New Internationalist

Oops!

Issue 97

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THE NUCLEAR ARMS RACE[image, unknown] Accidents that cuold lead to obliteration

[image, unknown]


[image, unknown] OOPS!
Our nuclear weapons systems, designed to protect us from the enemy could, more likely, explode in our faces. This is a guide to occasions when the world came close to a nuclear holocaust - by accident or design.
All Photos: Camera Press

[image, unknown] 1956[image, unknown]

Suez Crisis, Middle East
France and Britain's invasion of Egypt prompted the USSR to demand a withdrawal. The demand was backed by a nuclear alert to all Soviet forces. The USA placed its nuclear forces on a similar state of red alert.

[image, unknown] 1960[image, unknown]

New Jersey, USA
A Momarc Air-Defence missile site in New Jersey caught fire. The fire and two explosions severely damaged one of the surface-to-air missiles which carried a nuclear warhead.

Tennessee River, USA
A large Corporal missile with a nuclear warhead rolled off a transport vehicle and into the Tennessee River,

In 1961 a mistaken interpretation by America's early-warning system led the US strategic air force to fly off to bomb Russia. After two hours flying the aircraft were recalled as, by then, it had been discovered that the original signal was merely a moon echo. It the same mistake happened today, intercontinental ballistic missiles would hit Moscow within an hour, long before the recall signal could be sent.

[image, unknown] 1962[image, unknown]

[image, unknown] Cuba
The US demanded the withdrawal of Soviet ballistic missiles from Cuba. The Soviet Union agreed on condition the US withdrew its missiles from Turkey. This was refused and the superpowers remained on the brink of nuclear war for six days before the USSR agreed to remove its missiles.

Johnson Islands, Pacific Ocean
The first 30 mile-high thermo-nuclear explosion was an accident after the Thor ICBM launch vehicle had failed. The device was exploded in flight, the warhead yield being one megaton.

Johnson Islands, Pacific Ocean
The second high altitude test with a Thor ICBM also failed. The missile and warhead were destroyed 200 miles above the ocean. Reportedly a radioactive hot spat on the floor of the Pacific will mark this failure for centuries.

[image, unknown] 1963[image, unknown]

US Atlantic Coastline
A nuclear-powered attack submarine,'Thresher'was lost with all hands. It is unclear whether the submarine sank with nuclear warheads in its hold.

[image, unknown] 1964[image, unknown]

Unspecified date
Valetta Harbour, Malta

While at anchor, a merchant ship ran into a US destroyer. It was a minor collision but hit the spot where nuclear missiles were stared.

Remote-control electronic safeguards have their own dangers. On one occasion an H-bomb plane had its electronic key activated by a tune from a Spanish pop station and was thus primed for action. Despite all precautions, there is no certainty that an accidental missile firing will not occur one day.

[image, unknown] 1965[image, unknown]

Haiphong Bay, nr. North Vietnam
An F-102 pilot fired a nuclear missile by accident against some North Vietnamese gunboats. The error was reportedly caused by a crossed wire in the firing safety mechanism.

[image, unknown] 1966[image, unknown]

Palomares, Spain
A B-52 anda KC-135 refuelling tanker collided in mid-air near Palomares. The B-52 crashed after it had dropped four hydrogen bombs. One landed intact in a dry riverbed, the second and third released radio-active material amongst local villagers and the fourth was retrieved from the sea. This bomb was possibly carrying a 20 megaton warhead.

[image, unknown] 1968[image, unknown]

Thule, Greenland
A B52 bomber crashed and the four thermonuclear bombs were lost and never found.

Pacific Ocean, 750 miles N.W. of Hawaii
A Soviet ballistic missile submarine sank while cruising, after a series of explosions on board. Suspected that parts of the submarine have been recovered by the CIA. Reports indicate the submarine carried torpedoes with nuclear warheads.

Norwegian Sea
Whilst buzzing the US aircraft carrier, 'Essex', a Soviet TU-16 Badger crashed into the water. It was possibly carrying nuclear depth charges.

Rutland, UK
An RAF Vulcan bomber crashed; reportedly not carrying nuclear weapons.

Off the Florida coast
A British nuclear-powered submarine developed a defect in the electrical generator. It was forced to put into port whilst on a Polaris test-firing programme.

Isle of Wight, UK
A Scimitar aircraft crashed after hitting overhead power lines.

[image, unknown]

[image, unknown] 1969[image, unknown]

Kentucky, USA
A B52 bomber carrying two nuclear weapons with warheads collided with a KC-135 tanker over Glen Bean, Kentucky. Both bombs were recovered undamaged from the wreckage.

Mediterranean Sea, off Sicily
US Navy Corsair aircraft crashed into the sea. US sources stated the plane did not carry nuclear weapons, Italian sources reported that it did.

[image, unknown] 1970[image, unknown]

Bay of Biscay, Atlantic Ocean
Technical difficulties forced a Soviet nuclear-powered submarine, N class, to surface before eventually sinking. Since its loss the Soviets have stationed an electronic intelligence ship at the site, around the clock.

[image, unknown]

[image, unknown] 1971[image, unknown]

Lake Michigan, USA
Two-fold nuclear nightmare narrowly averted when a B-52 crashed near Big Rock Nuclear Power Plant at Charlevoix, Michegan. Since then, new flight patterns issued for B-52s. Official denial of nuclear weapons on board aircraft.

There have been at least thirteen accidents involving aircraft carrying nuclear bomb's and, on one occasion, a B-52, bomber crashed over South Carolina with a 10 megaton bomb on board. The bomb was equipped with five interlocking safety devices to prevent an accidental explosion but, on recovery, four of the five safety devices were found to have been triggered by the fall: Had the bomb exploded, it could have been interpreted as a surprise Russian attack and America could have 'counter-attacked'.

[image, unknown] 1973[image, unknown]

[image, unknown] Luxemil, France
A Mirage IV bomber crashed on takeoff. Two other Mirage IV bombers crashed the same year, one near Bellegarde and the other off the coast of Corsica.

Yom Kippur War, Middle East
October 1973 Egypt faced major defeat, Brezhnev suggest-ed to Nixon superpower intervention to prevent more violations of Israeli cease-fire agreements. This was rejected, but the US did apply considerable pressure on Israel. Simultaneously Nixon placed nuclear strike forces on a worldwide alert.

[image, unknown] 1974[image, unknown]

Black Sea
A guided-missile destroyer of the 'Kashin' class exploded and sank.

[image, unknown] 1975[image, unknown]

Nevada Nuclear Test Site
A canister containing a 20 Kiloton bomb fell 40 feet down a nuclear test shaft. No reported radiation leak.

[image, unknown] 1976[image, unknown]

Ionian Sea
While travelling on the surface, a Soviet nuclear-powered submarine rammed the US frigate 'Vago'.

In 1976 the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee learnt that US nuclear submarines on patrol in Soviet waters had collided with 'hostile vessels' nine times in the previous sixteen years.

[image, unknown] 1978[image, unknown]

[image, unknown] Kansas, USA
Oxidiser gas cloud engulfs a Titan II missile site. One man died and hundreds of people were evacuated from the area.

[image, unknown] 1980[image, unknown]

USA
The Early Warning System of North American Air Defence Command was put on red alert twice, due to false alarms indicating Soviet military attack.

Arkansas, USA
A Titan missile catapulted hundreds of feet into the air due to 'human error'.

[image, unknown] UNSPECIFIED TIMES AND PLACES OF ACCIDENTS[image, unknown]

[image, unknown] One operational intercontinental ballistic missile blew up on its launching pad.

[image, unknown] Anti-aircraft nuclear-tipped missiles have misfired on seversl occasions.

[image, unknown] At least two occasions when missiles with nuclear warheads have been launched in error.

[image, unknown] A nuclear bomb has been recovered by American personnel from a wrecked Russian aircraft in the Sea of Japan.

In 1949, two months after his retirement, former US Secretary of Defence James V. Forrestall committed suicide by jumping from a sixteenth storey balcony. He had become so convinced of the Communist 'threat' that when a fire engine disturbed his sleep he ran out in his pyjamas screaming that the Russians were coming. The most serious aspect of his mental illness was that many Defence Department officials accepted his anti-Soviet hallucinations whilst he was still in office.

All material in the black boxes quoted from 'Overkill' by John Cox. (see Also Worth Reading)
Details researched and compiled by Chris Smith, Armament and Disarmament Information Unit, University of Sussex.


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