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Nuclear Close Calls

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Below are a series of close calls, or “broken arrows,” where nuclear weapons were misplaced, stolen, damaged, or even detonated. Many of these incidents resulted in casualties, including of innocent civilians, and many others nearly led to nuclear war. These close calls emphasize the lack of proper security for nuclear weapons, and the lack of training and overall competence of militaries and leaders who possess nuclear weapons. There have been far more incidents than those listed here, and likely many that militaries and world leaders withhold as classified. 

Note about ranking incidents:
1- Very slight alarm, quickly resolved. There are countless issues of this severity level which occur all the time. For the purposes of this compilation, issues of low severity are not cited.
2- More serious incident with general risk, quickly resolved.
3- Specific, serious risk possibly leading to escalation with other state. Causes severe damage, but may be self-contained, only affecting the military personnel and property directly involved. Requires more complex resolution.
4- Serious risk to wider public; has potential to cause widespread casualties and damage beyond military personnel and property, or to cause escalation in conflict.
5- Nuclear devices detonate and cause casualties, or confrontation nearly leads to the use of nuclear devices.

 

November 10, 1950—Plane accidentally drops nuclear weapon
American plane in Canada, Severity: 4
A B-50 bomber experiencing mechanical failure drops its Mark 4 atomic bomb over Quebec. Its conventional explosives detonate when it lands in a river, scattering nearly 100 pounds of uranium.

March 10, 1956—Plane carrying nuclear weapons disappears
United States, Severity: 3
A B-47 carrying two types of nuclear capsules from Florida to a base overseas loses contact over the Mediterranean, and is never found.

July 27, 1956—Plane crashes into bomb storage
American base in United Kingdom, Severity: 3
A B-47 bomber skids off the runway on landing and rips into a storage igloo containing Mark 6 atomic bombs before exploding. The bombs do not detonate.

November 5, 1956—False alarm of Soviet attack
United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and France, Severity: 3
British and French forces are attacking Egypt over the Suez Canal, and the Soviet government proposes to the U.S. that they combine non-nuclear forces to halt the attack. While considering this option, U.S. defense forces receive word of what seems to be a Soviet invasion: unidentified aircraft are flying over Turkey, Soviet MIGs are flying over Syria, a British bomber has been shot down over Syria, and the Soviet fleet is moving through the Dardanelles in northwestern Turkey. The American military fears that this might trigger a NATO nuclear strike against the U.S.S.R. All four signs of invasion are later disproven by various unrelated events: the unidentified aircraft were actually a flight of swans, the MIGs were a routine air force escort for the Syrian president as he returned from Moscow, the British bomber was forced down for mechanical reasons, and the Soviet fleet was engaging in routine exercises.

January 31, 1958—Plane fire with nuclear weapon dropped
American base in Morocco, Severity: 3
A B-47 bomber armed with a Mark 36 hydrogen bomb on a Strategic Air Command base in Morocco blows a tire on the runway, which starts a fire that gradually engulfs the plane. The explosives in the bomb burn but do not detonate, melting the plane and bomb into an 8,000 pound block of radioactive metal.

February 5, 1958—Plane collision drops nuclear weapon
United States, Severity: 3
A B-47 bomber collides with another plane over Savannah, Georgia. In order to safely land the damaged bomber, its nuclear bomb is dropped over water. While the nuclear capsule was not in the bomb at the time and therefore did not detonate, the bomb is never found.

March 11, 1958—Bomb accidentally dropped
United States, Severity: 4
A B-47 bomber accidentally drops a Mark 6 atomic bomb into a family’s backyard in Mars Bluff, South Carolina. The nuclear core of the bomb is stored elsewhere in the plane and is therefore not dropped, but the conventional explosives of the bomb wreck the family’s home and injure all six family members.

November 4, 1958—Plane crash with nuclear weapons on board
United States, Severity: 3
A B-47 bomber carrying a Mark 39 hydrogen bomb crashes into a field near Abilene, Texas. Conventional explosives in the bomb detonate, but the nuclear core does not.

October 15, 1959—Plane collision with nuclear weapons on board
United States, Severity: 4
A B-52 bomber carrying two atomic bombs over Hardinsberg, Kentucky collides with an aircraft refueling it at an altitude of 32,000 feet. The crash kills eight crew members and partially burns one of the weapons, although no nuclear material is released.

October 5, 1960—False alarm suggests attack
American base in Greenland, Severity: 3
Radar at the Thule Air Base in Greenland detects dozens of nuclear missiles launched from the Soviet Union towards the United States. The American military begins measures for high alert, but suspects something is wrong, considering that Khrushchev is visiting New York. It turns out radar had misinterpreted a moonrise over Norway.

January 19, 1961—Plane crash with nuclear weapons on board
United States, Severity: 3
A B-52 bomber carrying one or more nuclear weapons explodes over Monticello, Utah due to mechanical failure. Five crewmen are killed, but there is no evidence that the nuclear weapons detonated.

January 24, 1961—Plane crash drops bombs
United States, Severity: 4
A nuclear-armed bomber flying over North Carolina loses a wing, dropping two nuclear bombs into Goldsboro, NC. One of the bombs breaks apart on impact due to a failed parachute, although the nuclear core does not detonate. The other bomb lands unharmed, but five of its six safety devices fail. A nuclear explosion was avoided “by the slightest margin of chance,” as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara described it.

November 24, 1961—Communications failure suggests enemy attack
United States, Severity: 3
Communication between Strategic Air Command (SAC) HQ and three ballistic missile early warning sites goes silent. Considering this a possible sign of enemy attack, all SAC bases in the United States are alerted, and B-52 bombers await orders for takeoff. It is later determined that all communications between SAC and these sites ran through one relay station in Colorado, where the lines went down after a motor overheated.

August 23, 1962—Navigational error into Soviet airspace
United States, Severity: 3
A nuclear-armed B-52 bomber conducting routine surveillance over Alaska makes a navigational error that leads it to within 300 miles of an interceptor base in Soviet airspace. Due to the high likelihood of repeating such an error, Strategic Air Command creates a less provocative route, but fails to officially change it in time—meaning that throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis, the same faulty route was flown 24 hours a day.

October 1962
Throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, miscommunications due to the chaotic nature of the issue at hand as well as sheer carelessness led to multiple near-nuclear confrontations.

Miscommunication possibly signals attack
United States and European allies, Severity: 3
When the U.S. orders DEFCON 3 for American forces, the Supreme Commander of NATO decides not to put NATO under the same alert to avoid provoking the U.S.S.R. Several lower-ranking NATO commanders, however, place their individual NATO bases across West Germany, Italy, Turkey, and the U.K. on DEFCON 3 alert, due to miscommunication. Soviet intelligence easily could have interpreted this as a signal of imminent attack.

Prolonged exercise possibly signals attack
United Kingdom, Severity: 3
When the U.S. orders DEFCON 2 on October 24, the British Air Force is carrying out an unrelated exercise. The British exercise is prolonged as the Cuban Missile Crisis heats up, and British nuclear forces are put on high alert, meaning they could launch in 15 minutes. The Soviets easily could have interpreted these separate actions by the U.S. and the U.K. to be coordinated preparations for war.

October 24, 1962—Satellite explosion misinterpreted as attack
Soviet Union, Severity: 3
In the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Soviet satellite explodes after entering orbit, leading the U.S. to believe that the U.S.S.R is launching an ICBM attack. The American military’s reaction to this event, and how confrontation did not ensue, is still unknown as relevant records remain classified.

October 25, 1962—False alarm of sabotage almost leads to attack
United States, Severity: 4
Late in the evening, a guard at the Duluth Sector Direction Center sees a figure climbing the security fence. He activates the “sabotage alarm,” which sets off alarms at all bases in the area. At a Wisconsin base, a faulty alarm orders nuclear-armed F-106A interceptor planes to take off. Due to the sudden nature of the warning, the F-106A pilots assume World War III has started. The aircraft are stopped as they are taxiing down the runway; the intruder in Duluth was determined to be a bear.

October 26, 1962—Unannounced missile test possibly signals attack
United States, Severity: 3
As tensions between the USSR and the U.S. heighten, DEFCON 3 is ordered and all ICBMs at Vandenberg Air Force Base are fitted with nuclear warheads—except one Titan missile, which is scheduled for a test later that week. The test occurs on the 26th, which potentially causes significant panic in the Soviet Union: it likely knew that the U.S. had fitted its missiles with nuclear warheads, but not that this was only a test launch.

October 26, 1962—Unannounced missile test causes false alarm of attack
United States, Severity: 3
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, radar warning stations that are still under construction are brought online as quickly as possible, which leads to miscommunications and repeated false alarms. One example is the unannounced testing of a Titan II-ICBM off the coast of Florida, which causes one new radar warning station to nearly sound the alarm for nuclear attack.

October 26, 1962—Nuclear missile left alone with launch codes
United States, Severity: 3
As DEFCON 2 is declared, Minuteman I missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base are hastily prepared for full deployment. At one point on the 26th, all launch-enabling equipment and codes are placed in a silo alongside the corresponding missile. Had there been a miscommunication or desire for sabotage, a single operator could have singlehandedly launched a nuclear-armed missile.

October 27, 1962
October 27 is now commonly referred to as “Black Saturday” as it was the most dangerous day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when both the United States and the Soviet Union came close to initiating nuclear attack multiple times.

Cruise missiles pointed at the United States
Soviet base in Cuba, Severity: 4
In the early morning of October 27, the Soviets deploy nuclear cruise missiles in firing position to within 15 miles of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. remains completely unaware.

Wartime radio frequencies signal war
Soviet Union, Severity: 4
In the Soviet Union, Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces fuel a series of nuclear-armed ICBMs that can be launched at a moment’s notice. Wireless communication between divisions of the Soviet military and the Strategic Rocket Forces are transferred to wartime frequencies—effectively signifying to the ICBM command post that war has begun.

Spy plane enters Soviet air space
United States, Severity: 4
Meanwhile, an American U2 spy plane enters Soviet air space, attracting the attention of Soviet MIG interceptors, which are ordered to shoot the plane down. American fighter planes loaded with nuclear missiles and ordered to shoot at their own discretion are sent to escort the U2 plane back to American ground.

Spy plane shot down over Cuba
United States, Severity: 5
On the same day, another U2 spy plane is shot down over Cuba. American leaders had previously agreed that they would interpret the shooting of any of their planes as deliberate escalation from the Soviets, and would automatically launch an attack in response. After the plane is shot down, the U.S. decides against attacking right away. It later comes to light that Khrushchev followed similar reasoning, ordering Soviet troops in Cuba not to shoot any American planes for fear of retaliation. The shooting of the U2 was ordered by a junior commander acting in his own authority.

Submarine almost launches nuclear torpedo
Soviet Union, Severity: 5
Perhaps most seriously, eleven U.S. Navy destroyers and aircraft carrier U.S.S. Randolph corner a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine near Cuba. The temperature onboard the submarine rises to high enough temperatures that machinery short-circuits. The U.S. begins hitting the submarine with small depth charges and, unable to contact Moscow, the submarine crew questions whether war has begun. Authorized to launch nuclear torpedoes without express permission from Moscow, two of the three submarine officers onboard vote to launch. The third officer, Vasili Arkhipov, refuses to authorize the launch. Had any other officer been in Arkhipov’s place—whether one who agreed with the two other officers, or one who was more easily pressured by the other officers to authorize the launch—nuclear war likely would have occurred.

October 28, 1962—Misplaced simulation tape interpreted as attack
United States, Severity: 4
Moorestown, New Jersey radar operators inform the national command post that a nuclear attack is under way. In reality, a test tape simulating an attack from Cuba is running on radar machinery just as a satellite comes over the horizon, simulating an incoming Soviet missile. Crisis is averted when the supposed missile does not detonate as predicted, but this incident illustrates the dangerously poor communication that plagued the Cuban Missile Crisis: the radar post that should have informed the Moorestown post of the incoming satellite had been reassigned to different work.

October 28, 1962—False alarm and miscommunication suggest missile attack
United States, Severity: 3
The Laredo radar warning site has just become operational, and mistakes an orbiting satellite as two missiles flying over Georgia. The national command post misidentifies the warning as coming from the more reliable Moorestown post rather than Laredo, and begins preparing to intercept the incoming missiles. The issue is quietly resolved without incident, despite Moorestown failing to intervene and contradict the false warning.

November 2, 1962—Captured secret agent gives false alarm of nuclear attack
United Kingdom, Severity: 4
Soviet intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky, working as a double-agent for the CIA and MI6, is caught in Moscow and arrested in October. Penkovsky had been given a secret code to warn the U.S. and the U.K. if the Soviet Union was planning a nuclear attack, which consisted of two phone calls one minute apart, uttering just three short breaths each time. On this day in November, Penkovsky calls the MI6 station in Moscow and gives the code. The MI6 officer who receives it assumes that Penkovsky has been captured, and does not warn London or Washington of an incoming attack, and thereby prevents a pre-emptive strike.

November 9, 1965—Alarm failure announces nuclear attack
United States, Severity: 2
Special bomb alarms are installed near military facilities and cities across the U.S. so that the locations of nuclear explosions can be quickly transmitted before expected communications failures. The alarms normally display green, but display yellow due to operational issues unrelated to a nuclear explosion, and red in the event of a nuclear explosion. During a massive commercial power failure across the Northeast in November 1965, two alarms in different cities display red rather than yellow, announcing a nuclear attack. The Command Center of the Office of Emergency Planning goes on full alert until the power failure is identified.

December 5, 1965—Plane falls off aircraft carrier
American plane over the Pacific Ocean, Severity: 3
A bomber carrying a nuclear weapon rolls off the deck of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga into the ocean. Pilot, plane, and weapon are never found.

January 17, 1966—Plane collision spews radioactive material
American plane in Spain, Severity: 4
A B-52 bomber collides with a plane refueling it mid-air, while carrying four nuclear weapons each more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two bombs are recovered intact, while the conventional explosives in the other two detonate, spewing radiation into the surrounding countryside of Palomares, Spain. Seven crew members are killed in the crash, and American military crew brought in to clean up after the crash show high rates of radiation-related illnesses today. Spanish people from the area also contracted cancer and other illnesses at higher rates, and sections of Palomares remain highly radioactive today.

May 23, 1967—Communications failure suggests nuclear attack
United States, Severity: 3
Multiple early warning radar sites around the world go offline, leading the U.S. to again fear that the Soviets have disabled American radar in the first stage of a nuclear attack. Nuclear bombers prepare to take flight until it is determined that a solar flare knocked out the radar systems.

January 21, 1968—Plane crash spews radioactive material
American base in Greenland, Severity: 4
An American B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs crashes near Thule Air Base in Greenland, after the crew abandons the plane due to a cabin fire. One crew member dies as the plane crashes into sea ice, causing all four bombs to detonate and radioactive material to be spewed into the ocean. Despite extensive damage, none of the four bombs detonate fully due to flaws in this particular bomb design. Had the plane hit Thule Air Base, American Strategic Air Command would likely have assumed attack and retaliated.

April 11, 1968—Nuclear submarine sinks
Soviet submarine in Pacific Ocean, Severity: 3
A Soviet submarine carrying three nuclear-armed ballistic missiles and numerous nuclear torpedoes sinks about 750 miles north of Oahu. Part of the submarine was later salvaged by the CIA.

November 15, 1969—American and Soviet submarines collide
Barents Sea, Severity: 4
American nuclear submarine Gato collides with a Soviet K-19 nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea, just off the northern coast of Russia, severely damaging the K-19.

October 24-25, 1973—False alarm signals nuclear attack
United States, Severity: 3
With the Arab-Israeli war in force, the U.S. orders DEFCON 3 on October 24 as a warning signal to the U.S.S.R. to not intervene in the conflict. On October 25, while under DEFCON 3, mechanics repairing a plane at a base in Michigan accidentally activate the entire base alarm system, sending nuclear-armed B-52 bombers into preparing for takeoff. The alarm is repaired before any B-52s depart.

August 1, 1974—Unfit president holds power to launch nuclear attack
United States, Severity: 3
In his last weeks in office during the Watergate Crisis, Nixon is depressed, drinking heavily, and extremely unstable. U.S. Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger instructs the Joint Chiefs of Staff to run any emergency order the president may enact through him first. In Nixon’s impaired state, he could easily have ordered a nuclear launch.

November 9, 1979—False alarm nearly leads to nuclear strike
United States, Severity: 4
President Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, receives a phone call at 3 a.m. by his military assistant adviser General William Odom, announcing that 2200 Soviet missiles have been launched at the United States. President Carter has less than ten minutes to order retaliation. Just as Brzezinski is about to call the president, Odom calls again to say it was a false alarm: someone mistakenly placed military exercise tapes in the operational missile detection computer system.

March 15, 1980—Training exercise interpreted as attack
United States, Severity: 2
As part of a training exercise, the Soviet Union launches four submarine-based missiles. American early warning sensors suggest one of the missiles is actually headed towards the United States, and military officials convene to assess the threat before it naturally resolves itself.

June 3 & 6, 1980—Faulty computer chip announces missile attack
United States, Severity: 3
A faulty chip in American military computers causes warning displays to announce that multiple Soviet missiles have been launched toward the United States. On both days, B-52 bomber crews and missiles are nearly sent out in retaliation, before personnel determine that the missile numbers the computers are displaying are illogical.

September 18, 1980—Fire at a nuclear missile silo
United States, Severity: 4
A missile repairman doing routine maintenance on the Titan II ICBM silo in Damascus, Arkansas drops a wrench from the repair platform, which falls 70 feet and pierces the side of a missile, causing thousands of gallons of highly flammable rocket fuel to pour into the silo. The Titan II ICBM was the largest missile the U.S. ever built—about the size of a ten-story building, and mounted with the most powerful nuclear warhead the U.S. had ever put on a missile. The fuel explodes, killing an airman, and catapults the warhead out of the silo. Its safety mechanisms perform correctly, and the warhead does not detonate.

September 26, 1983—Radar malfunction warns of missile attack
Soviet Union, Severity: 3
The Soviet Oko nuclear early warning system detects five nuclear-armed missiles launched from the U.S., heading toward Moscow. The Soviet soldier on duty, Stanislav Petrov, suspects an Oko malfunction rather than a real attack, and does not call for a retaliatory Soviet strike. Petrov is correct: Oko malfunctioned, and a nuclear attack is averted.

November 2-11, 1983—NATO military exercise interpreted as attack
Soviet Union, Severity: 4
NATO enacts a ten-day exercise codenamed Able Archer 83 involving a hypothetical war with the Soviet bloc, which is set to end in the fictional launching of nuclear weapons. Moscow mistakes the exercise for real preparations, and believes NATO is about to conduct a surprise nuclear attack. Nuclear-armed Soviet bombers in East Germany and Poland are placed on alert, with pilots in the cockpit awaiting orders. The U.S.S.R’s 300 nuclear-armed ICBMS—its most powerful weapons—are stationed for immediate launch. Moscow contacts its Warsaw Pact allies, warning them that war is imminent and that Soviet ballistic submarines are assembling in firing positions off the coast of the U.S. The decisions of a couple of prudent individuals prevent conflict—namely a concerned KGB double agent who convinces the Reagan administration to reach out diplomatically to the U.S.S.R, and an American military intelligence officer who refuses to raise the American DEFCON alert level and further arouse Soviet suspicion. Tensions decrease, although Soviet forces remain on high alert until the exercise concludes on November 11.

January 10, 1984—Malfunction causes nuclear-armed missile to almost launch
United States, Severity: 3
A nuclear-armed Minuteman III missile in a silo on the Nebraska-Wyoming border begins giving off false signals suggesting that it is about to launch. While the Air Force later insisted that multiple technical safeguards would have prevented the missile from launching, it still parked an armored car on top of the silo doors to keep the missile in place, raising concerns about these safeguards.

August 19-21, 1991—Coup leaders confiscate nuclear briefcases
Soviet Union, Severity: 4
An attempted coup in the Soviet Union causes President Mikhail Gorbachev to lose possession of his nuclear briefcase and the launch authorization codes that it contains, after the case was confiscated by one of the coup leaders. The two other nuclear briefcases are also in possession of coup leaders until Gorbachev reclaims control.

January 25, 1995—Scientific rocket launch interpreted as nuclear missile
Russia, Severity: 4
Russian early warning radar detects a scientific rocket launch off the coast of Norway (which the U.S. had informed Russia about beforehand), and mistakenly identifies it as an American submarine-launched ballistic missile. Russian nuclear forces jump to full alert, with President Boris Yeltsin retrieving the nuclear launch codes and preparing for a retaliatory launch. Russian satellites monitoring American missile fields prove that the missile is not headed for Russia, and a strike is called off.

May-June, 1999—Conflict almost includes nuclear weapons
India and Pakistan, Severity: 5
The Kargil crisis is one of the few instances of direct confrontation between two nuclear-armed states, when India and Pakistan clashed over the disputed Kashmir region. Pakistani troops and militants are found in Indian territory, leading the Indian Air Force to bomb Pakistani bases in Kargil. The incident escalates until both sides threaten to use nuclear weapons. The crisis is temporarily defused by mediation from President Clinton.

December 2001-October 2002—Conflict almost includes nuclear weapons
Pakistan, Severity: 3
Conflict over the Kashmir region flares up again, as President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan refuses to rule out first use of nuclear weapons as India had already done publicly. The conflict is resolved when U.S. Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage releases a pledge Musharraf made to the U.S. to seek negotiations with India.

August 2006—Nuclear missile fuses accidentally shipped to Taiwan
United States, Severity: 2
The U.S. Defense Department mistakenly ships secret nuclear fuses for Minuteman III missiles to Taiwan, where the boxes sit unattended to for eighteen months, before Air Force officials acknowledge their error.

August 29-30, 2007—Nuclear missiles accidentally loaded onto plane
United States, Severity: 3
By ignoring required protocol for checking for live weapons, six nuclear-armed cruise missiles are mistakenly loaded onto a B-52 bomber at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. The plane sits on the tarmac all night, unguarded, then flies 1500 miles to a base in Louisiana where it sits unguarded for another nine hours until maintenance crews recognize the weapons are live. For a total of 36 hours, the Air Force did not realize that six nuclear weapons were missing.

May 23, 2008—Fire in missile silo burns unnoticed
United States, Severity: 4
A fire breaks out in a silo in Wyoming containing a Minuteman III missile and burns until it runs out of fuel, only discovered five days later when maintenance crews are alerted to cable connectivity problems.

October 23, 2010—Communications failure leads to lost contact with nuclear missiles
United States, Severity: 2
A launch control center at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming loses contact with 50 Minuteman III ICBMs carrying nuclear warheads for 45 minutes. With the rockets off-line, the launch center would have been unable to detect or cancel any unauthorized launch attempts. This incident could have been caused—and could easily be recreated—by hackers from a rogue or terrorist group.

July 28, 2012—Activists break into top-secret uranium production plant
United States, Severity: 3
Three activists, including an 84-year-old nun, break into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and splash human blood on a building in which weapons-grade uranium is processed. The trio roams undetected at the facility for over two hours, suggesting a troubling lack of security measures at one of the most dangerous facilities in the U.S.

August 5, 2014—Nuclear power plant sabotaged
Belgium, Severity: 4
A still unidentified individual drains 65,000 liters of lubricant from a turbine used to produce electricity in the Belgian Doel 4 nuclear power plant. No penetration to the plant is detected, leading investigators to suspect this was an inside job. This event calls attention not only to Belgium’s poor security practices at its nuclear power plants—it did not arm its power plant guards until after the 2016 Brussels terrorist attacks—but also to the potential for nuclear terrorism. In 2012, two workers from the same Doel 4 plant left Belgium to fight for ISIS in Syria.

 

 

 

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