New Internationalist

Whoops!

June 2008

We all make mistakes, and people in charge of weapons of mass destruction are no exception…

Illustration: Polyp
Illustration: Polyp

2007: 6 US cruise missiles were mistakenly loaded on to a B52 bomber and lost track of for 36 hours.

1998: Until 1998 Britain’s nukes were not protected by any security measures to prevent them going off if in the wrong hands. To arm the Brits’ bombs, one simply inserted a bicycle lock key and turned it 90 degrees.

1983: NATO forces played a war game, which simulated a conflict escalation culminating in a nuclear attack. But no-one had told the USSR, who mistook it for the real thing. They readied their forces to nuke Western Europe and the US pre-emptively. Fortunately, before anyone had actually pressed the red button the Soviets realized it was just an exercise.

1980: An airman dropped a wrench socket 80 feet, piercing the skin of a nuclear missile. A few hours later the rocket’s fuel tank exploded, shooting the (intact) warhead 100 feet, killing an airman and destroying the Arkansas complex.

1977: A Soviet submarine accidentally fired one of its warheads while off the coast of Kamchatka. After a frantic search it was recovered.

1970s: An H-bomb plane was accidentally primed for action when its electronic key was activated by a tune from a Spanish pop station.

1966: A plane carrying four thermonuclear bombs collided in mid-air with a refueller from Moron Air Base, Spain, scattering plutonium dust for miles. One of the bombs wasn’t found for 80 days.

1961: A bomber caught fire and exploded over North Carolina, releasing two H-bombs. Three of the four arming devices on one of the nukes activated, causing it very nearly to go off. The other bomb plunged into a field at 700 mph and disintegrated. The US Air Force swiftly bought the land, fenced it off and still test it for contamination from time to time.

This feature was published in the June 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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