Less than 20 years after dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. narrowly avoided causing another nuclear disaster – this one on its own turf.
It has long been known that when a B-52 bomber broke up in the sky over North Carolina in 1961, two four-megaton hydrogen bombs fell out of the aircraft towards Goldsboro, North Carolina.
Recently revealed details, however, indicate that the plane crash had pushed one of the bombs into “armed” mode – and that one of the bombs' parachutes failed to deploy.
Had the bombs detonated, they could have caused explosions 260 times more powerful than the one that occurred in Hiroshima.
By a stroke of luck, the switch that triggered the bomb’s detonation had also been damaged while the plane broke apart.
As reported by Opposing Views, a declassified report published by the National Security Archives towards the end of last year explains the January 1961 incident.
“For Weapon 2, the Arm/Safe switch was in the ‘safe’ position, yet it was virtually armed because the impact shock had rotated the indicator drum to the ‘armed’ position,” wrote Bill Burr of the National Security Archives.
“But the shock also damaged the switch contacts, which had to be intact for the weapon to detonate,” Burr noted.
Last year, nuclear weapons expert Eric Schlosser detailed the incident in his book “Command and Control of Nuclear Weapons.”
Schlosser gained access to documentation about the incident through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Before these documents surfaced, the U.S. government had denied that its nuclear weapons had ever put the nation at risk.
As Schlosser told the Guardian, “We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here’s one that very nearly did.”
Although the plane’s pilots survived and no one on the ground was killed, just how close the U.S. came to being the site of a major nuclear detonation cannot be overstated.
Burr quoted Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s observation, several years after the incident, in which he said that it was only “by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, [that] a nuclear explosion was averted.”
“It would have destroyed every structure within a four-mile radius,” said Air Force weapons disposal specialist Jack ReVelle. “There would have been a 100-percent kill zone for eight and a half miles in every direction.”