I chose to write about this after hearing about it during a podcast called Nuclear near misses on Warfare where Allex Wellerstein joins James Rogers and discusses the various types of broken arrow incidents from the cold war to present day.
James Rogers is DIAS Assistant Professor in War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark (within the Center of War Studies) and Associate Fellow within LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics (LSE)
According to Allex Wellerstein if you’d like to learn more about nuclear accidents he recommends Eric Schlosser’s book on Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety.
Interesting facts: Dull Sword refers to small incidents involving nuclear weapons, but not big enough to create any loss, explosion or contamination.
What is empty quiver? The loss, theft or seizure of a nuclear weapon.
What is the code word for a lost nuke? Well you’re reading about it, “broken arrow”
Nuke Locator Map: Click to view the tests, accidents (broken arrows)
Before we dive into the different broken arrow incidents, you can have a quick glance at the number of different books I’ve stumbled upon whilst reading about this topic:
Books to read
Ghosts of Berlin
A short history of nuclear folly by Rudolph Herzog – Rudolph Herzog
World Stood Still
Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis
Arsenals of Folly
The making of the nuclear arms race
War of Annihilation
Combat and Genocide on the eastern front 1941
Geoffrey P. Megargee
Nuclear Folly: A history of the Cuban missile crisis
A world destroyed
Hiroshima and its legacies
Martin J. Sherwin The atomix bomb on my back: A life story of survival and activism
A Short History of Nuclear Folly
After the Leipzig L-IV atomic pile demonstrated by Wener Heisenberg and Robert Doepel (showing Germany’s first sign of neutron propagation) the device was examining for possible leakage of heavy water. During the examination, air leaked in, erupting the uranium powder inside. The uranium boiled the water jacket, creating sufficient steam pressure to blow the reactor into pieces. The facility caught fire due to the burning uranium powder.
The physicist Louis Slotin constructed a critical mass of plutonium while he was showing his technique to other scientists visiting at Los Alamos. However while doing so, the screwdriver slipped which led to a prompt critical reaction where the physicist died from massive radiation poisoning with a dose of around 1,000 rads (rad)/10 grays (Gy). Even though other observers who also received doses of this but only around 166 rads survived the incident however three died within a few decades from conditions related to this incident. Slotin worked with the same bomb core as Daghlian which became known as the ‘demon core’ which was later melted down and amalgamated with other weapons-grade material. Refer to Sketch #1
Sketch 1: A sketch of Slotin’s accident used to demonstrate the exposure of those in the room at the time of the incident.
The convair B-36 was in transit from Eielson AFB to Carswell AFB on a counterfeit combat mission where the weapon aboard the aircraft had a dummy capsule put in place. When the aircraft was at 12,000 feet altitude and experienced mechanical issues where it made it difficult for the level flight to remain stabilized. The aircraft headed towards the Pacific Ocean and dropped the weapon from 8,000 feet. Fortunately the weapon’s explosive material detonated and the crew managed to make an emergency parachute descent after the aircraft flew over Princess Royal Island.
April 11, 1950
Aircraft descended from Kirtland AFB and crashed into a mountain on Manzano Base and three minutes later killed the crew onboard. The bomb case was destroyed and high explosive material burned in the gasoline fire. It’s important to note that the recovered materials of the weapon itself were returned to the Atomic Energy Commission. (Even though the detonators were installed in the bomb a nuclear detonation was not possible)
July 13, 1950
During a training mission taking place from Biggs AFB, Texas, the airport (B-50) was flying at 7,000 ft but the aircraft managed to fly into the ground killing four officers and twelve airmen. The explosive part of the weapon detonated on impact.
August 5, 1950
A B-29 carrying a weapon (with no capsule) experienced difficulties such as runaway propellers and landing gear retractions when departing from Fairfield-Suisun AF9 (which is now known as Travis AFB) The plane failed an emergency landing and crashed/burned. The weapon’s explosive material detonated after a good 12-15 minutes. Nineteen crew members were killed in the crash (and it is not clear if it was due to the detonation or the fire)
November 10, 1950
A B-50 dropped a Mark 4 bomb over the St. Lawrence River, which is 300 miles northeast of Montreal. The explosive (though lacking the necessary plutonium core) managed to scatter around 100 pounds of uranium. The plane landed at a U.S. Air Force base in Maine.
March 10, 1956
The plane was one of a flight of four scheduled to be used from MacDill AFB to an overseas airbase. The first and second refueling was normal. However in preparation for the second refuel, the flight created a solid cloud to descend to the refueling level of 14,000 ft. The aircraft (carrying two nuclear capsules) never made contact with the tanker. Based on the search, there were no traces of the missing aircraft/crew. There were also no weapons, only two capsules of nuclear weapons material in carrying cases.
July 27, 1956
A B-47 aircraft with no weapons on board was on a scheduled training assignment making a landing when suddenly the plane spiraled out of control and slid off the runaway, smashing into an igloo (for storage) which contained a number of nuclear weapons. However none of them burned or detonated also leaving no cleanup issues. The Atomic Energy Commission obtained the damaged material.
May 22, 1957
The plane was transporting a weapon from Biggs AFB, Texas to Kirtland AFB. However at 11:50 am while arriving to Kirtland, the weapon dropped from the bomb bay taking the bomb bay doors with it. Even though the weapon parachutes in place, it was not completely successful due to the low altitude. The high explosive material detonated and demolished the weapon and creating a hole around 25 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep. The release mechanism locking pin was being removed at the time of release (which was standard procedure at the time to be done during takeoff/landing) There was no radioactivity to report that took place beyond the crater it created (based on the radiological survey) Lastly the nuclear detonation was not possible.
July 28, 1957
Two weapons were dropped from a C-124 plane on July 28, where there were three weapons and one nuclear capsule on board at the time. The plane was on it’s way from Dover, AFB, Delaware when the plane started to experience a loss of power in one of the engines (and it was not possible to maintain flight level) At this point, the decision was made to drop cargo for the interest of safety of the crew on board. The first weapon was unloaded at around 2,500 ft altitude. Neither weapons were detonated. The plane landed at an airfield in the surrounding area of Atlantic City, New Jersey with the remaining weapon and the nuclear capsule on board. However based on the search conducted, there was nothing to be found.
October 11, 1957
The B-47 was ready for departure from Homestead AFB shortly after midnight for a scheduled mission. Right after takeoff, one of the plane’s tires exploded. The plane crashed approximately 3,800 ft from the end of the runway. The aircraft itself was carrying one weapon in the bomb bay and one nuclear capsule in one of the compartments. The weapon was already in flames where two low-order high-explosive detonations took place during the burning. Later on the nuclear capsule were recovered and only slightly damaged by the heat (as it also came with a carrying case and these were later cooled down with water)
January 31, 1958
A B-47 plane with one weapon on board was making a mock takeoff during an exercise. The left rear wheel casting failed after the plane reached approx. 30 knots on the runway. (You are required to make 120 to 150 knots prior to liftoff) The fuel tank exploded once the tail hit the runway. The plane caught fire and kept burning for several hours. The high explosive did not detonate however the area of the crash was definitely contaminated. However after the runway was washed down, no contamination was reported.
February 5, 1958
The B-47 was on a mock combat mission that took place on Homestead AFB, Florida. At 3:30 am the plane had a mid-air collision with another F-86 aircraft, which therefore lead the B-47 trying to land at Hunter AFB, Georgia with a weapon on board. However due to the current state of the aircraft, it was difficult to reduce airspeed to ensure safe landing and hence led to the decision to eject the weapon (to avoid any risks of exploding) The weapon was thrown into the water several miles from the Savannah River (Georgia) in Wassaw Sound of Tybee Beach. The plane managed to land safely. A search was conducted using a ship with several divers and a team in placed using “Galvanic drag” and “hand-held sonar devices” however the search was concluded two months later with no evidence and therefore considered lost.
February 28, 1958
A B-47 based at the U.S. airbase at Greenham, England, reported with a nuclear weapon on board, caught fire and completely burned. However, a group of scientists in 1960 found signs of high-level radioactive contamination around the case (who were working at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment)
March 11, 1958
A B-47 took off from Hunter, AFB, Georgia on its way to an overseas base. After leveling at 15,000 ft, the plane accidentally ejected an unarmed nuclear weapon which left an impact in an area 6.5 miles east of Florence, South Carolina and led to some property damage and a number of injuries on the ground.
November 4, 1958
During take-take the plane (B-47) caught fire. Only three members managed to survive when the plane crashed while a nuclear weapon was on board the whole time. Similarly to the incident on May 22nd a year ago, the detonation created a hole which was 35 ft in diameter and 6ft deep.
November 26, 1958
Another plane (B-47) caught fire on ground while the nuclear weapon on board was demolished by the fire.
January 18, 1959
The plane was parked where the external load contained a weapon on the left station and three fuel tanks (inboard and right intermediate station) When the starter button was depressed during an alert test, an explosion occurred when the external fuel tanks accidently jettisoned.
July 5, 1969
A C-124 plane got damaged during take-off on a movement mission. The plane got ruined by fire which also demolished one weapon. However no nuclear/explosive detonation took place and the safety devices in place were fully functional. Minimal contamination was present right under the demolished weapon. (Barksdale, Louisiana)
September 25, 1959
A U.S. Savy P-SM plane conducted an emergency landing in Puget Sound off Whidbey Island in Washington. The unarmed nuclear submarine weapon did not contain any nuclear material.
October 15, 1959
A plane (B-52) bomber aircraft with two nuclear weapons crashed with another aircraft in midair over looking Kentucky. The bomber crashed with a tanker that was meant to fuel B-52 and even though both planes crashed and both bombs to fall, neither detonated. The crew on plane B-52 failed to flee and all experienced catastrophic injuries. The unarmed nuclear weapons on B-52 remained unimpaired even though one of them was partially burned.
June 7, 1960
A BOMBARC air defense missile was that was ready to launch in two minutes was abolished by an explosion and caused a fire after a helium tank erupted and fractured the fuel tanks. The explosive did not set off even though the warhead was destroyed by the fire and the nuclear safety devices remained intact and functional.
BOMBARC system first long-range, nuclear capable ground to air anti-aircraft missile (carry out conventional warheads against enemy aircraft.
January 24, 1961
Due to a leak in the wing fuel a B-52 bomber exploded and caught fire next to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. There were 8 crewmen in total where 3 landed to safety, while three of them died. Based on the incident, two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were released. Three of the arming devices activated on the bomb leading it to execute the steps required to arm itself i.e charging of firing capacitors (which is used to store electrical energy) and deploying a parachute. The parachute led the bomb to hit the ground with little to minimal damages. The last device (the pilot’s safe switch) was not triggered which warded it off from exploding. The second bomb sunk into a muddy field and fell apart (but the tritium bottle and plutonium was recovered) The Air Force is in charge of the land at the moment and regularly test it for contamination however there hasn’t been anything reported so far.
July 4, 1961
Due to a failure of a cooling systems, some crew members were exposed to, this also led to contaminating missiles and fragments of the K-19 Hotel class Soviet nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine off Norway. A back up system as part of the design was not fully installed so the captain in charge ordered the engineering crew to come up with a solution to avoid a total meltdown and therefore improvised (or also known as jury-rigged) and created a secondary cooling system (without any prior preparation) and therefore kept the reactor from a meltdown.
Interesting Fact: K-19 was the first submarine of Project 658 class and first generation of soviet nuclear submarines that contains nuclear ballistic missiles (R-13 SLBM) where some crew members in 1961 nicknamed it as “Hiroshima” due to a series of accidents.
December 5, 1965
An A-4E Skyhawk attack plane containing one B43 nuclear weapon reeled off the deck of the USS Ticonderoga (one out of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers built during WW II for the United States Navy) however neither the pilot, plane or weapon were ever found.
Lenin (1957 soviet nuclear-powered icebreaker) was known to dump its reactors in the Kara sea. There are some accounts complaining Lenin experienced a reactor meltdown.
January 17, 1966
A B-52 (American long ranged plane) holding four nuclear weapons smashed into another plane which is the KC-135 (American military aerial refueling tanker plane) near Palomares in Spain. After an extensive amount of time, one weapon was safely recovered from the ground and from the sea. However the remaining weapons hit land, leading to the detonation of their high explosives and release of radioactive materials.
April 11, 1968
A Soviet diesel-powered “golf”-class ballistic missile submarine descended around 750 miles northwest of the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Reports have mentioned this submarine was holding 3 nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in addition to nuclear torpedoes. (torpedo armed with a nuclear warhead) Based on what was reported, part of the submarine was raised using the CIA’s “Glomar explorer” which is a deep-sea drillship platform made for project Azorian (which is the secret effort of the CIA’s special activities division to recover soviet submarine K-129.
Learn more about the Azorian project (also called “Jennifer”) by clicking here
The U.S. Gato class which is a nuclear-powered submarine evidently crashed into a Soviet submarine on November 14th/November 15th 1969 (nearby the White Sea entrance)
April 12, 1970
A Soviet “November”-class nuclear powered attack submarine encountered a “nuclear propulsion” in the Atlantic Ocean (300 miles northwest of Spain) the submarine scuttled leaving 52 casualties even though there was an attempt to attach a towline from a Soviet bloc merchant ship
Learn more about the decree on the first in the world nuclear-powered icebreaker construction adopted by clicking here.
November 22, 1975
Off Sicily, Italy
During routine exercises at night, CV-67 (USS John F. Kennedy) airplane and cruiser CG-26 (USS Belknap) smashed into each other at sea. Even though this was proclaimed to be a possible nuclear weapon accident, no nuclear contamination was found during the fire and rescue operations.
October 3, 1986
A K-219 (Or as Nato called it Yankee-I) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine belonging to the Soviet Navy encountered an explosion and fire in one of its missile tubes (480 miles east of Bermuda). On October 6, the submarine descended into 18,000 feet of water (while under tow) It is reported that two nuclear reactors and around 34 nuclear weapons were on the submarine.
April 7, 1989
The K-278 Komsomolets (A Soviet nuclear-powered attack submarine) ignited and plunged into the water around 300 miles north of the Norwegian coat. The vessel’s nuclear reactor, two nuclear-armed torpedoes, and 42 out of the 69 crew members were never found.
The K-278 Komsomolets was part of the Project-685 Plavnik nuclear-powered attack submarine of the Soviet Navy (the only unique submarine of her class)
Near Vladivostok, Russia
An ”Echo”-class Soviet Nuclear-powered submarine (which could be the K-431) experienced a reactor explosion while at the Chazhma Bay repait facility leaving ten officers killed. Since the repair facility was 35 miles next to Vladivostok, it released a cloud of radioactivity going towards the city (however did not manage to enter it)
A random selection of additional resources found during my research: Middleburry Institute of International Studies at Montery | Nuclear | Missile
Learn more about what happened at Chazhma Bay
September 27, 1991
During a test launch on a “Typhoon”-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, a faulty glitch/malfunction took place.
March 20, 1993
The USS Grayling (SSN-646) incident took place off Kola Peninsula crashed into a Russian Navy submarine called Novomoskovsk (Russian Delta III) where it has been reported both vessels suffered only minor damages. The USS Grayling was the fifth ship of the United States Navy to be called for the grayling.
February 11, 1992
A crash took place between a CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) “Sierra”-class nuclear-powered attack submarine with the U.S. nuclear-powered attack submarine Baton Rouge. Based on what was reported, both vessels experienced little to minor damages. There are a number of speculations as to where this incident took place whether it was in or outside Russian territorial waters.
August 12, 2000
Also known as the Kursk submarine disaster, The CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) “Oscar II” (Project 949 Granit and Project 949A Antey) class submarine sank after a huge onboard explosion took place which was the result of a number of torpedoes exploding all at once. All 118 members on board were killed. Radiation levels are normal and the submarine had no nuclear weapons on board.