Saturday, September 21, 2013

Well, that's comforting

Would have made for a very special episode of the Andy Griffith when Opie killed a bird.

A secret document, published in declassified form for the first time by the Guardian today, reveals that the US Air Force came dramatically close to detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima.

The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961. The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.

Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons – the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city – putting millions of lives at risk.

Though there has been persistent speculation about how narrow the Goldsboro escape was, the US government has repeatedly publicly denied that its nuclear arsenal has ever put Americans' lives in jeopardy through safety flaws. But in the newly-published document, a senior engineer in the Sandia national laboratories responsible for the mechanical safety of nuclear weapons concludes that "one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe".
Of course, if North Carolina residents were able to possess their own nuclear the NRA would like, this would never have even been possible.


StonyPillow said...

The original document referenced in the article says 24 megatons. That wouldn't have mattered in Faro, but it would have have made a big difference to Greenville and Raleigh, as well as everyone downwind.

Of course all these problems are ancient history.

Anonymous said...

And we would have immediately blamed the Russians and launched a retaliatory strike.


Montag said...

I think there's some misunderstanding of the rating by the original analyst, because the Mark 39 was rated at 4 megatons (which would be roughly 260 times the size of the Hiroshima weapon). In fact, I don't think there was ever anything much bigger than 9-10 megatons in the U.S. inventory (a few test blasts, such as the runaway Castle Bravo, were bigger, IIRC).

Still, it would have been a major disaster. What's interesting is that there was an accidental drop of weapons in S. Carolina around the same time--one of which was never recovered. It apparently landed somewhere on the coast, and sunk into the mud somewhere in the wetlands, and AFAIK, it's never been found (although there are rumors that it landed a bit further out to sea and a Soviet sub retrieved it).

And we did have a Thor missile explode on the launch pad with a ~ 1-2 megaton warhead aboard. This was on Johnston Island, during a series of tests to look at explosions in the upper atmosphere and EMP. Scattered plutonium everywhere. I think the military eventually just scraped up all the topsoil on the island and buried it in a pit with a concrete cap.

Anyone curious about this and other warhead accidents should look for a documentary done in 2001 called "Nuclear Rescue 911: Broken Arrows and Other Incidents."

pansypoo said...

luckily its only the energy industry that is killing us.

grouchomarxist said...

You recall pretty correctly, Montag.

According to this site, the Mk-41 was the largest H-Bomb in the US arsenal, with a yield of 25 megatons. The next-biggest -- the Mk-17 and Mk-24 -- had yields of around 11 and 15 megatons, respectively.

I'll have to check that doc out. Thanks for mentioning it. If you haven't seen it yet (and are in the mood for scary-fascinating) Secrets of the Dead: The World's Biggest Bomb is available on Netflix.

(I could make an Ishtar joke here ... but that would be wrong.)

I saw it just a couple of days ago, and am still amazed we survived that insanity. For now, anyway.