Whoops: Atomic Bomb dropped in Goldsboro, NC swamp, Neuse River Basin, HUC 02

Published:Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Things are kind of slow in the swamp and creek business during the holidays, so I am taking the liberty of relating a fascinating incident in North Carolina bog history.  In 1961, an atomic bomb was dropped into Nahunta Swamp, a 3rd order tributary to the Neuse River in Hydrologic Unit Code 02.  The bomb remains entombed in Nahunta Swamp to this day.

No kidding.  A cold war B-52 bomber lost a wing in a storm shortly after takeoff from Seymour Johnson AFB.   As was procedure, the crew proceeded to drop two of the most powerful U.S. atomic nuclear weapons into the riparian area below, near Pikeville.  One bomb floated gently down with its parachute and was soon retrieved.  The other bomb plunged headlong into the deep organic soils of Nahunta Swamp.  The recovery team managed to excavate some 40′ only to fall short of the unexploded weapon. The call was made to leave-the-bomb-to-be, a permanent protective easement was purchased from Davis family for $1000, and the bomb is still there — no fence, if I recall correctly.


“The Stockholm Institute has called the Goldsboro incident perhaps the single most important example in the published literature of an accident which nearly resulted in a catastrophe.”

and

Lapp wrote in Kill and Overkill that each device involved in the Goldsboro incident was equipped with “six interlocking safety mechanisms, all of which had to be triggered in sequence to explode the bomb.” Lapp said that “five of the six interlocks had been set off by the fall…” and thus, “only a single switch prevented the bomb from detonating and spreading fire and destruction over a wide area.”

Dave Schiller, a senior scientist at Restoration Systems, was a freshman at N.C. State at the time.  If Dave had been home in Goldsboro having his clothes washed on that January day — Dave would have been incinerated.  It also would have been a bad day up here in Raleigh, 47 miles to the west.

Wiki on the Goldsboro “Broken Arrow” incident:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1961_Goldsboro_B-52_crash

Official Word
First Things First: It Did Happen
Just after midnight on 24 January 1961, a B-52G Stratofortress bomber stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, NC, broke up in mid-air and crashed 12 miles north of the base near the cross-roads of Faro, NC.

The aircraft ejected two hydrogen bombs as it fell.

Below is the Pentagon’s brief narrative of the incident, a copy of which was provided this project by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (hereafter SIPRI or Stockholm Institute):

During a B-52 airborne alert mission structural failure of the right wing resulted in two weapons separating from the aircraft during aircraft breakup at 2,000 - 10,000 feet altitude. One bomb parachute deployed and the weapon received little impact damage. The other bomb fell free and broke apart upon impact. No explosion occurred. Five of the eight crew members survived. A portion of one weapon, containing uranium, could not be recovered despite excavation in the waterlogged farmland to a depth of 50 feet. The Air Force subsequently purchased an easement requiring permission for anyone to dig there. There is no detectable radiation and no hazard in the area.

The above narrative, with other official accounts of nuclear-weapons accidents, was entered into the Congressional Record by Louisiana Senator Bennet Johnston on 3 August 1992, and is available by key-word search through the 102nd Congress query page on the Thomas Server.

Some New Information
Chuck Hansen, author of U. S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History, and of Swords of Armageddon, a periodical CD-ROM billed as “the world’s first updatable nuclear weapons information service,” told a reporter for this project that he has examined photographs of the Goldsboro crash site, including pictures of bomb components, and that he has concluded the bombs were, specifically, model MK39 thermonuclear devices.

The MK39, according to Hansen’s book cited above, was a cylindrical device measuring 11 feet seven inches in length and weighing between 9,000 and 10,000 lbs. Hansen wrote in 1990 that the potential yield of the MK39s in the Goldsboro incident was “2 to 2.5 megatons” (rather large, as military devices go).

Nuclear Physicist Ralph Lapp caused a stir in 1961 when on page 127 of his just-released book, Kill and Overkill, he said that in the Goldsboro incident the distressed aircraft had jettisoned a “24-megaton bomb.” This reference appears to be the origination of what Hansen says is a persistent bit of misinformation on the Goldsboro crash, repeated by Greenpeace, Mother Jones, and most news sources ever since. Hansen says the devices were definitely not 24 megatons in potential yield, but closer to a tenth of that strength. “The United States,” Hansen wrote in 1990, “has never deployed such a high-yield weapon” as 24 megatons; and he repeated that assertion in a telephone interview for this project.

The Lapp reference to “24 megatons” may have resulted from a simple decimal deletion.

Hansen told this project that the MK39 may have yielded four megatons at most; and his book reports on ppg. 147-148 that the “largest nuclear weapon ever built by the U.S.” was the MARK 17/24, with a potential yield of “15 to 20 megatons.”

There is no need to exaggerate the destructive potential of an MK39 device to illustrate a horrible scenario, and 24 megatons is certainly not required. Even four megatons rates as a mighty weapon, more than 250 times the power of the blast that annihilated Hiroshima. According to Dr. Dietrich Schroeer, nuclear physicist and professor of physics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the blast from a ground-level detonation of four megatons would have left a crater in the ground a third of a mile wide and leveled homes five miles away, while the heat would have set fires and inflicted third-degree burns to a distance of nine miles from the point of detonation. Many, if not most, U.S. nuclear weapons are smaller in yield. (Today, the premium is placed more upon accurate delivery of devices in the multi-kiloton range. As for the giant MK17/24, it was retired from service in 1958.)

Information taken from the 1987 Nuclear Weapons Data Book Vol. II, published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, lends some support to Hansen’s identification of the Goldsboro devices. According to Table 1.2 on page 10 of that publication, approximately 700 MK39s were manufactured, all from 1957 to 1959. According to Figure 1.2 on page 7 of that publication, the MK39 was one of six bomber-deployed nuclear-weapons models in the active stockpile during 1961. No bomber-delivery devices in the 1961 stockpile exceeded 10 megatons in expected yield.

The last of the MK39s was retired from service in 1966.

“Armed” or “Unarmed” Weapons?
Military reports at the time of the accident described the two thermonuclear devices as “unarmed.” However, that word is inherently inexact, no matter how it is used. The final “arming” of any military nuclear device requires the completion of numerous steps, executed in the proper sequence and timed correctly. It is thus arguable that any nuclear device could be called technically “unarmed” right up to the moment of its detonation.

Even the account of the accident provided by Hansen sends mixed signals, referring to “unarmed” weapons and “partially armed” weapons, and indicating that at least some of the steps necessary for arming were in fact completed in each of the two bombs. Thus, while the devices may technically have been “unarmed” in that they never detonated, they nonetheless could more accurately have been described throughout the event as “partially armed.”

“Unarmed” is a frequently used adjective in military press releases describing broken-arrow incidents. A table beginning on page 65 of SIPRI’s 1977 Yearbook presents summary information on 32 such incidents. The arming state of the weapon(s) involved is mentioned in nine of these accounts — and always the weapons are characterized as “unarmed” or otherwise incapable of nuclear detonation. No weapon is ever described as “armed.”

The Goldsboro accident occurred at the height of the Cold War. President John F. Kennedy had taken office only four days earlier, and would soon lead the nation through its closest brush with nuclear war, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Moreover, the B-52 involved in the Goldsboro crash was not on a training flight; it was, according to the Department of Defense account, on an “airborne alert” mission, an operation designed to keep U.S. nuclear arms airborne and deliverable 24 hours a day.

Milton Leitenberg, arms-control specialist and Senior Fellow with the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, wrote the SIPRI Yearbook chapter on nuclear-weapons accidents. Leitenberg described to a reporter for this project U. S. airborne-alert activity during the late 50s to early 60s: “In those years, we kept something like 30% of the SAC aircraft in the air at all times, an amazing percentage, and an equal proportion on the runways ready for takeoff at five minutes’ notice.” He added, “Flights went to turnaround points perhaps two-thirds of the way to their targets. But they were all called training missions, at least, if anything went wrong.”

It is predictable and even understandable that military sources would tell the press that the weapons involved were “unarmed.” Professor Eric Mlyn of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who directs The Robertson Scholarship Program and has written extensively on defense policy, says the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in “full-fledged, all-out competition” at the time of the accident and that all matters concerning nuclear weapons were kept very secret. Mlyn said, “Policymakers tried not to talk about nuclear weapons at all,” given the controversy they created. [see video]

Given the circumstances and the times, it is unlikely that the Air Force was transporting in its “airborne alert” bomber fleet nuclear weapons which were not fully capable of detonation.

Brush with Catastrophe?
The Stockholm Institute has called the Goldsboro incident “perhaps the single most important example in the published literature of an accident which nearly resulted in a catastrophe.” This claim appears to be founded upon yet another hair-raising claim in the 1961 Lapp book.

Lapp wrote in Kill and Overkill that each device involved in the Goldsboro incident was equipped with “six interlocking safety mechanisms, all of which had to be triggered in sequence to explode the bomb.” Lapp said that “five of the six interlocks had been set off by the fall…” and thus, “only a single switch prevented the bomb from detonating and spreading fire and destruction over a wide area.”

UNC’s Schroeer is skeptical that either bomb could have gone off accidentally.
[see video]

However, Lapp’s claim that the Goldsboro accident nearly caused a nuclear detonation has found support from some very high sources.

Daniel Ellsberg, famously of the Pentagon Papers case, was quoted in the April 1981 issue of Mother Jones as saying that during his time at the Pentagon he saw “a classified document” about the Goldsboro incident which verified Lapp’s claim. Ellsberg stood by his story in a telephone interview for this project, and repeated his 1981 assertions that when the behavior of safety features in both bombs involved in this incident are taken into account, every kind of safety interlock had failed.

Owing to his place in history, Ellsberg is a somewhat controversial figure, but he is very knowledgeable about nuclear weapons. Leitenberg said, “However some people may feel about him politically, on this subject Ellsberg is a very credible witness” who was highly placed in the national-security echelons and deeply involved in U.S. weapons-control policy during the years following the Goldsboro accident.

Lapp and Ellsberg have other support in their claims that only a single switch prevented one of the devices from detonating. In September of 1983, Robert McNamara, who served as Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, said at a press conference: “The bombs’ arming mechanism had six or seven steps to go through to detonate, and it went through all but one, we discovered later” (Greensboro Daily News, 16 September 1981, pg. A1).

When asked by this project in an email exchange about the story of the failed safety devices, and on which of the two bombs the most of them had failed, Hansen wrote the following on 21 November 2000:

The parachute-retarded weapon came closest to firing; the official reports claim that three of four arming steps were completed. Since the aircraft commander had not thrown the arming switch in the B-52 cockpit, and since that switch was not activated accidentally when the aircraft broke up, it was impossible for the weapon(s) to fire, regardless of how uncomfortably close they came to doing so. This was a very dangerous incident and I suspect that steps were taken afterwards to prevent any repetition of it. I do not now know of any other weapon accident that came this close to a full-scale nuclear detonation (which is not to say that any such incident did not occur later).

Indeed, steps were taken soon after Goldsboro to reduce the threat from accidental detonations. President Kennedy was alarmed by the numbers of nuclear-weapons accidents being brought to his attention. Leitenberg says, “I know that we didn’t report them all publicly. We never reported the ones in other countries, or, we only reported the ones that we had to report.”

In an effort to reduce the accident threat, the Kennedy administration reduced SAC airborne alert activity. Leitenberg says that the accident rate then “dropped sharply.”

President Kennedy also ordered that more elaborate mechanisms be installed on all U.S. nuclear weapons to enhance command and control capability. These peripheral command units are now called permissive action links (PALs) — an “engineering artifice” which permits detonation only by secret code, and about which Steven M. Bellovin of AT&T Labs Research has prepared an informative page.

Continued Environmental Concerns
One of the two bombs parachuted to earth, imbedding its nose 18″ in the ground directly next to Shackleford Road, thus presenting no difficulties for recovery crews. The other bomb hit the ground at high speed with no parachute deployment, disappearing in a farmer’s field and leaving only an eight-foot-wide, six-foot-deep crater to indicate where it had entombed itself.

After the accident, the Army Corps of Engineers spent weeks excavating the free-falling bomb’s point of impact to a depth of more than 40 feet. At the time, military workers told Gene Price of the Goldsboro News-Argus they were looking for a “lost seat.”

The military was never able to recover all of the free-falling bomb’s components. The deeper the excavation went, the more problematic soil conditions became. The “lost” bomb fell near Nahunta Swamp, and a high water table characterizes the land in the area. The owner of the field, C. T. Davis, told this project that military workers on the excavation said to him it finally became difficult even to keep the excavating equipment itself from disappearing into the muck.

Rather than continue a losing battle to recover all of the bomb, the military covered over the great hole it had dug, and purchased, for $1,000, an easement from Davis and his heirs. The agreement describes a circle 200 feet in radius where no current or future landowner may dig or drill deeper than five feet, nor ever again use the land “in any manner other than for the growing of crops, the growing of timber, or as a pasture.”

(Davis says that two years after the accident, Congress voted him an additional appropriation in settlement for damages and loss of use of the land, but even after all these years Davis refuses to disclose the amount of money he was awarded.)

A woman living in a neat farm house very near the crash scene — she declined to give her name — told reporters for this project that she was living in the same house the night of the crash some 40 years ago. “Yes, I was here. It lit up the sky like daylight,” she said.

This woman said that while most neighboring homes had been connected to a water main years ago, her home distinctively remains on well water. When asked whether she was aware of any on-going groundwater testing in the area as a result of the crash, she said, “Yes, they still come out and test the water from time to time,” but she did not say who “they” were.

According to Dale Dusenbury of the North Carolina Division of Radiation Protection, “they” are the people of his agency. Dusenbury said in a telephone interview that groundwater testing near the Faro crash site is “generally done annually” by the state, but that nothing amiss has been discovered to this point. The tests, according to Dusenbury, have found only “levels of gross alpha, gross beta and total uranium indicative of natural soil.”

When asked to speculate on the chances that any radiation would ever leak into the groundwater, Dusenbury said, “The Air Force has been evaluating this, along with other state agencies. If they clean up a place sufficiently to make it environmentally releasable, or if they can establish that what is there is harmless, they will release their ownership. At this time, the Air Force intends to keep its easement because there is still an open question as to whether a hazard exists.”

Dusenbury added, “The accident report has never been released to the public or to us. So we intend to keep looking until we know everything is safe.”

The last two paragraphs of the Hansen narrative indicate that it is a thermonuclear “secondary” component which remains beneath the earth unrecovered. The secondary forms the “hydrogen” part of a thermonuclear bomb. Secondaries contain not only plutonium and uranium, but a large volume of lithium salt which supplies the hydrogen fuel.

Dusenbury said he does not believe the state has tested the groundwater for lithium. “If it’s something essentially inert, it’s not a radiological hazard.”

Contact us at bomb@ibiblio.org
Last Updated: 24 January 2001



From:  http://www.fdungan.com/duke.htm

The Nukes Keep Falling

Three years later, on January 24, 1961, two bombs fell from a Strategic Air Command B-52G bomber when a fuel tank in the right wing developed a leak during midair refueling, lost 37,000 pounds of fuel in two minutes, caught fire, and exploded, causing the aircraft to break up over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five of the eight crew members survived. The explosion caused structural failure of the right wing at 8,000 feet after the crew had bailed out. This in turn resulted in two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs separating from the B-52G during airframe breakup. The force of the breakup activated all but one of the arming safety devices on one bomb, including arming wires pulled out, pulse generator actuated, the explosive actuator fired, a timer run down, all contacts of the differential pressure switch closed, and the low and high voltage thermal batteries actuated. The arm-safe, however, remained in a “safe” position which meant that the X-unit did not charge and the warhead did not complete the arming sequence. A parachute provided this bomb with a soft landing in an upright position, but the other buried itself beneath soggy farmland, leaving a crater eight feet in diameter and six feet deep. Although no explosion occurred, this weapon was also partially armed upon release from the aircraft and further by closure of the arming switch upon impact. Because a high voltage switch didn’t close, this bomb also failed to complete the arming sequence. The nose crystals in both weapons, used for salvage fusing, were crushed.

After excavating to a depth of 50 feet and recovering a parachute pack, some high explosives, a tritium bottle, and a portion of the nose, the Air Force paid $1,000 for an easement on the site (much cheaper than the $500,000 estimated cost of recovery) and left the business end of the hydrogen bomb where it lay 180 feet (plus or minus 10 feet) below ground. Originally the easement was enclosed by a chain link fence which was not maintained and has long since vanished. Nothing around except for a small overgrown cemetary. The legal description for the easement is “All of that area in the form of a circle, having a radius of 200 feet, with the center point of radius located through the following traverse: From a common corner to the lands of heirs of Charles T. Davis, Sr. and land of J. A. Edmundson, located on the centerline of N. C. State Road 1534 and approximately 2,135 feet northeasterly from the centerline of Nahunta Swamp; thence along the centerline of N. C. State Road 1534, N 49 degrees 28′ E, 835.56 feet; thence leaving the centerline of N.C. State Road 1534, N 40 degrees 32′ W, 420 feet to the center point of radius, and containing 2.88 acres, more or less.”

Before the salvagers pulled up stakes, they filled the hole with dirt. Now, 45 years later, the easement is indistinguishable from the rest of the soybean field where it is situated. I cannot help but wonder why the Air Force did not bother to fill the hole with concrete, like drillers do with abandoned wells. What could the commanding officer have been thinking when he cavalierly dismissed responsibility for a nuclear core fully capable of affecting the health of the inhabitants of the region? “So long Savannah, goodbye Goldsboro?”

Is the h-bomb leaking? Has the water table been contaminated with radiation? Are local fauna, crops, and wildlife endangered? Nobody seems to know. However, if you would like to find out for yourself, this is how former Air Force officer Joel Dobson, author of Goldsboro Broken Arrow says you can locate the exact spot where the radioactive core is buried:

1) Start at the center of the bridge over Nahunta Swamp stream on NC State Route 1534 (Big Daddy’s Road). The bridge is located about 2 miles southwest of Faro, NC. Then go 2,135 feet northeasterly (back toward Faro) on the road. That will bring you to: 2). The common corner of the Davis and Edmundson land. There is nothing to mark that spot, it was just the nearest property line at the time. That’s apparently essential for surveyors. 3). From that point, continue northeast for another 835.6 feet along the centerline of the road, (49 degrees magnetic)…Look to your left, at about 90° relative to the road. You will be looking northwest on a magnetic heading of 320 degrees (or, in the wording of surveyors: N 40 degrees 32’ W)…The GPS coordinates…are N 35° 29.525 W 77° 51.50. In the survey format of Degrees/Minutes/Seconds, the coordinates would be 35° 29’ 31.5” N 77° 51’ 30” W.

Now walk 420 feet in the direction you are facing and you will be standing directly over the highly enriched business end of an abandoned 4 megaton hydrogen bomb. Hire a crew, build a caisson, and help yourself to a prize that rogue nations and terrorist organizations all over the world would gladly pay you a fortune to get. One small detail that I neglected to mention is that the last few feet could be murder because working within the confines of a caisson in a heavy radiation suit for long lengths of time is next to impossible.

Speaking at a press conference in September 1983, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, had this to say: “The bomb’s arming mechanism had six or seven steps to go through to detonate, and it went through all but one, we discovered later.” Given the possible consequences, it is unconscionable for the Air Force to continue to stonewall the media about the danger— however remote— that this maverick H-bomb poses to the public.

Shouldn’t a bomb— not just any bomb, but a thermonuclear weapon— be as deserving of proper disposal as other forms of biohazardous wastes? A local reporter, Mike Rouse, who covered the story for a Wayne County newspaper at the time of the incident says it is his understanding that the bomb broke apart when it slammed into the earth and now lies in pieces. The Air Force claims that no radiation was detected, but that is not surprising since it is insulated by more than 150 feet of soil.

If the casing did in fact shatter, it is all the more reason to clean up the resulting nuclear contamination. Since fusionable radioactive elements have an extremely long half-life, the problem is not going away anytime soon. Unlike the Chernobyl disaster, no concrete buffer has been poured. Because the soil which surrounds the abandoned H-bomb is saturated and unstable, it is imperative that the Air Force admit to its mistake without further delay in order that steps can be taken to protect the public. Isn’t it ironic that billions are being spent to develop an anti-missile missile capable of shooting down a nuclear device before it reaches our borders, but we can’t spare a half million to make one that is already here safe?

Sometime in late July, 1957, records aren’t quite clear if it was the night of the 28th or 29th, an Air Force C-124 cargo plane experiencing mechanical difficulties was forced to dump two nukes off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey, one 50 miles out, the other 75 miles. The bombs, called Mark 5’s, did not explode when they landed in the Atlantic. Once again, the Air Force says that the bombs lacked crucial plutonium capsules. However, they admit that the detonators—a ton of high explosives each—pack enough punch to level a city block. Needless to say, they are still out there—presumably at the mercy of the tides and currents with 43 years worth of corrosion eating away at them.

“If you thought syringes on the beach were bad…imagine if a nuclear bomb were to wash up. Lots of heavy things wash ashore,” warns Stephen Schwartz, a researcher at the Brookings Institution who recently edited “Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940.”

Arrivederci Atlantic City? Or is it possible that one of the bombs might have made it to Manhattan by now?

This simply isn’t the Air Force’s strongest area of expertise and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Air Force knew less about what goes on beneath the waves than huskies know about the Tropics. The Atlantic sea floor is anything but static. Flowing to depths of 3,000 feet or more, the Gulf Stream steadily washes the entire eastern seaboard. Differences in temperature and salinity result in changes in the density of seawater, producing both up and down welling. And large surface storms can scour continental shelves.

Probably the greatest danger stems from the enormous pressure to which a submerged bomb can be subjected. At sea level average pressure is 14.7 pounds per square inch, but it quickly increases with descent, expanding to 1,338 psi at 3,000 feet, sufficient to implode watertight metal casings. Add corrosion from forty years of continual immersion in seawater and you have a time bomb waiting to go off.

How much truth there is in the Air Force’s assertion that the bombs pose little or no danger is illustrated by a “Broken Arrow” incident that occurred on January 17, 1966. A B-52 collided with a K-135 refueling plane over Palomares, Spain, with four hydrogen bombs aboard. One bomb floated gently down suspended between two parachutes, another bomb sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean, and it is rumored that the high explosives in the other two bombs detonated upon impact, spewing radioactive material into the sea.

On January 21, 1968, another B-52 crashed approximately seven miles southeast of Thule Air Force Base in Greenland. Four bombs were alleged to have burned with the plane, spreading radioactive contamination over icy seas. However, a group of ex-employees of the Arctic facility have obtained classified documents suggesting that one of the thermonuclear hydrogen weapons sank to the seabed and still lies there today. According to an article published in the daily Jyllands-Posten, a prominent Danish newspaper, the lost bomb, serial number 78252, was never reported to Denmark, despite the fact that Denmark is a NATO ally and Greenland is an integral part of the kingdom of Denmark. Needless to say, this is not the way to treat a friend.

The Danish Ritzau news agency released a story reporting that a U.S. submarine filmed images of something resembling a hydrogen bomb in April 1968 while conducting a search for remains from the B-52 wreckage.

Because Denmark had banned nuclear weapons from its soil, the crash soured relations between the United States and Denmark. With State Department officials scheduled to visit Greenland on August 21 to 24, 2001, for talks with Danish officials on whether or not Thule would play a role in the planned National Missile Defense program, the disclosures could not have come at a more inopportune moment. Home to a ballistic missile early-warning radar station, Thule is ideally situated to detect incoming missiles from what the United States labels “states of concern”—countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea. Greenland’s native people have repeatedly expressed strong opposition to having anything to do with the NMD proposal.

Consequences still reverberate from what happened on December 5, 1965, when an A-4e Skyhawk rolled off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga and sank to the bottom, along with a live hydrogen bomb, 80 miles from Okinawa. In 1989, the United States informed Japan that the bomb was leaking radioactive material, no doubt providing ammunition for local protestors who would like nothing better than an excuse to kick United States troops off of their island.

It’s not like we are the only nation that ever lost a nuclear bomb. Cold War nuclear policy expert Stephen Schwartz admonishes that the “Russians had many…accidents, but…they have not been forthcoming about them.” How about the other nuclear powers? “I wouldn’t be surprised if the British, the French, and the Chinese had their share as well.”

Nobody knows for sure exactly how many derelict nuclear bombs are rolling about on ocean floors worldwide. In 1989, Greenpeace estimated the number to be 50. At least 11 of them belong to the United States. Of those, four definitely have live payloads. We know from the Bikini tests that 40 kilotons detonated in a lagoon can render an atoll uninhabitable for decades. When you consider that a single hydrogen bomb packs 10 to 1,000 times as much punch as a fission bomb, it is tantamount to criminal negligence to let such a device endanger an unsuspecting populace. A megaton blast (equivalent to a million tons of TNT) results in severe damage to buildings 10 miles away. The power of the explosion increases in direct proportion to the size of the bomb. Detonate a good sized bomb in shallow water near a major city’s shoreline and it’s sayonara for the inhabitants.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The U.S. Navy has submarines capable of finding and retrieving nuclear weapons regardless of the depth at which they are lost. When President Johnson learned about the lost Palomares hydrogen bomb, he abruptly demanded that the Navy find it before the Soviets did. Two submersibles, Alvin and Aluminaut were loaded on cargo planes and flown to Spain. On its tenth dive, Alvin sighted the tattered remains of a parachute wrapped around the missing H-bomb. It was 2,500 feet underwater, wedged into a 70-degree slope. Alvin first attempted to hook it, but the bomb fell back into the water and was lost for three more weeks. Then a robot cable-controlled underwater recovery vehicle (CURV) guided by a surface ship got tangled up in the parachute’s suspension lines. In desperation, the Navy decided to hoist both the CURV and the bomb together, hoping that the tangle would hold long enough to get them to the surface. Luck was with the rescue team that day (April 7, 1966) and three months’ worth of tenacity finally paid off big time.

Motivated by the less-than-graceful recovery of the Palomares bomb, the Navy went on to develop an array of manned and unmanned advanced technology submersibles capable of accomplishing “Broken Arrow” missions with minimal risk to personnel. NR-1, the Navy’s first submarine designed specifically for deep submergence search and recovery, was the brainchild of Admiral Rickover. Unlike Alvin, the much larger NR-1 was nuclear powered and not dependent upon the support of a surface ship. Its heavy-duty grappling arm gave it deep sea capabilities that outpaced Jules Verne’s visions in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Two nuclear submarines that had been facing retirement, USS Halibut and USS Seawolf, were rebuilt and pressed into service as deep sea search vehicles. USS Parche was also overhauled and refitted with state-of-the-art electronic gadgetry qualifying her as a “special projects” sub.

But perhaps the most grandiose and costly salvage ship of any era, the Glomar Explorer, constructed jointly by the Navy and the CIA (Note: the CIA’s cover story had Howard Hughes’ Summa Corporation using the Glomar Explorer to mine magnesium nodules from the ocean floor) in the early 1970′s as part of Project Jennifer, provided the best proof that any object at any depth can be located and lifted from anywhere beneath the sea. After Halibut discovered a sunken rogue Soviet submarine containing at least one intact ballistic missile complete with nuclear warhead, Melvin Laird, Secretary of Defense under President Nixon, approved Jennifer. Six years later, 350 miles north of the Hawaiian Leeward Islands, a mighty mechanical claw descended 17,000 feet to the bottom of the Pacific and, guided by computers on board the Glomar Explorer, clamped onto 5,000 tons of twisted, rusting steel and began slowly raising it to the surface. Actually, the K-129, a Soviet Golf class diesel submarine, which had been destroyed when a nuclear missile exploded during an attempted launch against Pearl Harbor, was brought up in five or six pieces along with the bodies of an undisclosed number of Russian sailors (the Pentagon says six but the real number is probably closer to 90). A second mission was scuttled by the resignation of President Nixon and the subsequent revelation that the CIA had illegally compiled files on more than 10,000 American citizens. Nonetheless, it can be presumed that few, if any, lost nuclear devices lie at a depth greater than 17,000 feet and that none outweigh the 5,000 tons that the Navy managed to bring up. Now, with the end of the Cold War, instead of mothballing nuclear submarines, we could be using them to locate and dispose of lost and all-but-forgotten thermonuclear Cold War relics instead of leaving them lying around, waiting for God-only-knows-what terrorist group to salvage.

It would only take a fraction of the $1 billion dollars which the Air Force wasted on an atomic aircraft that never got off the ground to do the job. It’s morbidly ironic that at the same time the Air Force was saying it couldn’t afford to continue searching for the missing nuclear bombs, it was throwing money into Project Halitosis for development of CAMAL (continuously airborne missile launcher and low level) technologies in a vain attempt to attach gossamer wings to heavyweight nuclear reactors.

Nations at war have a responsibility to dispose of unexploded ordnance posing a danger to civilians as soon as the war is over. During the 1990-91 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, occupying military forces scattered landmines over 97.8 percent of Kuwait. As soon as the Gulf War ended, the cleanup effort began. By April 1999, a total of 1,646,916 landmines had been recovered, more than one mine per every man, woman, and child. The costs in terms of humanity have been enormous. Sixty people have been killed and 131 injured, 12 of whom were Americans, while attempting to disarm these devices. Because H-bombs are potentially more hazardous than landmines, it makes no sense that a similar effort to find and defuse hazardous abandoned weapons was not part of the victorious aftermath of the Cold War.

The root of the problem appears to have been that certain Air Force leaders, General Curtis LeMay among them, advocated adopting a first strike policy against the former Soviet Union. Expediency dictated that they downplay the lethality of nuclear weapons or run the risk of being labeled madmen. The impossibly ridiculous notion that honor and duty necessitated that real men, as the Air Force’s official song dictates, “live in fame or go down in flames” was at least in part to blame.

This Dr. Strangelove insanity will not be put to rest until we get a full and complete accounting of all missing nuclear weapons together with assurances of their safe disposal. In the parlance of Cold Warrior LeMay, we need to get rid of them before they get rid of us.

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