Broken Arrows: When Nuclear Weapons Go Wrong

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Podcast Transcript

Nuclear weapons are the most devastating things humans have ever created. They are so powerful and terrible that nations that have them strictly control how they are used and handled. 

That being said, over the 75-year history that nuclear weapons have existed, accidents have happened. 

While not common, they have happened enough that the US military has a code word for such events. 

Learn more about broken arrows and what happens when there are problems with nuclear weapons on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

Nuclear weapons are very serious things. 

The only thing worse than using them would be that they would be used by accident, or even worse, that one might be stolen and used by a nefarious third party. 

To that end, today, nuclear weapons have the tightest controls. Even back in the late Cold War, command and control systems were in place to ensure that nuclear weapons would never be used when they weren’t intended.

If you ever want to see what the systems were like to control nuclear missiles, I highly recommend visiting the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in Western South Dakota. 

They have an actual minuteman nuclear launch site, and you can visit the underground bunker where the missileers (that was their title) would be on duty for days at a time underground behind blast-proof doors.

That being said, these protocols surrounding nuclear weapons took time to develop, and they were created due to several rather embarrassing and dangerous accidents.

While an accident surrounding nuclear weapons is to be avoided at all costs, there are protocols in place if such a thing were to happen. Such an event is known as a “Broken Arrow.” 

A broken arrow could be any number of things, including an unintended nuclear explosion that has never happened, a lost weapon, an accident with a weapon, or radioactive contamination.

While such events don’t get much publicity, they have happened, and they have happened far more often than you might have realized. 

The United States Department of Defense has admitted to 32 broken arrow incidents from 1950 to 1980, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is a part of the Department of Defense, has unofficially confirmed that there were hundreds more.

Some of these incidents are quite shocking, and hard to believe they were even allowed to happen. 

The first recorded broken arrow incident occurred on February 14, 1950. A Convair B-36B bomber flew from Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska, to Carswell Air Force Base outside of Fort Worth, Texas. 

The flight was an exercise where they would fly for 24 hours over the North Pacific and do a simulated bombing run before heading to Texas. The bomber was carrying a Mark-4 nuclear weapon.

Nuclear weapons were still new in 1950, and the Mark-4 was a newer version of the same type of bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. 

When the bomber took off, the temperature was -40, which is the same in Fahrenheit and Celsius. The extreme cold weather caused problems with the engines of the plane. During the flight, three of the six engines failed, and the remaining three couldn’t complete the mission. 

The crew made the decision to abandon the bomber over the waters of British Columba. 

As part of abandoning the plane, they ejected the bomb and detonated it with conventional explosives. 

The bomb was not activated with its plutonium core, so there was no threat of a nuclear explosion, but there was still a lot of enriched uranium inside.

The bomb’s detonation was kept a secret for years, so no one would have known to look for it. 

The kicker is that the bomb and the uranium were never recovered. In 2016, a diver supposedly was in the area when he claimed to have found an object that looked like part of a bomb but had no corroborating evidence. 

There were three other plane crashes during 1950 alone where nuclear bombs or the material for bombs were involved in the crash, but all the materials were recovered.

This was one of the first broken arrow incidents, but it was nowhere close to the last. 

In 1956, a Boeing B-47 crashed off the coast of Morocco, killing all three crew members. On board were materials for two nuclear weapons, but not actual weapons themselves. 

A search was conducted, and no evidence of the plane or the bomb material was ever found. 

1958 was a bad year for nuclear weapon accidents and the state of South Carolina.

On February 5, a B-47 on a training exercise out of Homestead Air Force Base in Florida had a mid-air collision with an F-86 fighter near Tybee Island, South Carolina. A Mark-15 nuclear bomb was on board which was jettisoned to protect the crew. 

Usually, conventional explosives are detonated around the bomb, rendering it useless. 

In this case, the conventional explosive didn’t explode the device and slipped into the water. 

One of the big unknowns about the Tybee Island bomb was if the plutonium core had been installed. If the plutonium core was in the bomb, it was a functional, working nuclear weapon. 

The Air Force initially claimed that a lead core was installed for training purposes. However, in 1966, the Assistant Secretary of Defense testified before Congress that it was, in fact, a fully functioning nuclear weapon with a plutonium core. 

The bomb was never found. There was a major effort to find it, but they came up empty-handed. The bomb is believed to be buried beneath 15 feet or 5 meters of sediment. 

Another broken arrow incident in South Carolina occurred just a month later, on March 11, 1958. This incident also involved a B-47. 

In this incident, the bomber took off from Hunter Air Force Base in South Carolina en route to the United Kingdom. The bomber was carrying a Mark-6 nuclear weapon.

This incident wasn’t a case of a collision or a crash. In this case, the bomb was accidentally dropped by the Captain, who was trying to fix a problem. 

The bomb fell directly onto a playhouse of two young sisters, Helen and Frances Gregg, who were six and nine years old. The girls were standing about 200 meters away when the bomb hit their play house and conventional explosives in the bomb detonated. 

It left a 21-meter wide, 11-meter-deep crater where the girl’s playhouse used to be. 

In 1961, one incident came the closest to an actual nuclear explosion. 

On January 23, 1961, a B-52 flew out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base outside of Goldsboro, North Carolina. On board were two, Mark-39 nuclear bombs, each had a yield of 3.8 megatons. 

The plane suffered a fuel leak and exploded in mid-air. 

One of the two bombs deployed its parachute and landed safely on Earth. It was found almost immediately was the parachute was caught in a tree. 

The parachute on the other bomb, however, didn’t deploy. It hit a muddy field at a speed of 700 miles per hour, or 310 meters per second, and disintegrated. 

The Air Force initially indicated that there was no chance of an explosion but in a 2013 freedom of information request. It was discovered that three of the four safety mechanisms didn’t deploy. 

There was a great deal of difficulty excavating the bomb, given how far into the soft ground it was embedded and groundwater kept seeping into the excavation site. The plutonium core was recovered, but the rest of the uranium was never found. 

The most egregious case of an actual, armed, fully functional nuclear weapon being lost occurred in 1965. 

The aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga was in the Philippine Sea off the coast of Japan. They were moving a Douglas A-4E Skyhawk from a hanger to an elevator to take it to the flight deck when it rolled over the side of the ship. 

On the plane was a B43 nuclear bomb with a variable yield from 79 kilotons to 1 megaton. 

The bomb was fully functional with an active plutonium core. The plane and the bomb were never found and are believed to be sitting at the bottom of the ocean, 16,000 feet or 4,900 meters below the surface.

I’ll end with what is perhaps the most famous broken arrow incident in history, just because it occurred with so many witnesses.

On January 17, 1966, a B-52 bomber collided in the air with a KC-135 tanker while refueling off the coast of Palomares, Spain. 7 crew members were killed on the two planes. 

Hundreds of people witnessed the crash and the incident wound up on the front page of the New York Times. 

The B-52 had four hydrogen bombs on board. 

Two of the bombs had their conventional explosives detonate, which spread plutonium over a one square mile area outside of Palomares. 

One bomb fell into soft ground in a riverbed, and the final bomb landed in the Mediterranean Sea. 

The bomb which fell into the sea was found by several fishermen. Under maritime law, the fishermen were able to claim salvage rights to the bomb. They went to court to claim 1% of the value of the weapon, which had a value of $2 billion dollars. The fishermen and the United States government settled out of court.

These are not even close to being the only broken arrow incidents. There are dozens more of minor degrees which have occurred, and these are only the ones we know about from the United States. 

There are probably many more incidents that occurred in the Soviet Union that we just don’t know about. The Soviets alone had several nuclear submarines which sunk, which has never happened to an American nuclear sub. 

Also, the number of broken arrow incidents had decreased dramatically. Almost all of the worst incidents occurred in the 50s and 60s when strategic bombers were the primary delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons, and safety systems were still being worked out.

A broken arrow incident is incredibly scary. In some ways, we are lucky that nothing ever worse has happened. While such incidents have become exceedingly rare, the risk can never be eliminated entirely.