people associating nuclear reactors with mushroom clouds. Reply
the terminology in question by the US Air Force Civil Engineering Disaster Preparedness/Readiness personnel, who are trained to respond to all these incidents. They are also used by our Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and all federal law enforcement personnel. Reply
Woh woh woh… So in 1979 Wargames actually happened??? ReplyHomerjay has ABSA Fever promoted this comment
Ban the Bomb.
The simple truth of the matter is that if we have nuclear weapons and there’s a war that uses them, we’re all going to die. If there’s another war involving nuclear weapons and we don’t have them we will still all die.
Personally I’m for peace.
If the world put as much energy into working towards peace as it does in preparing for war then hunger and pestilence and disease would be historical bullet points by now.
Either way, nuclear weapons are extremely expensive and pretty stupid, (Mutually Assured Destruction anyone?) let’s save the money and spend it on making life better rather than idiotic weapons and impressive but ridiculous submarines to slink around the oceans threatening us all.
To paraphrase John Lennon: just imagine the possibilities… Reply
Reading, pfft. I got the gist of the story from looking at the pictures: An astronaut, haunted by radiation symbols, decides to flee abord a really shiny model airplane, only to discover that he is in fact just tripping while listening to Bridges. He produces their music video pro-bono, then returns to his native 1857 to try his luck at building what ends up being a retarded locomotive, and he is ridiculed a lot. So he gives up and decides to settle down with a comfortable job as a shed crane operator. THE END. ReplySteve Williams promoted this comment
Shame, not one reference to the Demon Core, a ball of Plutonium that was responsible for two deaths in two separate instances.
ok this article leaves out many important point.
1)@ Travis airforce base: a nuclear bomb like the one this plane was carrying (a plutonium bomb) requires all of the conventional explosives to detonate perfectly at the same time in order for the plutonium core to be compressed into a critical mass (this is why nuclear bombs air-burst, the shock from hitting the ground renders them useless) . This cannot happen by accidental explosion. So, yes, several people lost their lives but there was no danger of a thermonuclear detonation.
2) Fermi reactor: worst case scenario, this reactor melts fuel and some fission products are released into the environment (i.e. three-mile island). Nuclear reactors CANNOT EVER detonate like a bomb. Ever. It’s physics.
3)Same problem as 1
4) the SL-1 reactor’s explosion was entirely a steam explosion, there was no nuclear detonation. the radioactivity came from the shielding (water) boiling off, thus exposing everything and everyone to neutron radiation, which makes other elements radioactive. Oh and there is a strong case that the SL-1 plant was sabotage by the guy pinned%d bloggers like this: