“Nuclear mishap”. The commemorative sign in Goldsboro, North Carolina, uses a word that indicates a minor accident. Like a B-52 erroneously dropping two atomic bombs on a small town in the south of the United States was something classifiable as “minor”.
January 1961, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is yet to come. In this movie there is a tragicomic series of events, produced by mistakes and paranoid, which leads to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Cold war is reaching its apex and even filmmakers discuss about a military deterrent like the atomic bomb.
Actually, major risks for the United States never arrived from its enemies like USSR, Iran or North Korea. The USA did all by themselves and the Goldsboro accident is the most famous example.
January the 23rd 1961, a B-52 is patrolling the east coast but after about ten hours flight a problem at one tank is detected and the plane is losing fuel. They can’t discharge the combustible and perform an emergency landing, the base commands the crew to abandon the aircraft. Not everybody can do it, three of them will lose their lives.
But it could have been much, much worse. The B-52 is carrying two h-bombs, more powerful than the ones dropped on Japan to end World War II – technology made steps forward in two decades. While the airplane is falling, the wires fitted for the primer tear up, activating the bombs. Incredibly, no explosion.
One of the bombs is destroyed with no deflagration. The other one is stuck on the ground undetonated like in Wile E. Coyote cartoons. One of the security devices was activated, enough to prevent a catastrophe. Like the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara will tell years later, “thanks to two wires that didn’t cross we avoided a nuclear explosion”. This will be known only 50 years after the accident (or mishap), when a state secret falls – so Kubrick wasn’t aware of this when he shot Dr. Strangelove…
1980, it’s Damascus, Arkansas, turn. A few miles from the small village, an intercontinental missile, Titan II, explodes in its silo. Luckily the nuclear head remains untouched, but the detonation tosses it 200 meters away from the site and it took one day to find it. The trigger? A technician made a tool fall during a maintenance intervention, damaging the tank. The leak of toxic liquid also harmed the workers in the silo.
Since then, the Government wasn’t able to keep the nuclear development programs secret anymore.
The last (known) error is dated 2007, when a B-52 is loaded with six nuclear missiles by mistake. The airplane inadvertently carries them on for 36 hours. The Defense Department minimizes the fact but at the same time makes some heads fall: four commanders and other members of the United States Air Force are replaced.
There are a little less than 5 thousand nuclear heads in the USA, stored in silos all over the country. The problems occurred make Homer Simpson look less incompetent. Reality is not that far from what Matt Groening’s cartoon showed the public.
Broken doors that make this places not so unassailable, employees who fall asleep or leave the armored gates open because they are waiting for food to be delivered; ability tests failed or passed because somehow the correct answers leaked; technology which dates back to the ’60s, with floppy disks big as vinyls.
And embarrassing officials. Michael Carey is a supervisor of something like 450 international ballistic missiles when dismissed for misconduct.
He is in Russia for business but he keeps missing meetings, spending time with prostitutes or making his guests bad jokes when visibly drunk. He even tries to perform at a Mexican bar in Moscow while a Beatles cover band is on stage.
The vice-admiral Timothy Giardina ends up in a scandal for using fake fiches (500 dollars) in a casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Even if it sounds laughable, the issue is serious because it concerns safety and public spending of a (big) nation. The cost to keep the nuclear arsenal, according to the Congressional Budget Office, is 355 billion dollars for the decade 2014-2023. Since 1998 the heads reduction has been massive, there are 18 thousand unities less, a decrease of 85% in comparison with 1967.
Donald Trump emphasized the nuclear program during his campaign, but disarming slowed down during Barack Obama’s administration. The debate is across-the-board, not framed in the classic positions democrats-republicans. Even a “hawk” like Colin Powell said that the arsenal is basically useless, so there is a waste of public money.
The congressman Steve Daines tried to flip this opinion, wishing for an extension of the activities of those silos – now they would cease their purpose in 2021. In his twisted vision, spending a lot for useless sites is a way to save money, because rebuilding them would cost much more. Once again, even Colin Powell thinks a nuclear conflict is unlikely…
But Daines amendment passed and the USA remain metaphorically (or literally, the border is unclear) riding a falling nuclear bomb, waving the cowboy hat. Just like in the iconic image created by that visionary genius named Stanley Kubrick.