The Record of Accidents by the U.S. Air Force which Involved Thermonuclear Weapons
San José State University

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The Record of Accidents
by the U.S. Air Force which
Involved Thermonuclear Weapons

When almost anyone thinks of the danger associated with nuclear weapons they think only of war. They imagine that, at least in the United States, those weapons are so tightly controlled there is no chance of one ever being lost. The reality is quite different. There have been at least 29 serious accidents involving nuclear weapons. Here is a tabulation of the known incidents in which nuclear bombs were lost. There were eight incidents involving ten intact bombs being lost.

Incidents Involving a Loss of Nuclear Weaons or Material
YearPlaceCircumstances
1950Not AvailablePlane carrying two bombs
disappeared over water
1956Mediterranean SeaPlane carrying two bombs
disappeared over water
1957Atlantic near Atlantic City,
New Jersey
Two bombs jettisoned at sea
1958Mouth of Savannah River,
Georgia
One bomb lost at sea
1958Florence, South CarolinaOne bomb fell from plane
and was recovered
1959Puget Sound, WashingtonOne bomb lost at sea
1961Goldsboro, North CarolinaParcel of uranium fell into
deep mud in swamp
1965Pacific Plane carrying bomb
rolled off aircraft carrier
1966SE coast of SpainB-52 carrying four bombs
caught fire. Three bombs
landed in farmland, one lost
at sea. That one recovered after
$12 million search
1968Thule, GreenlandB-52 carrying four bombs crahed on the ice.
The bombs were destroyed by fire.

The next to the last one above was particularly catastrophic. An accident in refueling resulted in the B-52 being sprayed with fuel which ignited. Seven of the eleven crew members were killed. The bombs were jettisoned with parachutes but for two of the bombs that fell on land the parachutes failed. Those two landed with such an impact that the conventional explosives they contained exploded and that vaporized the plutonium they contained. The farm fields were vacant that day so no one in the fields was injured.

Elaborate search schemes were tried,but success came when the searchers relied upon the eye-witness report of a Spanish fisherman.

The Soviets over the same post war period lost 43 nuclear warheads in missiles on sunken submarines.


Source:

Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, The theory that would not die, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011.


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