U.S. Almost Nuked N.C. In 1961: Secret Document Reveals Air Force’s Near-Catastrophic Error

By Philip Ross on September 23, 2013 4:20 PM EDT

explosion
The U.S. Air Force nearly destroyed the Eastern Seaboard in 1961. One small switch kept the nuke from detonating. (Photo: Creative Commons)

On a countdown of the top ten bloopers in U.S. history, this one's sure to land the number one spot. Recently released secret government documents reveal that in 1961, the U.S. Air Force nearly detonated an atomic bomb on U.S. soil when a B-52 bomber had to jettison its load over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Had the fumbled a-bomb gone off, its blast would've been 260 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

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While the accident itself is not news, the government neglected to mention exactly how near-cataclysmic the misstep really was. Details of the incident weren't known until a document describing the event was recently made public. The secret record was released to journalist Eric Schlosser, who requested the document under the Freedom of Information Act as part of his research for his book, Command and Control.

The Guardian reports that on Jan. 23, 1961, a B-52 bomber carrying two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs broke apart in midair, sending the 24 megaton a-bombs hurtling towards Earth's surface. According to the document, one of the 24 megaton bombs went into detonation mode. Its parachute deployed; its triggers were armed. But one low-voltage switch kept the a-bomb from going off. From The Guardian:

Though there has been persistent speculation about how narrow the Goldsboro escape was, the US government has repeatedly publicly denied that its nuclear arsenal has ever put Americans' lives in jeopardy through safety flaws. But in the newly-published document, a senior engineer in the Sandia national laboratories responsible for the mechanical safety of nuclear weapons concludes that "one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe."

One of the bombs dropped that day ended up in a tree, while the other landed in a meadow, The Verge reports. Each bomb was the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosives.

The "incident" took place near Goldsboro, North Carolina, a city of over 30,000 people located 53 miles southeast of Raleigh. Had the bomb exploded, deadly fallout could have reached as far north as New York City 480 miles up the Eastern Seaboard, blanketing everything in between in lethal radiation.

And it wasn't the only documented near-disaster to occur. There were apparently some 700 other incidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1968. One occurred in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980 when someone dropped a wrench that almost set off a 9-megaton thermonuclear warhead, which would've created a blast greater than all the bombs dropped during WWII - including the atomic ones - according to Slate.

"The US government has consistently tried to withhold information from the American people in order to prevent questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy," Schlosser said, according to The Guardian. "We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here's one that very nearly did."

Read more from iScience Times:

Area 51 Conspiracy Revealed: Declassified CIA Documents Expose Existence Of Secret Base And U-2 Spy Program

America's Nuclear Bomb Problem: Outdated B61s Need Expensive Upgrades If U.S. Wants To Keep Them Around

Bomb-Detecting Laser Can Find Traces Of Explosives, Could Be Used In Airport Security

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