Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Day We Almost Nuked North Carolina (Or...Why Don't We Still Write Like This?)

The M-39 in a field near Goldsboro, NC, 1961
Old cold warriors like me are not surprised by stories of accidents and incidents involving nuclear weapons but most of my students have no idea what that environment was like.  In fact, other than those inducted into the Cult of The Atom, very few people living at the time had any idea of how close we came, on a number of occasions, to accidentally blowing ourselves up (while forgetting about those times we almost did so purposely....).

Recently, several stories about those good 'ol days have resurfaced as a result of newly declassified documents.  For example, the news making the rounds today is that the launch code on US weapons was 00000000 for 20 years - sort of like setting "password" as your password, except with a nuke.

This article led, in turn, to some new information on the Goldsboro, North Carolina incident in which, back in 1961, a B-52 broke up in mid air, allowing a couple of 4 megaton M-39 nuclear weapons to fall out of the airplane.  One of the bombs fell straight into a muddy field where it disintegrated more or less harmlessly on impact.

The second one, however, deployed its parachute and started going through its arming sequence.  Why didn't it blow up?  According to Parker Jones, the supervisor of the nuclear weapons safety department at Sandia national laboratories (writing in 1969), "one simple, dynamo technology, low-voltage switch stood between the US and a major catastrophe!"

Curious about how much damage a 4 MT bomb would do?  Here is an estimate courtesy of NUKEMAP.  It includes both immediate damage and the resulting fallout.,10,100,1000&zm=8

What really impressed me, however, was the way the memo was written.  There is no tiptoeing around the issue, no spin doctoring.  Here is a senior scientist calling the nuclear weapons community out on improving safety.  He does it directly, bluntly, and with no attempt to spare the readers' feelings.  The Guardian, which published the declassified memo, doesn't allow me to embed the document but it is only 2 pages and worth reading in its entirety.