“As long as nuclear weapons exist, the chances of survival of the human species are quite slight.”
– Noam Chomsky
Ever since the Manhattan Project unleashed the world’s first atomic bomb at the Los Alamos Trinity Test Site in 1945, the world has teetered on the edge of nuclear war. In fact, it’s an absolute miracle that (to date) only two nukes have ever been used in combat, especially considering how many nuclear warheads still exist in the world. What’s even more astonishing though is just how close we came to the brink of a full-scale nuclear holocaust – on more than one occasion!
The most famous example of course is the Cuban Missile Crisis, which took place at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, but you may not have known that during that event, on October 25th, 1962, a random bear tripped an alarm at a US Airbase in Wisconsin – causing someone to accidentally hit the alarm that indicated an imminent nuclear attack!
Estimates indicate that there are roughly 15,000 nuclear warheads in the world today, divvied up between 9 countries, including North Korea for some reason. Of those, about 1,800 in the US and Russia are ready to launch at the drop of a hat (or a Twitter tantrum). The point is, there’s enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy the planet a couple of times and we’re just one dumb mistake away from total obliteration…
On that note, here’s 10 times we nearly nuked ourselves back to the Stone Age – by accident!
10. THE PRESIDENT LOST THE LAUNCH CODES?!
The President of the United States of America is the leader of the free world and the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military on the planet. He also has the authority to launch a nuclear strike during a crisis. It’s an immense responsibility and more often than not, many an American President has treated that role with the same care as a shirtless drunk frat boy, lighting bottle rockets over a gasoline fire.
You see, the President is entrusted with a briefcase called ‘the football’ (which is typically handcuffed to one of his aides) and a card with launch codes known as ‘the biscuit’. It’s seriously like a real life macguffin from a high-stakes spy novel.
Turns out that these codes have been misplaced – on numerous occasions! During the height of the Cold War, President Jimmy Carter accidentally left the biscuit in the pocket of a suit that he sent to the dry cleaners. Gerald Ford’s White House once misplaced the nuclear football at a Peace Conference in Paris.
“It was one of those things: ‘Didn’t you bring the football? No, I thought you had the football.'” – according to Ford’s Press Secretary.
However, the worst offender was Bill Clinton. Not only did President Clinton leave his aide (and the nuclear football) behind at a summit in 1999, he also once completely lost the biscuit – for months!
9. THAT ONE TIME WE ALMOST NUKED OURSELVES
March 11th, 1958 – a day like any other in the small town of Mars Bluff, South Carolina. For the Gregg family, it was just an ordinary Tuesday afternoon at home. Bill Gregg was at work in his tool shed, his wife, Effie was sewing on the porch and their daughters were playing in a tree house nearby. All was calm and peaceful at the Gregg residence… that is until an 8,000 pound atom bomb fell out of the sky!
This gigantic hunk of metal was a Mark 6 nuclear bomb that had fallen 15,000 feet from a Boeing B-47 Stratojet! Moments before, aboard the B-47 bomber, Captain Bruce Kulka was asked to check on their nuclear payload, after a fault light had gone off in the cockpit. The Air Force crew were transporting the weapon on routine maneuvers from Georgia to England. Kulka, the plane’s bombardier, made his way to the back of the plane to check on the Mk 6.
He reached around the enormous bomb, to check on the locking pin, but instead accidentally grabbed the emergency release lever! The hulking a-bomb hit the bomb bay doors with a loud thud. With a matter of seconds to spare, Captain Bruce Kulka grabbed a hold of the nearest railing. Then, before Kulka had the chance to mutter “Oh cra-!” the bomb bay doors gave way under the sheer weight of the bomb and gravity did the rest…
Someone later recalled that they heard Bruce shout over the radio, “Oh —, I dropped the damn thing!”
The Mk 6 nuclear bomb plummeted seven miles to ground, barely missing the Gregg residence. The bomb landed in the woods and exploded in a brilliant ball of fire. Fortunately, it wasn’t a nuclear explosion because the fission core wasn’t installed. Still, the resulting blast was big enough to completely wreck the Gregg family’s house, injuring all 6 family members and leaving behind a 70 foot wide, 35 foot deep crater. Luckily no one was killed, but about 14 chickens were incinerated. When the dust settled, 7 buildings were damaged.
One of the daughters, Helen Gregg Holladay later recalled, “There was a loud noise, like a crash and the next thing we knew dirt and pieces of trees, pieces of the house or whatever were falling on us. It all happened so fast…”
The Gregg family was later compensated significantly for the accident and the air force pilots involved publicly apologized.
8. NUCLEAR TEST MISHAPS
Throughout the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union were constantly trying to one up each other, creating bigger and more destructive nuclear weapons. Both countries performed hundreds of tests. The US alone detonated 1,132 devices between 1945 and 1992. Of these, there were a number of poorly thought out tests, including a number of atmospheric and underwater tests.
In March, 1954, a high-altitude, high-yield test was conducted in the Marshall Islands. Code-name: Castle Bravo ended up being waaay more powerful than predicted, generating a whopping yield of 15 megatons of TNT! Unfortunately this caused fallout radiation to spread across the nearby inhabited islands and poisoned an entire boat of Japanese fishermen with acute radiation sickness.
Another ill-advised series of atomic tests happened under a project called Operation Plumbbob in 1957 – where 16,000 troops were exposed to radiation in the Nevada desert.
However, one of the worst test-mishaps occurred when the US military decided it wanted to see what would happen if they set off a hydrogen bomb in space…
What could possibly go wrong?! (Turns out a lot.)
A W49 thermonuclear warhead strapped to a Thor rocket was launched from Johnston Island on July 9th, 1962. The hydrogen bomb detonated at an altitude of 250 miles!
The bright glow from the 1.4 megatonne yield explosion lit up the night sky above Hawaii! From Honolulu, it looked as though a second sun had suddenly appeared behind the clouds!
Of course, the scientists who performed the test hadn’t really considered the ramifications of what might actually happen if they were to detonate a nuclear weapon that high in the sky… until after they had already done it. Turns out the electro-magnetic burst from the explosion created a radiation belt of MeV particles around the Earth which knocked out at least a dozen satellites in orbit AND shorted out power across the Hawaii islands!
So yeah, that’s neat.
7. OPERATION PLOWSHARE: WORST. IDEA. EVER.
The American military has had a lot of crazy ideas over the years involving innovative ways to use nuclear weapons, but perhaps the dumbest example came about in the 1960’s. The proposal was probably something along the lines of “Hey Jeb, why don’t we use these here atom bombs for construction?”
While the intentions behind using nuclear weapons for something other than killing millions of people might sound better than a war where the only ones who win are super-intelligent apes and 70-foot tall, fire-breathing lizards, it really breaks down when you start to consider a few technical variables.
Like the fact that nuclear blasts are inherently radioactive…
Some of the possibilities that were proposed included using several H-bombs to create an artificial harbor in Alaska, using atomic weapons to widen the Panama Canal and last but not least – setting off 22 nuclear explosions in the Mojave Desert to clear a path for a highway through the Rocky Mountains.
Whose idea was this anyway?!
“Operation Plowshare” was a project that attempted to test the feasibility of using nukes for construction purposes. Over the course of 11 years, the team detonated 31 nuclear warheads before realizing that between the amount of radioactive fallout ejected into the sky and the potential plutonium contamination of nearby drinking water wouldn’t be worth it.
Ultimately it was insanely impractical – for obvious reasons.
Russia on the other hand, took it a step further and just started using their nuclear arsenal to create canals and mine for diamonds. As you can probably imagine this backfired spectacularly. In 1978, the Soviet Union set off an underground nuclear bomb at a mining site called Kraton-3. 20 years later, the radiation levels in the water were 10,000 times above safety levels.
6. THE WRENCH THAT ALMOST CAUSED ARMAGEDDON
When it comes to nuclear weapons, sometimes the smallest mistake can lead to a huge catastrophe. One of the best examples of this occurred on September 18th, 1980 at a nuclear silo in Damascus, Arkansas. A crew was performing routine maintenance on a Titan II missile when all of a sudden one of the workers dropped a socket wrench…
It just happened that while the wrench dropped 70 feet it bounced off of a thrust mount and struck the side of the missile just right. The metal tool punctured the first stage fuel tank and began venting about 10,000 gallons of liquid fuel! The work crew began to flood the silo with water, but it was already too late. Minutes later, a massive explosion was sparked, seriously injuring 22 personnel and blasting a 740 ton launch door 600 feet away and ejecting a 9-megaton W53 nuclear warhead!
Everyone within a ten mile radius was evacuated. Thankfully, the safety features built in prevented it from wiping Arkansas off the map.
5. THE THULE AIRBASE ACCIDENT
On January 21st, 1968, an American B-52 was flying over Greenland, armed with not one, not two, but FOUR Hydrogen bombs! (It’s worth noting that a single hydrogen bomb is at least 100 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.)
As fate would have it, out of nowhere, a fire broke out on the plane! During the calamity, six of the seven crew members managed to eject as the plane crashed into the ice waters of North Star Bay. Although the nuclear weapons hadn’t been armed to go off, the impact from the crash set off a chain reaction, causing all 4 bombs to rupture in a large explosion. The resulting blast contaminated three square miles of ice and snow with radioactive material!
The cleanup operation took decades.
A somewhat similar incident almost occurred in 1956 when a B-47 bomber had a crash landing at an airfield in England and smashed into a nuclear weapons storage bunker. Luckily the fire was put out before it got to the bombs or else England may have gone the way of Chernobyl.
4. THAT OTHER TIME WE TRIED TO NUKE OURSELVES
The Goldsboro incident was yet another plane crash with near-catastrophic consequences. This time, it happened a little closer to home. On January 24th, 1961, a B-52G Stratofortress armed with two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs, was flying above North Carolina.
Around midnight, a tanker docked with the bomber for an aerial refueling… something went wrong.
A gas leak was detected on the right wing of the aircraft. The B-52 made its way back to Goldsboro airbase as it leaked over 37,000 pounds of fuel in 3 minutes! As the plane began its descent, the pilots started to lose control. 6 of the 8 men aboard managed to eject at 9,000 feet before the plane disintegrated! The two nuclear weapons fell out of the crumbling bomber and began to free fall above North Carolina!
As the first bomb fell, 3 out of 4 of the arming mechanisms activated and its 100 foot wide parachute deployed, but luckily its safety settings avoided a detonation. The bomb was miraculously found undamaged and hanging from a tree!
The second bomb on the other hand, was fully armed! To make matters worse, bomb 2’s parachute malfunctioned. The bomb had gone through 6 of the 7 steps needed to detonate. At 700 miles per hour, bomb #2 plunged into a muddy field… and went silent. It was a miracle, pure and simple.
A team of bomb disposal experts were sent in to dig the components out. Lt. Jack Revelle later recalled what happened when they uncovered the buried thermonuclear warhead, “Until my death I will never forget hearing my sergeant say, ‘Lieutenant, we found the arm/safe switch.’ And I said, ‘Great.’ He said, ‘Not great. It’s on arm.'”
During the impact, which normally would have caused the nuke to detonate, a high-voltage switch came loose! In the words of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, “by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.’”
If either of the weapons had gone off, the damage would have been incomprehensible and the fallout could have spread up north from Washington DC to New York. According to Parker F. Jones, “One simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe.”
3. TSAR BOMBA!
In 1952, the United States tested out the world’s first Hydrogen Bomb – a weapon far more devastating than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A few years later, the Russians had one of their own.
As the Cold War ramped up, each side attempted to outdo the other with bigger and more destructive nuclear weapons. Then in 1961, the Soviets shocked the world by unleashing the single largest thermonuclear device ever detonated on the planet Earth…
Tsar Bomba was so big in fact that it could be seen as a massive blinding flash from over 600 miles away!
The RDS-220, code-name: IVAN, was a hydrogen bomb 26 feet long and 7 feet wide, weighing in at just 60,000 pounds. It was far too heavy to use with a missile. The only way to launch this sucker was to drop it and let gravity do the rest. Not only that, but they needed a massive parachute to slow its descent, to give the plane enough time to get away from the explosion. To this day, the “Tsar Bomba” test is still the most powerful man-made explosion ever created. With a whopping 50-Megaton yield (!!) and an unprecedented destructive radius of 560 miles (!!!), nothing has ever come close.
When the flight crew was selected for the mission, they were given a 50% chance of survival…
At 11:32 AM (Moscow time), on October 30th, 1961, a modified Russian Tu-95 bomber flying near the Arctic Circle, dropped this stupidly huge bomb from 6.5 miles in the air. The plane desperately sped away as fast as it could. At 13,000 feet, the big *** bomb blew up. The bomber barely escaped the monstrous fireball as Ivan unleashed Hell on the North Pole, but was close enough to get hit by the full force of the ensuing shock-wave, which caused it to drop half a mile through the air before the pilots managed to regain control.
As the shock-wave tore through the air, it destroyed everything in its path. 34 miles away, a small fishing village was completely decimated by the blast as brick houses were flattened! 62 miles away, people suffered third degree burns! 100 miles away, wooden doors and roofs were blown to shreds! The shock-wave could be felt as far as 430 miles away! Even windows as far as Norway and Finland were shattered! The blast from the air caused seismic tremors through the Earth’s crust which could be detected around the world!
The craziest part though was the towering 40 mile high mushroom cloud! For perspective, that’s SEVEN times the height of Mount Everest! And now for the truly terrifying part: the Tsar Bomba had the potential to be twice as powerful! The only problem of course was that the plane that dropped the thing would never have been able to escape the blast radius.
It’s a good thing they decided not to go even bigger, because for all we know, a 100-Megaton yield Hydrogen bomb would probably crack the Earth in half or throw our planet out of orbit…
2. SOVIET FALSE ALARMS
The world had a couple of really close calls throughout the Cold War thanks to faulty equipment. One of the closest near-incidents occurred on September 26th, 1983, when Russian Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov received a warning from a satellite in orbit that 5 ICBMs had been launched from the United States and were en route!
Petrov’s orders were to pass this up the chain of command, which would lead to a full-scale nuclear retaliation. Luckily for everyone alive today, Colonel Petrov decided not to. He figured if the Americans were going to attack, they would have launched more than just 5 missiles. And as it turns out, the warning satellites were getting false readings from their infrared sensors due to the light and heat of the sun…
Another close call happened on January 25th, 1995, when a Norway weather experiment was detected by Russian radars and confused for a Trident missile launched from a nuclear submarine. The Russian High Command was alerted of the ‘imminent attack’ and within a matter of seconds, the Defense Minister, Chief of the Armed Forces and Russian President were all connected via video chat. They had less than 10 minutes to decide whether or not to launch a counter-strike before it was too late.
Before Boris Yeltsin could make a decision, the Norwegian research rocket splashed harmlessly into the sea and an international crisis was averted.
1. NORAD: THE ‘WAR GAMES’ INCIDENT
During the Cold War, NORAD – the North American Aerospace Defense Command, was on high-alert at all times, ready to respond to the slightest act of aggression with the full might of America’s nuclear arsenal in a moments notice. This of course was intended as a deterrent: hope for the best, but prepare for the apocalypse. One of the primary command centers was a military complex built deep within Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. Built 2,000 feet under solid granite and sealed with 25-ton blast doors, the bunker is built to withstand earthquakes, an electro-magnetic pulse and a 30-megaton nuclear detonation!
Despite all this, NORAD has fallen prey to a number of rather simple… technical difficulties.
The absolute worst incident however was caused by human error.
On November 9th, 1979 at 8:50 AM, a warning lit up on the computers at NORAD and the Pentagon: we were under attack! The data indicated that 1,000 Soviet warheads had been launched from Russia and were rocketing towards strategic targets throughout the United States! The air force scrambled bombers, minutemen nuclear missiles were readied for launch and the National Emergency Airborne Command Post took off down the runway (without the President on board)!
According to Senator Charles Percy, who was touring NORAD at the time, “All hell broke loose; they were absolutely convinced there were missiles coming at us.” Six minutes later, reports started coming in that nothing was detected on radar or satellite – the coast was clear.
So what actually happened?!
Turns out, not much. The false alarm was all because of a simple mix up: A low level cadet who had accidentally uploaded a training simulation to the wrong computer! So yeah, basically the plot of that one movie with Ferris Bueller…
Thanks for reading! If you’re a fan of the blog, be sure to listen to the Epik Fails of History podcast and check out my all new “EPIC FAILS” book series – available now wherever books are sold!
—– More articles on Historic Failure:
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13 OF THE WORST ECOLOGICAL DISASTERS OF ALL TIME
“A Short History of Nuclear Folly” by Rudolph Herzog
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