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Locked, Loaded and Lost – the hunt for missing nukes

Missing nuclear bombs - should we be scared?  Picture: Pierre J. Flickr
Missing nuclear bombs – should we be scared? Picture: Pierre J. Flickr

Some refer to them as Broken Arrow incidents, some call them nuclear mishaps. Dangerous nuclear accidents have happened since the discovery of radiation, and as we learned earlier this year, weaponized nuclear material is not as secure as one might expect. Weapons of mass destruction are vulnerable to the same accidents every other object: they can break down, they can go missing, and they can later be discovered by anybody.

The first report of nuclear weapons simply having gone missing is from March 10, 1956 when a U.S. B-47 strategic bomber carrying two nuclear capsules (which are used in nuclear weapons to initiate the nuclear reaction) vanished into thin air somewhere over or near the Mediterranean Sea. The plane was scheduled for its second in-air refueling over the Mediterranean but it never made it there. To date, despite extensive search, no traces of the missing plane, crew or nuclear capsules have been discovered.

Next year, in 1957, a U.S. cargo aircraft C-124 jettisoned its cargo over the Atlantic Ocean after experiencing a loss of power in some of its engines. The aircraft was carrying three weapons and one nuclear capsule, of which two weapons were lost in the ocean. The remaining weapon and capsule made it safely to an airfield in New Jersey, but the two missing weapons remain lost.

An incident so absurd it resembles fiction happened on December 5, 1965 in the Pacific Ocean. A U.S. A-4 Skyhawk (a carrier-capable attack aircraft) rolled off the USS Ticonderoga aircraft carrier, sinking into the ocean. The pilot, aircraft and a B43 thermonuclear bomb were lost and have not been found. The incident caused a political uproar in Japan where the aircraft carrier was returning from a bombing mission in Vietnam because Japan had prohibited nuclear weapons in its territory. Another embarrassing incident to the USAF took place near the U.S. Thule airbase in northern Greenland on January 21, 1968. Thule air base is a strategically important base to the United States, and during the Cold War B-52 bombers circled around the base 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In 1968 one of those bombers was carrying four nuclear bombs when it unexpectedly crashed.

Checking a worker’s radiation levels at Thule Air Base in 1968.
Checking a worker’s radiation levels at Thule Air Base in 1968.

Besides contaminating vast areas with plutonium, apparently only three of the four nuclear bombs were recovered. This accident resulted in hundreds of deaths due to exposure to radiation, and in demonstrations and protest notes in nuclear weapons-free Denmark, which at the time administered Greenland as a colony. To clean it up, the U.S. removed 6711 cubic meters of contaminated ice and debris to the United States – similar to what the U.S. had had to do in Spain two years earlier after a mid-air collision where a B-52 bomber, also carrying four nuclear bombs, crashed near the village of Palomares. Luckily, none of those bombs were armed: two of them ruptured on impact, scattering plutonium, the third bomb landed safely, but the fourth bomb was discovered only four months later in the Mediterranean. 1400 tons of contaminated soil was removed to the U.S. and parts of the area are still radioactive today.

Within the U.S. as well, B-52 bombers have an unflattering history in nuclear warfare. In 1961, while flying over North Carolina, a USAF B-52 carrying two nuclear bombs broke apart. The fuzing sequence started for both bombs, but due to mechanical malfunctions within the bombs, neither exploded. An explosion could have instantly killed over 50,000 people, but now only a sign saying ‘Nuclear Mishap’ reminds of the incident. A proportion of one weapon could not be found and is still missing with some uranium.

Anything that goes up has to come down. This applies not only to airplanes but to submarines carrying nuclear weapons as well. 1968 was a dark year for submarines, when four submarines in total went missing. Two of them, the USS Scorpion and the Soviet K-129, were carrying nuclear warheads. USS Scorpion sank in spring in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere south of the Azores Islands for a mysterious reason. Speculations range from Soviet ambush to self-firing torpedo, but due to the depth of the ocean the reason for the accident hasn’t been confirmed. What is known, though, is that the submarine took with it two nuclear warheads to the seabed. The K-129 sank either on March 8 or March 11, the exact date is unknown. The Soviet submarine was carrying three ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, possibly R-21s which were the standard SLBM model used by the Soviet Union between 1963 and 1989. A U.S. submarine found the wreck of K-129 in late 1968 – a discovery that started one of the biggest secret operations of the Cold War, called Project Azorian.

"Nuclear Mishap" sign in Eureka, NC. picture: RJHaas at engelska Wikipedia
“Nuclear Mishap” sign in Eureka, NC.  picture: RJHaas at engelska Wikipedia

The aim of this operation was to create and launch a special ship capable of lifting the wreck of K-129 in order to give the United States access to Soviet missile technology. Despite the risks an operation like this would have on the relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the project was launched and, in August 1974, managed to raise portions of the submarine to the surface. Due to the black-ops nature of the operation it was led by the CIA, who released a limited amount of official information about the operation in 2010. It still remains unclear whether the expedition trying to salvage the submarine wreck succeeded, and if it did, to what extent. According to Russian officials the CIA succeeded in salvaging nuclear-armed torpedoes, whereas the official report claims only “intangibly beneficial” results.

Otfried Nassauer, who has published widely on nuclear weapons, believes that “[…] up to 50 nuclear weapons worldwide were lost during the Cold War.” Can these lost nukes end up in malevolent hands? “Quite a few weapons are located in places that are still completely inaccessible with the means available to us today,” soothed Nassauer in 2008, two years before the CIA made public their accomplishments with the K-129 submarine. Before we start speculating about terrorists salvaging nuclear warheads from sunken submarines, consider that perhaps the forces of nature pose a larger threat: nuclear weapons on the seabed are slowly corroding and leaking radiation – a slowly ticking environmental time bomb.

Otso Rajala

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