Who says you can’t lose a nuclear weapon?
According the to Department of Defense, there have been 50 or so incidents regarding the handling (or mishandling) of nuclear weapons over the years. In my opinion, there probably have been others but due to matters of national security or at the risk of embarrassment, have gone unreported.
Again, according to the Department of Defense, there are four categories under which the mishandling of nuclear weapons fall. They are:
"A Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff term to identify and report an accident involving a nuclear weapon or warhead or nuclear component." This is the worst case scenario.
"A Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff term used in the Department of Defense to identify and report a nuclear weapon significant incident involving a nuclear weapon or warhead, nuclear components, or vehicle when nuclear loaded."
"A reporting term to identify and report the seizure, theft, or loss of a U.S. nuclear weapon."
"A reporting term to identify an event involving a nuclear reactor or radiological accident."
The most famous instance of a “Broken Arrow” occurred of the coast off Spain on January 17th 1966.
It seems that a B-52 bomber carrying a payload that included four nuclear weapons was returning to its base after a routine mission when it needed to re-fuel. Along came a KC –135 jet tanker equipped for mid air refueling. The B-52 collided with the fueling boom and was ripped open. The fuel that spilled out ignited and the KC-135 exploded, killing all four members of its crew. Four of the seven members of the B-52 managed to parachute to safety. The B-52 broke up and the four nuclear bombs were ejected. Luckily none of them were armed and ready to go.
The explosive material in two of the bombs exploded upon impact and scattered radioactive plutonium in the sleepy little village of Palomares, Spain. The third bomb was later found in a riverbed and was “relatively intact”. The fourth one landed somewhere out at sea at an unknown location.
The Cleanup Begins
It wasn’t long before over 2,000 military personnel descended upon Palomares and the clean up effort began. After all was said and done, over 1,400 tons of radioactive soil was crated up and shipped back to the good ol’ USA (Aiken, South Carolina to be precise)for eventual disposal.
The Search Begins
In the waters off Spain, some 33 ships from the United States Navy began their search. Through the use of computers, a search area was calculated but nothing was found. Finally, an eyewitness account by the crew of a Spanish fishing vessel pinpointed the search area to about a mile. It wasn’t until March 15th that a submarine patrolling the waters discovered the bomb. It was ultimately recovered, damaged but intact, on April 7, 1966.
The United States eventually settled up with some 500 claims made the residents of Palomares whose health was effected by the radiation. One of those claims involved the construction of a desalination plant.
Can it happen today?
I don’t see why not. The only reason that the Palomares incident received such a high amount of publicity was because it occurred on foreign shores. On the premise of “security” it is the policy of the United States not to announce nuclear weapons accidents that occur within our borders. I don’t want to sound like something out of a Tom Clancy novel but presently there are 11 United States nuclear bombs that have been lost in accidents and never recovered. A random sampling reveals that there are two hydrogen bombs and a uranium core that can’t be found. One of the bombs is somewhere in the Wassaw sound off the coast of Georgia, the other is somewhere in the Puget Sound off the coast of Washington and the uranium is lost in the swamplands somewhere near Goldsboro, North Carolina.
Scary thought huh?