Chapter 2 Nuclear Weapons on Hair-Trigger Alert
Currently, there are over 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world—a total of over 100,000 Hiroshima bombs or 7000 megatons of TNT. At its peak in 1964, the U.S. alone had the equivalent of 17,000 megatons. For perspective, all of the bombs dropped during WWII totaled only 3 megatons, which is about ten average-sized strategic nuclear weapons. Combined, the U.S. and Russia possess over 97 percent of these weapons. Of which, about 3,500 remain on high alert status and are ready to be launched in minutes.
In a time of crisis or perceived attack, the Russian and U.S. presidents have three and eight minutes, respectively, to make a decision to order an attack against each other. Thus, a single miscalculation or computer error could lead to nuclear war (see table in Resources Page). Political leaders have taken elaborate steps to comfort these fears. However, the mere existence of these weapons maintains the possibility of an unpredicted sequence of events leading to its use.
A major obstacle to nuclear disarmament is the widespread belief by "political realists" and many other people throughout the world that nuclear weapons threat systems can be maintained ad infinitum without serious mistakes or accidental war. Such thinking is far from realistic. The true realists are those who endorse "Murphy's Law" which states, "Nothing is as easy as it looks. Everything takes longer than you expect. If anything can go wrong, it will at the worst possible moment."
Over the years, dozens of U.S. and Russian accidents and incidents with nuclear weapons have occurred. In some cases, near misses could have resulted in massive death and destruction. Fortunately, none of these episodes resulted in nuclear explosions. The following are a few examples of serious situations in which Murphy's Law was operable.
In early September 1983, tension between the Soviet Union and the United States was at a high point. Not only had the Soviet military recently downed a Korean passenger plane, but the United States was also conducting training exercises in Europe that focused on the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the Soviets. These exercises led some Soviet leaders to worry that the West was planning a nuclear attack.
To make matters worse, on September 26, 1983, the alarms in a Soviet early warning bunker, just south of Moscow, sounded as computer screens indicated that the United States had launched a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov was in charge of the bunker and its 200 personnel. His job was to monitor incoming satellite signals and report directly to the Russian early-warning system headquarters if indicators revealed that a U.S. missile attack was underway. Years later, Col. Petrov said, "I just felt as if I had been punched in my nervous system. There was a huge map of the States with a U.S. base lit up, showing that the missiles had been launched."
Douglas Mattern, President of the Association of World Citizens, described the scene:
For several minutes Petrov held a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other as alarms continued blaring, red lights blinking, and the computers reporting that U.S missiles were on their way. In the midst of this horrific chaos and terror, with the prospect of the end of civilization itself, Petrov made a historic decision not to alert higher authorities, believing in his gut and hoping with all that is sacred, that contrary to what all the sophisticated equipment was reporting, this alarm was an error... As agonizing minutes passed, Petrov's decision proved correct. It was a computer error that signaled a US, attack.
Had Petrov obeyed standard operating procedures by reporting the erroneous attack, it is likely that Soviet missiles would have devastated all major U.S. cities—and the Pentagon would have retaliated. "In principle, a nuclear war could have broken out. The whole world could have been destroyed," Petrov concluded.
On Dateline NBC, November 12, 2000, Dr. Bruce Blair, former U.S. Minuteman launch officer and president of the Washington, D.C. based Center for Defense Information, said, "I think that this is the closest we've come to accidental nuclear war."
On January 25, 1995, another potentially disastrous early warning error occurred when Russian radar mistook a U.S. weather research rocket launched from Norway as an incoming nuclear strike from a U.S. Trident submarine. Even though the United States had notified Russia it would launch a non-military research rocket, those in control of Russia's strategic nuclear weapons did not receive the message. Fortunately, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, a man with a drinking problem, who had three minutes to order a retaliatory strike, elected to "ride out" the crisis and did not launch the thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles available on his command.
In 2001, it was reported that Russia's nuclear command and control system had seriously deteriorated, and its network of early-warning satellites was also on the verge of collapse. On average, the surviving elements of the system provided only "single string" coverage, meaning that one launch warning could not possibly be confirmed by another. Of equal concern was the fact that even the single-string coverage was operational for only about half of every day. While the command and control structure was improved under President Putin, the dangers of false alarms and computer glitches have not disappeared.
Accident information related to Soviet/Russian nuclear weapons is not readily available, but it is safe to assume that their record is no better than the United States, which has many “false alarms” and significant accidents. The Department of Defense first published a list of thirteen accidents in 1968, dating back to 1950, and published another list in 1980, but has not updated it since. Exactly how many may never be known due to the probability that some mishaps were not reported, while others may still be classified.
The U.S. has irretrievably lost nuclear weapons on at least seven occasions prior to 1963. Each loss resulted from a nuclear-armed plane either crashing into the ocean or jettisoning the weapons after experiencing mechanical failures. Including the first acknowledged accident, which occurred in February 1950, when a bomb was jettisoned into the Pacific Ocean and never found again.
Another such event occurred on February 5, 1958, when a B-47 on a top-secret training flight, carrying a 7,600-pound Hydrogen bomb, collided with another military plane. The B-47’s wing was badly damaged and the plane began nose-diving towards the ground. Rather than immediately ejecting from the airplane, the pilots bravely decided to try a crash landing. In order to lighten the aircraft and to eliminate the danger of an enormous explosion upon impact, the H-bomb was released into the Atlantic near Savannah, Georgia. The pilots were able to walk away from the landing, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions.
A search was immediately conducted, but was unsuccessful in recovering the weapon. Numerous subsequent searches have also been conducted over the fifty years since the event; all have been unsuccessful. Debate continues about its safety and location. The Air Force says it is safe wherever it is, and the pilot insists that a nuclear explosion is not possible because the bomb was not equipped with the plutonium trigger. Others fear it, along with any of the other lost bombs, could still potentially explode, destroying a large section of the East Coast, or an unwanted agent could recover it.
Other accidents have resulted in nuclear weapons being dropped onto land. About a month after the above incident, another B-47 accidentally dropped an unarmed nuclear weapon over Mars Bluff, South Carolina. The conventional explosive material of the device exploded on impact destroying a house and creating a crater about 70 feet across and 30 feet deep.
A B-52 bomber released two 24-megaton bombs over Goldsboro, North Carolina after structural failure on January 23, 1961. On one of these bombs, five of six interlocking safety devices failed. While these six devices were only part of the total safety mechanism and a detonation was not likely, the accident resulted in additional safety devices added to the weapons. An explosion of one of the bombs would have been 1,800 times more powerful than the bomb that exploded at Hiroshima, and would have left a hole called "North Carolina".
Two more extremely serious accidents occurred when nuclear-armed B-52’s crashed in the late 1960s, causing the only two acknowledged widespread scattering of nuclear materials. On January 17, 1966, a mid-air collision caused a B-52 with four 20-megaton bombs to crash near Palomares, Spain. Two of the weapons’ high explosive material detonated on impact, scattering plutonium over about one square mile. The military spent the next 44 days removing 1,750 tons of soil back to South Carolina, and plowed under another 600 acres of topsoil to remove contamination. Another weapon fell into the ocean, causing “the most expensive, intensive, harrowing and feverish underwater search for a man-made object in world history.” The fourth weapon was recovered intact.
Nearby residents applied for nearly eight million dollars in compensation but received only about $700,000. A 2007 Spanish study found that contamination was nearly three times larger than previously thought, and Spain has banned building or selling produce grown inside the area.
Two years later, another B-52 carrying four 1.1-megaton bombs crashed near Thule, Greenland. The conventional explosives detonated on all four of the weapons, releasing plutonium and causing a massive fire. A large-scale clean up effort was undertaken to bring contaminated ice and wreckage back to the U.S. Within days of the crash, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered the removal of nuclear weapons from airborne alert, and policy was later changed to stop all airborne alert flights. Denmark, which owns Greenland, prohibits nuclear weapons on or over their territory. The accident caused large demonstrations against the U.S. and its base. The clean up and compensation, while never fully disclosed, was in the millions of dollars.
 Global Nuclear Arsenal 2009. (2009). Nucleardarkness.org. Retrieved from: http://www.nucleardarkness.org/globalnucleararsenal/globalnucleararsenal/
 see Atomic Energy Commission/Department of Defense. (1962). The effects of nuclear weapons.
 Association of World Citizens. (2004, Fall). A forgotten hero of our time honored with special world citizen award. Association of World Citizens Newsletter, p-1.
 Association of World Citizens. (2004, Fall). A forgotten hero of our time honored with special world citizen award. Association of World Citizens Newsletter, p-2.
 Tri-Valley Committee Against Radioactive Environment. (1999). Back from the brink—Aims to reduce risk of accidental launch. Press Release. Retrieved from: http://www.trivalleycares.org/newsletter/cwdec99.asp.
 Coalition to Reduce the Nuclear Dangers. (2001). Standing down U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons: The time for meaningful action is now. ISSE Brief, 5 (8), pp.1-2.
 Woolf, A.F. (2003, August 15). Nuclear weapons in Russia: Safety, security, and control issues. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from: www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/crs/ib98038.pdf;
see also: Bunn, M., and Wier, A. (2005, May). Securing the bomb 2005: The new global imperatives. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government Harvard University. Retrieved from: www.nti.org/e_research/report_cnwmupdate2005.pdf
 For a historical accounting of U.S. nuclear accidents, see: http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/issues/accidents/index.htm
 Tiwari, J., & Gray, C. (2009). U.S. nuclear weapons accidents. Center for Defense Information. Retrieved from: http://www.cdi.org/Issues/NukeAccidents/Accidents.htm
 U.S. nuclear weapons accidents: Danger in our midst. (1997, August). Retrieved from: http://www.milnet.com/cdiart.htm
 Northam, G. (2009, June 22). Missing for 50 years-US nuclear bomb. BBC. Retrieved from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8107908.stm
 Palomares after the fall. (1969, January 24). Time Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,900563,00.html
 Fuchs, D. (2007, July 2). More than 40 years on, Spain revisits a nuclear accident. Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/jul/02/spain.nuclear