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A new report shows nuclear weapons almost detonated in North Carolina in 1961

An image of a mushroom cloud from a nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, March 26, 1954.
An image of a mushroom cloud from a nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, March 26, 1954.
Photo by Roger Viollet/Getty Images

On January 24, 1961, a B-52 carrying two nuclear bombs broke apart in mid-air, dropping the bombs over Goldsboro, North Carolina, in the process. For years, the federal government denied there was any possibility the bombs could have detonated. But that story has been undermined significantly in recent years. Last week, George Washington University's National Security Archive released a declassified report by Sandia National Laboratories, a research center responsible for the design and testing of the non-nuclear parts of nuclear weapons, demonstrating that the bombs came alarmingly close to detonation.

Investigative reporter Eric Schlosser, in the course of researching his book Command and Control, discovered much of what we know about the Goldsboro accident. We talked about what happened at Goldsboro, other nuclear incidents where detonation was narrowly averted, and what can be done to prevent an accidental detonation from ever occurring. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Dylan Matthews: What's new in the document that just got released? What didn't we know? Or is this mostly material that you and others had uncovered already?

Eric Schlosser: It's very useful to have this new document. It confirms what was revealed in some of the documents that I obtained and the interviews that I did for my book. When this accident occurred, the Air Force denied there was any possibility that these two hydrogen bombs could be detonated--and that was the official story for many years. A few people suggested that wasn't true. In 1962 a physicist named Ralph Lapp wrote a book that claimed one of the weapons could have detonated. But he got some of the details wrong.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, I obtained a memo by one of the top safety engineers at Sandia, and the memo described the factual errors in Lapp's book. But the memo also made very clear that one of those hydrogen bombs could have detonated full-scale--and that we were very lucky it didn't. The document recently posted online by the National Security Archive is an accident investigation report conducted by engineers at Sandia, and it confirms the details of what happened.

It's now absolutely irrefutable that one of those weapons could have detonated in North Carolina, with catastrophic effects. For my book, I interviewed nuclear weapon designers who said exactly the same thing.

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DM: To back up a second, why were we flying planes around the Eastern Seaboard that were loaded with nuclear weapons in the first place?

ES: At the height of the Cold War, the Air Force feared that the Soviet Union could launch a surprise attack on the United States and destroy all of our air bases, and we'd have no way to retaliate against the Soviets. So the Air Force came up with this idea of having about a dozen B-52 bombers airborne 24 hours a day, with nuclear weapons on board. That way, if we were attacked, those dozen planes might escape the destruction on the ground, head to the Soviet Union, and blast the Soviets with hydrogen bombs.

The planes were sort of an insurance policy. They were meant to deter the Soviets from trying a surprise attack. But this Air Force program, called the "airborne alert," also posed some serious risks for the United States. The B-52 was designed in the late 1940s--and it wasn't designed to be flying 24 hours a day. So the airborne alerts put enormous stress on these aircraft. It really wore out the planes and made them more likely to crash.

Nobody realized, at the time, that some design flaws in our nuclear weapons made them vulnerable to detonating in an accident. There was an illusion of safety. In the book, I explore the safety problems with our nuclear arsenal. We were putting planes that were at risk of crashing into the air over the United States with nuclear weapons that were at risk of accidentally detonating. The airborne alert was finally ended in 1968, after a B-52 crashed in Greenland with four hydrogen bombs and contaminated a stretch of the Arctic Ice with plutonium.

The films Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe used bombers from the airborne alert as crucial plot elements, suggesting how nuclear catastrophes might occur.  In both films, the risk wasn't posed by the accidental detonation of nuclear weapons but by the unauthorized use of  them against the Soviet Union. Officials at the Pentagon and the Air Force said that sort of thing was impossible, claiming that Strangelove and Fail-Safe were ridiculous fictions.  We now know that the Pentagon wasn't telling the truth. There were no locks on our bombs, no secret code necessary to drop one from a B-52 and detonate it.  Until the early 1970s, if an American bomber crew decided they wanted to go and bomb Moscow, the only thing that could really stop them would be the air defenses of the Soviet Union.  There were no mechanisms on the plane to prevent a rogue crew from dropping its hydrogen bombs if they wanted to drop them.

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A sign in Eureka, NC commemorating the accident. Photo by Wikipedia user RJHaas.

DM: They were fully aware that that was their payload?

ES: Oh yeah. These were large weapons that had to be loaded and inspected. The crew had a rough idea of what their targets might be, but if a real emergency war order was ever received, they'd have to open up a safe on the plane to get the exact target coordinates. If a rogue crew decided they wanted to bomb Chicago, they could have bombed Chicago. Why did that never happen? Well, the Air Force deserves a lot of credit. These bomber crews was remarkably disciplined, and they were really well-trained, and there was a great sense of esprit de corps in the Strategic Air Command. But we were essentially giving full custody of thermonuclear weapons to half a dozen people on a plane, guys in their early twenties and thirties, and then trusting that none of the bombs would be used without permission.

We were very fortunate to get out of the Cold War without losing one of our major cities to a nuclear detonation. The same is true for the Soviet Union. It's extraordinary how many nuclear weapons were built, how many problems there were with those weapons, how close we came, numerous times, to disaster. And the fact that there wasn't an accidental detonation or the unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon…I was with a physicist the other day who was involved in our weapon program, and he said it's nothing short of miraculous. When you think about the fact that a major city has not been destroyed by a nuclear weapon since Nagasaki in 1945, it's just incredible.

DM: What exactly do you need to do to get one of these things to detonate? How easy is it? What can go wrong?

ES: Well, for most of the Cold War, there was no code or anything that you needed to enter. All you needed to do was turn a switch or two in the cockpit to arm the bomb, and then release it. There were mechanisms on the weapon to prevent it from detonating prematurely and destroying our own planes. There were barometric switches that would operate when they sensed a change in altitude. There were timers that delayed the explosion until our planes had enough time to get away.  The Goldsboro bomb that almost detonated was known as Weapon No. 1.  As the plane was spinning and breaking apart, the centrifugal forces pulled a lanyard in the cockpit--and that lanyard was what a crew member would manually pull during wartime to release the bomb. This hydrogen bomb was a machine,  a dumb object. It had no idea whether the lanyard was being pulled by a person or by a centrifugal force.  Once the lanyard was pulled, the weapon just behaved like it was designed to.

The bomb went through all of its arming steps except for one, and a single switch prevented a full-scale nuclear detonation.  That type of switch was later found to be defective.  It had failed in dozens of other cases, allowing weapons to be inadvertently armed.  And that safety switch could have very easily been circumvented by stray electricity in the B-52 as it was breaking apart. As Secretary of Defense McNamara said, "By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted." That's literally correct, a short circuit could've fully armed the bomb.

I interviewed McNamara before he passed away. The Goldsboro accident occurred just a few days after he took office. He wasn't an expert in nuclear weapons; he'd been head of the Ford Motor Company. And this accident scared the hell out of him. It would have spread lethal radioactive fallout up the Eastern Seaboard--and put a real damper on all the optimism of the Kennedy administration's New Frontier. And this wasn't the only really serious nuclear weapons accident that the United States had.  There were others that were dangerous and yet kept from view.

DM: Let's talk about the other big one that's the centerpiece of the book, the Damascus incident. Can you walk us through the basics of that? It was quite a bit later, and you would have hoped that by the time that happened we would have figured out some of this stuff.

ES: In September of 1980,  a repairman was doing routine maintenance on a Titan II missile in a silo in Damascus, Arkansas. He was standing on a steel work platform near the top of the missile. The Titan II was the largest missile the United States ever built, it was about as tall as a ten-story building. The workman reached over to unscrew a pressure cap, and the socket fell off his wrench. The socket fell about 70 feet in the silo, ricocheted off a silo wall, hit the missile, and pierced a hole in the missile's skin.  Suddenly thousands of gallons of highly explosive rocket fuel were pouring into this missile silo.

And now the Air Force had a problem, because on top of that missile was the most powerful nuclear warhead the United States ever built. It was a nine megaton warhead. That one warhead on that one missile in Damascus, Arkansas, had more than three times the explosive force of all the bombs used by all the armies in the Second World War combined, including both atomic bombs. It was an insanely powerful weapon.

The Air Force had no idea what to do. They had never had this sort of accident with one of their missiles with a live thermonuclear warhead on top of it.  For hours, there was a desperate attempt to save the missile and prevent it from exploding and prevent the warhead on top of it from detonating.

Obviously, the warhead did not detonate full-scale.  Because if it had, much of Arkansas would have gone up in flames, and the course of history would have been changed. If that hydrogen bomb had gone off in North Carolina, it would have gotten the Kennedy administration off to a pretty terrible start, and if the warhead in Arkansas had gone off, Bill Clinton might not have made it to the White House.  He was the young, long-haired governor of Arkansas in September, 1980, and he was in Arkansas while the Air Force was trying to figure out how to stop that Titan II missile from exploding.

The question is, how many times can you get lucky? Eventually, luck runs out. One of the mind-boggling things in the book is that the safety problems with our nuclear weapons were recognized by around 1969 or 1970--but it took almost 20 years for those problems to be fixed.  One of the heroes in my book is a weapon designer named Bob Peurifoy, who fought a bureaucratic battle for years to get modern safety devices installed in our nuclear weapons.  You'd think that wouldn't be a controversial thing to do.  There was this enormous sense of bureaucratic denial, a refusal to admit error and confront the problem.

A few years before the Damascus accident, the type of warhead on that Titan II missile had been found to have inadequate safety mechanisms--and yet there it was sitting in that silo, on top of a missile full of rocket fuel. One of the psychological phenomena that the book explores book is bureaucratic groupthink, a dangerous form of complacency.  There was this dangerous attitude about the possibility of an accidental nuclear detonation: if it hasn't happened, it won't happen.  Or, if it hasn't happened, it can't happen. Unfortunately,  bizarre, low probability things do happen. Thus far we've been very lucky that the accidental or unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon isn't one of those things.

So enjoy the day, man. Take nothing for granted.

DM: You mentioned that there were safety mechanisms put in place some 20 years after this was first recognized. What did those look like? Have we adequately reduced the probability of these kinds of accidents in the intervening period, or not?

ES: After the accident in Greenland, where a B-52 crashed and contaminated some of the Arctic with plutonium, a handful of engineers at Sandia became concerned about what might happen to a nuclear weapon during a fire, during a plane crash, if it was hit by lightning, etc. These events were classified as "abnormal environments". There was a strong emphasis on designing new mechanisms that would reliably prevent a weapon from detonating in an abnormal environment.

Some of the technical details are pretty complicated. In brief, these engineers decided to add mechanisms that would reliably fail-safe. Crucial parts of a warhead or bomb were designed to fail when they're exposed to a fire, a lightning strike, etc. And when those parts fail, the weapon can't detonate. Today, more than thirty years after the Damascus accident, I feel pretty confident about the safety of America's nuclear weapons. Today, the Air Force would never be allowed to put on a plane the type of hydrogen bomb that was dropped over North Carolina accidentally. The kind of nuclear weapons that were routinely flown over the United States would never be allowed in our arsenal now, because of their inadequate safety mechanisms.

The weapons that we have today are a lot safer, but the weapon systems that they're attached to are increasingly old and obsolete. And that worries me. The Titan II missile that suffered a fuel leak in Damascus, it was an old missile that really should have been retired by 1980. It was supposed to be taken out of service more than a decade earlier. Today our principal nuclear bomber is the B-52, which was designed in the 1940s. We haven't built a new B-52 since John F. Kennedy was president. Our principal land based missile, the Minuteman III, was put into the ground in the early 1970s, and it was supposed to be retired in the 1980s.

Our submarines are getting old too. But the biggest concern I have right now is about our nuclear command and control system--the computers and wiring and infrastructure that links everything together. It's really old. Bad things can still happen. The wrong signal could be sent, the system could be hacked, somebody could make a stupid mistake. The accidental launch of a Minuteman III missile would be a disaster. I'm not saying that's likely to happen, but when you take a nuclear weapon, which is a machine, and you put it on a missile, which is another machine, and then you connect them through wires to a lot of other machines, you're creating a very complex technological system.

One of the lessons of the book is that we're much better at creating complex technological systems than we are at managing them or even understanding them when something goes wrong. Small mistakes, like dropping a socket in a silo, can have big consequences. America's nuclear command and control system is incredibly intricate and complex, especially when you have hundred of missiles that are ready to be launched within minutes. They're loaded with warheads and fuel and ready to go. So the potential for serious problems is always there.

Early software designers had a phrase they called the "Titanic effect." It goes something like this: The safer you assume a system to be, the more dangerous it's becoming. With complex, technological systems, there's a need for constant vigilance. One of the great sources of danger is a sense of complacency. If you look at the management of our nuclear arsenal, there have been periods of real complacency. And unfortunately, I think we're in one now, when you hear about at launch officers cheating on their tests, launch officers being caught using illegal drugs. I mean, that stunned me. I'm all in favor of liberalizing our drug laws, but missile launch officers really shouldn't be smoking pot.

DM: It seems like there's an interesting policy implication here. Is there a case for investing in progressively more advanced nuclear systems to prevent a catastrophic accident?

ES: Yeah, there's a good case. If you're going to have the most dangerous weapons ever built, you've got to invest in maintaining them properly. And if you're not willing to do that, you've got to get rid of them. The worst of all possible situations is to have these weapons and neglect them, because then they become perhaps a greater danger to yourself than to your potential adversaries. One of the least glamorous things to invest in is command and control. The military wants brand new weapon systems, new shiny bombers, et cetera, but it's the wiring, it's the computer networks, it's the communications systems, and so forth that usually doesn't get enough attention. But that's where the investment really needs to go.

There was a recent 60 Minutes piece on problems with the Air Force's missiles. 60 Minutes showed some of the phones in Minuteman III launch control centers. They look like telephones from 1973, and the crews have trouble hearing what's being said on the phone. The Air Forces claims the computers in the launch control centers are difficult to hack--because they're so old. The computers can't be affected by malware on a flash drive, because they're too old to accept a flash drive and still rely on 9" floppy disks. I don't find that reassuring. A few years ago at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, 50 Minuteman missiles went offline simultaneously for almost an hour. At the time, the Air Force publicly denied there was any possibility someone might've hacked into the command and control system. But privately, they got worried, and now they acknowledge that's a genuine threat.

So there's an immediate need for investment in the command and control infrastructure of our nuclear arsenal. And then we need to have a public debate over how many of these weapons we should have. And what type? And do we need them at all? That debate isn't happening right now, there's a remarkable lack of public awareness, and meanwhile these systems are getting older and potentially less safe.

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Stephen M. … inspects an LGM-30G Minuteman III missile inside a silo about 60 miles from Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D.in 1998. (Photo by USAF)

DM: Things have gotten better with nuclear systems in the United States, but do we know much about whether the infrastructure in Russia and India and Pakistan and China can keep up?

ES: It worries me a great deal. My book is really critical of America's management of nuclear weapons, but we invented this technology. We perfected it, and I have no doubt we've done a better job of managing nuclear weapons than any other country. And so that leads you to wonder about the job other countries are doing. At the end of the book I look at the rate of industrial accidents in the countries that have nuclear weapons, using it as a rough measure of a nation's technological proficiency. And it's not reassuring, at all. Russia had a major nuclear weapons accident just a few years ago. One of their submarines caught on fire at a shipyard in Murmansk. The sub was loaded with 16 missiles. Each missile had four warheads. The only way they were eventually able to put out the fire was by sinking the sub and flooding it.

Any country that wants nuclear weapons has to keep in mind that these weapons may pose a greater threat to yourself than to your enemies. These weapons are complicated things to possess and maintain, especially if you keep them fully assembled and ready to use. If you're only going to put them together when you're about to go to war, then there's a higher level of safety. But if you keep them fully assembled, and mated to a weapons system, and ready to go, then there are limitless ways that something could go wrong.

DM: Got it. Is there anything you wanted to touch on before we wrapped up or does that do it?

ES: I guess so much of this sounds really apocalyptic, but … On this subject I don't feel like we're doomed. I don't feel like nuclear annihilation is inevitable at all. I'm really concerned about it. I think people need to be aware of these issues, and I think there needs to be a real public debate about nuclear weapons, not just in this country but throughout the world. The destruction of a city by a nuclear weapon, anywhere in the world, will be felt everywhere. Just about everybodyI interviewed for the book thought it was amazing and just incredible that the Cold War ended without a city being destroyed.

It's important to keep in mind that the Cold War ended peacefully, so there's nothing inevitable about our being wiped out by nuclear weapons. But change isn't just going to happen, people have to make change happen. I don't want to come across as saying, "the end is near, we're all going to die." But this subject is definitely something to be worried about--and something that should encourage you to enjoy the day.

DM: Right. I think part of the power of the book is that it's clear this isn't inevitable.

ES: It's not. I mean, at the height of the Cold War we had about 32,000 nuclear weapons, and the Soviets had about 35,000 nuclear weapons, and that's just insanity. In the late 1940s, when Pentagon strategists were first studying how many nuclear weapons it would take to destroy the Soviet Union as a functioning society, the conclusion was maybe 150 to 200, and these were atomic bombs, not even hydrogen bombs. Yet somehow, in less than twenty years, we went from needing 150 to 200 to getting 32,000. And then the Soviets got 35,000, and the potential for something going wrong was just huge. Today there are maybe 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world, instead of maybe 60,000. That's still way too many. But it's a large reduction, and the risk of an all-out nuclear war between the United States and Russia has been significantly reduced, too. We need to keep bringing those numbers down. Because so long as one of these weapons exists, somewhere, so will the danger. And that's something that we seem to have forgotten.