Dropped on a Tennis Court, Hit by a Truck, Lost at Sea — But Still Here!
As we all hunker down at home, hoarding toilet paper and hiding from the deadly sniffles, I offer only cold comfort: The ongoing project of documenting one nuclear weapons accident or near-miss a day — every day, for the rest of the year — stumbles grimly forward.
- So here’s a wacky one! Sometime in the 1950s or 60s, an “inert TX21 Weapon” was accidentally “dropped from an aircraft during a development test.”
The TX21 was our largest H bomb — the design detonated at Castle Bravo — more than 1,000 times as explosive as Hiroshima. (Not twice as explosive. Not three times as explosive. Not ten, or twenty, or one hundred times as explosive. One thousand Hiroshimas.)
(The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs are so small, they are blasting caps for modern nuclear weapons.)
But it’s “inert.” Meaning it was not armed for thermonuclear detonation. When they accidentally dropped it out of the plane.
So what happened with this 12-ton beast?
In a 225-page PDF rundown of once-classified accidents involving nuclear weapons just between 1957 and 1967, the military lists this as Accident №17, and provides this terse account:
“The parachute failed to function properly (!) and the weapon fell on a tennis court (!) near a populated area (!) of a ZI test facility.” (ZI probably stands for Zone of Interior, but what the military means by that here is unclear to me.)
So to sum up: At some point in the 1950s or 60s, we accidentally dropped a ginormous 12-ton H bomb from a plane, onto a tennis court, somewhere.
- Another fine day in the military, a plane taxiing accidentally dropped a 3-ton nuclear weapon, with 260 times the explosive potential of the Hiroshima bomb, out of its belly and onto the runway.
In what they are calling “Accident №33”, investigators cited “too much tension on the emergency release cable.”
Also, they report, “The … Warhead Subassembly was damaged … the squash … torn loose … Extensive damage … to the bomb case and fin assembly. No fire or detonation.”
- Having fun yet? Here’s “Accident № 20”: The “1E23” was an electric detonator used in our largest H bomb. “One case of 1E23 Detonators was damaged” when “an unknown object apparently dropped on the case … No fire or detonation.”
- “Accident №26” recounts another fine day when, during installation of a detonator on a Mark 7 nuclear warhead, the detonator “was crushed.” There was “No fire or detonation.”
- Another fine day, a Mark 7 nuclear warhead was being loaded onto a plane. (The Mark 7, or “Thor”, was up to 4 times more explosive than Hiroshima’s.)
“The loading crew used a suspension system of improper length … In screwing down the lug, the number 19 detonator was crushed due to excessive length of the lug. No detonation or fire occurred.” (“Accident №6”.)
- Still another beautiful day in America, a live 4-ton nuclear bomb (a Mark 6, a device up to 10 times more destructive than Hiroshima’s) was being towed behind a truck on a trailer, the N-1 Dolly. The dolly broke off of the truck and rolled backwards, headed toward “a steep embankment” (!)
“It turned into the hillside, and came to rest in a ditch … Had the dolly turned in the opposite direction, it would have plunged over a steep embankment … The weapon was dented slightly. No fire or detonation occurred.”
Investigators noted: “Five similar incidents involving a Mk 6 Weapon and an N-1 Dolly have occurred.” (!)
To sum up: Trailers carrying nukes up to 10 times larger than Hiroshima’s broke free from their trucks and rolled away on at least 6 occasions.
- Onward! In what we’re apparently calling “Incident №6”, another of those Mark 6 nuclear bombs — 4 tons, up to 10 times more destructive than Hiroshima’s — “was parked on an unlighted road at night (!) awaiting a convoy movement …”
“A truck hit the left front of the N-1 Dolly breaking the wheel from its axle. The weapon was not damaged.”
Keeping score at home? We’re now up to 7 accidents just involving nukes on the “N-1 Dolly”.
- And then there was that time, good old “Incident №3”, when while off-loading a 4-ton Mark 15 training nuke (so, not armed) from a flatbed, the 20-ton crane’s brakes “did not hold”, and the bomb dropped 3 feet to concrete.
Dropping 4 tons of anything 3 feet to concrete must be pretty, uh, startling!
- Or that time — we can laugh about it now, but phew! — when a Mark 12 nuke, about the size of the Hiroshima bomb, “was being transferred from ship to ship in rough seas. The weapon was suspended from a hawser [i.e., a rope] by a hook …”
“The hawser suddenly developed slack and the weapon was lowered into the water (!). Upon contact with the water, the weapon became detached from the hook (!) and floated in rough seas (!) until recovered. Approximately one point of water was found in the weapon case. No appreciable damage was incurred.”
- Or how about June 7, 1960? That day a 47-foot tall missile armed with a nuclear warhead, stationed at an Air Force Base in Trenton, NJ, caught fire. The New York Times reported the missile “melted under an intense blaze fed by its 100-pound detonator of TNT … ”
“The atomic warhead apparently dropped into the molten mass that was left of the missile, which burned for forty-five minutes.”
And when we aren’t dropping them onto concrete, or seeing them roll away on trailers that have broken off of trucks, or parking them on unlighted roads to be crashed into by other trucks, or accidentally crushing their detonators, or watching them descend inexorably into white hot rocket fuel fires, or slip off of ropes to bob about the ocean, or spill out of planes onto runaways, or drop high out of planes overhead onto tennis courts, we solemnly discuss how to most sagely make use of our nuclear weapons.
I’ll close with the waning days of the Obama administration, when deputies of the National Security Council war-gamed a scenario: Russia invades the Baltics, NATO throws them back, Russia retaliates with a “low-yield” nuke at a NATO air base. What now?
The NSC’s deputies initially debate a nuclear weapons attack response, but gradually conclude a non-nuclear response is smarter.
As recounted in Fred Kaplan’s excellent new book “The Bomb,” the NSC deputies recognize this would be a historical moment, the first use of nuclear weapons in anger since World War II. If the United States were to respond with restraint in this scenario, it could be a chance to rally the world to our side against Russia. We also would not even need to use nuclear weapons here, as we have great conventional, economic and diplomatic tools; finally, not launching our nuclear weapons would allow de-escalation, instead of almost-certain escalation into a species-ending exchange of fusion bombs.
Sounds good, right?
Well, that was the wargame as run by the deputies at Obama’s NSC.
A month later, the big bosses — the Cabinet and military chiefs — play out the same scenario. The top brass has had time to mull over the previous wargame, and when the same non-nuclear response is suggested they have a meltdown: Absorb a nuke attack without escalating? Never!
So now they must decide where to nuke. Kaliningrad is suggested (random; no). Nuke the Baltics! (NATO is defending the Baltics in this scenario though!)
In the end, the Obama-era Cabinet secretaries & generals decide to nuke …
A randomly-selected, independent, but Slavic / Russian-sounding country — never mind that it’s not even involved in the war game scenario, right up until Team Obama simulates annihilating it.
Some nuclear near-misses are abstract, until the day they aren’t.