It turns out that you can lose nuclear weapons: three American bombs have not yet been found
The US lost at least three nuclear bombs that were never found. How did it happen, where could they be and will we ever find them, reports BBC.
It was a warm winter morning at the height of the Cold War.
On January 17, 1966, around 10:30 am, a Spanish shrimp catcher saw an irregularly shaped white package fall from the sky... and float quietly towards the Alboran Sea. There was something hanging underneath him, though he couldn't make out what it was. And then the package just disappeared in the waves.
At the same time, residents of the nearby fishing village of Palomares also looked up at the sky and saw a very different scene - two giant fireballs that were hurtling straight at them. A few seconds later, the sleepy village idyll was shattered. Buildings shook. The shards cut the ground. Parts of human bodies scattered around.
A few weeks later, Philip Meyers received a message via a teleprinter, a fax-like device that sent and received primitive emails. At the time, he worked as a bomb disposal officer at the Naval Air Station Sigonella in eastern Sicily.
Meyers was informed that there was a top-secret emergency in Spain and that he should be there within a few days.
However, the mission was not as secret as the military had hoped. “The fact that I was called was no longer a surprise,” says Meyers. The entire public already knew what was happening. When he attended a dinner party that evening and announced his secret journey, he found himself in an awkward position.
“I was embarrassed,” Meyers says. “The trip was supposed to be secret, but my friends told me why I was called.”
For weeks now, newspapers around the world have been reporting a horrific accident - two US military aircraft collided mid-air, scattering four B28 thermonuclear bombs over Palomares.
Three of them were quickly found on land, but one disappeared into a brilliant blue expanse to the southeast, lost at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. The search continued, because together with a warhead with a capacity of 1,1 megatons, the explosive power of the bomb was 1 tons of TNT.
In fact, the Palomares incident is not the only time a nuclear weapon has been lost. Since 1950, there have been at least 32 accidents with so-called “broken arrows”. This is the term used by the US military to refer to incidents involving nuclear weapons.
In many cases, nuclear bombs were dropped by mistake or during an emergency. Later they were discovered.
But three American bombs have gone missing. They are still hiding somewhere in swamps, fields and oceans all over the planet.
“We're mostly aware of American cases,” says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California. He explains that the full list of casualties did not appear until after the documents were declassified by the US Department of Defense in the 1980s.
Many of these events happened during the Cold War, when the country was teetering on the precipice of “mutual assured destruction” with the Soviet Union. So, from 1960 to 1968, during the operation known as “Chrome Dome,” the United States constantly kept aircraft with nuclear weapons in the sky.
“We don't know much about other countries. We don't really know anything about the UK or France or Russia or China,” says Lewis. “So I don't think we have anything like full accounting.”
First of all, the nuclear past of the Soviet Union is hazy: as of 1986, it stockpiled 45 nuclear weapons. Cases when the country lost nuclear bombs are known. They were never raised, but, unlike the incidents in the US, they all took place on submarines, and their location is known, if not inaccessible.
The first incident occurred on April 8, 1970, when a fire began to spread through the air conditioning system of the Soviet nuclear submarine K-8 while diving in the Bay of Biscay. This treacherous stretch of water in the northeast Atlantic off the coast of Spain and France is infamous for its violent storms and shipwrecks. There were four nuclear torpedoes on board, and when the boat sank, she took radioactive cargo with her.
However, these lost ships did not always stay where they sank. 1974 Soviet submarine K-129 mysteriously sank in the Pacific Ocean along with three nuclear missiles. The US soon found out about this and decided to covertly claim this nuclear “prize,” “which in itself was a pretty crazy story,” says Lewis.
The eccentric American billionaire Howard Hughes, known for various activities, he was, in particular, a pilot and film director, pretended to be interested in deep sea mining.
“It wasn't really deep sea mining, it was an attempt to build a giant claw that could go down to the sea floor, grab the sub and lift it up,” says Lewis. It was an Azorian project - and unfortunately it didn't work out. The submarine broke apart during the ascent.
“And so these nuclear weapons obviously fell back to the seabed,” says Lewis. Some believe that the rockets remain there to this day, hidden in their rusty tomb, although others believe they were eventually found.
There are occasional reports that some of the lost American nuclear bombs have been found.
In 1998, a retired military officer and his partner became enamored with the idea of finding a bomb dropped near Tybee Island in Georgia in 1958. They interviewed the pilot who lost it, as well as those who have been looking for the bomb for decades.
They were able to narrow their search to Vossow Sound, a nearby bay in the Atlantic Ocean. For years, the desperate duo have been scouring the area on a boat, using a Geiger counter to detect any jumps in radiation.
And then one day they found a place, the same one that the pilot described, where the radiation level was 10 times higher than the level in other places. The government immediately dispatched a team to investigate. But, unfortunately, it was not a nuclear weapon. The anomaly arose due to the natural radiation of minerals on the seabed.
So now the three American-lost H-bombs—and at least a few Soviet torpedoes—belong to the ocean, eternal memorials to the risks of nuclear war, though they've all but been forgotten. Why haven't we found all those stray weapons yet? Is there a risk of it exploding? And will we ever get it back?
When Meyers finally got to Palomares, the Spanish village where the B1966 bomber crashed in 52, the authorities were still searching for the missing nuclear bomb. Every night his team spent the night in tents in the frosty and humid air. “It was like an English winter,” he says. They did very little during the day - it was a waiting game.
“This is a common military business, hurry first, then wait,” says Meyers. We had to rush, and then we did nothing for two weeks. And in the end, underwater research became very serious.”
The search party enlisted the help of two ingenious inventions. One was an obscure XNUMXth-century theorem invented by a Presbyterian minister turned amateur mathematician. The theorem, relying on past cases, calculates the possibility that they will repeat. The military used the technique of "baesian inference" to decide where to look for the bomb and to look for it in the most efficient way possible, maximizing the chances of finding it.
The second invention was the Alvin, an advanced deep-sea submersible capable of diving to unprecedented depths. Resembling a round white shark, she daily descended into the dark blue water of the Mediterranean Sea with people in her belly and made a visual hunt.
On March 1, 1966, the little submarine finally noticed: the trail left by the bomb as it crashed into the sea floor. In later photographs, one could see a terrible sight - the rounded tip of the missing nuclear weapon, covered with a ghostly veil, a white parachute that partially opened during the fall, tangled around the precious cargo. This deadly metal pipe somehow looked like a person wrapped in a sheet on Halloween.
But the difficulties didn't end. Now Meyers' task was to develop a plan to get this bomb from the bottom of the ocean, where it lay at a depth of 869 m. The team created a kind of grid of several thousand feet of strong nylon rope and a metal hook. The idea was to hit the device and pull it close enough to the surface that a diver could reach it and secure it more carefully.
“That was the plan. It didn't work,” Meyers says.
“Everything was done very deliberately, carefully and slowly,” says Meyers. “So we just waited…we were worried, deciding step by step what to do next.”
They managed to pick up a nuclear bomb, and they began to raise it from the bottom. But trouble happened. The parachute, which had been stirred at the bottom of the ocean, suddenly began to do what it does best - slow down and complicate the movement of the load.
“Do you realize that parachutes work just as well in the water as they do on land?” Meyers says. Subsequently, the cord on which the cargo was being dragged burst, and the nuclear bomb began to slowly slide back to the bottom. This time it was even deeper than before.
Little Alvin with his team on board, fortunately, was able to extricate himself and was not dragged to the bottom along with the bomb.
Meyers was devastated. “It made us very upset,” he says. Now the bomb lay deeper, and the makeshift fishing rod was not enough to fish it out. The task was transferred to another team on another boat.
A month later, with the help of a robotic submarine - a cable-operated device - they grabbed the bomb directly by the parachute and lifted it to the surface.
The warhead was displaced in the shell, so the bomb could not be defused in the usual way through a special hole on the side. The military had to cut open the shell, a rather nerve-wracking job when you remember that we are talking about nuclear weapons.
“They had to drill a hole in the hydrogen bomb,” Meyers says. “But they did it. They were ready to do it."
Unfortunately, this did not happen with the three bombs, which have never been found to this day. However, the risk that they may explode is considered low.
To understand why, you need to understand how a nuclear bomb works.
In September 1905, Albert Einstein wrote with a fountain pen on paper the letters and numbers that became the most famous equation in the world. E = mc2, or the energy is equal to the mass of the body times the speed of light squared.
This means that every atom that makes up the world can turn into energy and vice versa. If you figure out how to do this, you can, for example, create a burst of energy equal to the power of the Sun.
Thirty-four years later, Einstein wrote to US President Franklin Roosevelt warning him that the Nazis were trying to weaponize his theory, the rest is history.
The Mangettan Project (the code name for the development of nuclear weapons in the United States) was quickly formed, and already in 1945 the United States dropped its first atomic bomb.
The bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and a few days later Nagasaki were precisely atomic bombs. The destructive power of such a bomb arises from the splitting of atoms.
This fission releases so much energy that it forces the other atoms to fission one by one, thus starting a powerful chain reaction.
During the first test, scientists were not sure that the reaction would stop - they considered it a very real possibility that the end of the world could happen.
How We Almost Destroyed Ourselves
To start the process of atomic decay, the bombs were equipped with a pistol-like device. He fired a "ball" of radioactive atoms, such as uranium-235, at even more uranium-235. Or with the help of ordinary explosives they squeezed the atoms of plutonium-239 until they began to split.
The first atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki razed entire cities to the ground and killed hundreds of thousands of people. At the epicenter of the explosion, the bodies simply vanished into the air. The rest died from radiation burns or illness within days, months, and years afterward.
The next generation of nuclear weapons, developed in the 1950s and 60s, were thousands of times more powerful. The lost bombs belonged to this generation. These were thermonuclear or hydrogen bombs, and they were based on a different nuclear reaction.
At first, they went through the same fission stage as in the case of atomic bombs, releasing an amazing amount of energy. It ignited a second core containing hydrogen isotopes, deuterium (heavy hydrogen) and tritium (radioactive hydrogen), which collided and released even more energy, forming helium and one free neutron.
In such a bomb, several security devices could be calculated.
Such, for example, is the Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb weighing 3400 kg, lost off Tybee Island, which still lies somewhere in Vossow Sound. On February 5, 1958, she was loaded onto a B-47 bomber that was to join another B-47 on a long training mission.
Its purpose was to simulate an attack on the Soviet Union, only the role of Moscow was played by the American city of Redford in Virginia. The pilots departed from Florida to test the aircraft's ability to fly for many hours with heavy weapons on board.
All went well, but while returning to base, the planes met a separate training mission in South Carolina. The group's plan was to intercept one of the B-47s, but there was confusion and they missed the second bomber carrying the nuclear weapon. During the crash, a B-47 with a nuclear bomb was damaged.
The pilot decided to drop a nuclear bomb into the water and then make an emergency landing. The bomb fell from a height of 9144 meters into the water off Tybee Island, but even such a blow did not detonate it.
Indeed, it is surprising that none of the 32 “broken arrow” accidents resulted in the detonation of nuclear components, although a large area was contaminated with radioactive material twice.
One possible reason is the system for keeping the nuclear material separate from the actual weapons needed for the fission reaction. The capsule or "tip" - which in this case consisted of plutonium - could be added to the weapon at the last minute when needed. This meant that even if the conventional explosives in the bomb went off while it was on board, the radioactive material would not get hot enough to split the atoms.
Lewis also notes that even though the Taiba bomb came from a great height, the ocean softened the blow. Space capsules also land on water.
Later bombs also had features such as "single point safety" - a way to ensure that a nuclear device would not go off without being activated. In such weapons, the conventional explosives in the bomb may work, but they will not detonate the radioactive material.
Having so many security features is sorely needed, mostly because they don't always work. In one instance in 1961, a B-52 bomber suffered a systems malfunction while flying over Goldsboro in North Carolina, causing two nuclear bombs to fall to the ground.
A parachute opened over one of them, and she survived, although, as was later discovered, three of the four protective mechanisms in her failed.
In a declassified document from 1963, it was written that “the explosion was avoided by a lucky chance.”
The second nuclear bomb fell to the ground, it exploded, and its fragments stuck in the ground. Most of them were recovered, but one fragment containing uranium was stuck in the mud at a depth of 15 m. The US Air Force bought the land on this site so that people would not dig it up.
Some cases are so strange that they even seem to be fiction. Perhaps one of the most amazing stories happened during training on the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga in 1965.
An A4E Skyhawk attack aircraft with a B-43 nuclear bomb on board rolled up to the rise.
omnic, when the crew on deck suddenly realized that the plane was about to crash. The pilot was given a signal to slow down, but, unfortunately, he did not notice this. The attack aircraft, along with a young lieutenant and a nuclear weapon, fell overboard and disappeared into the waves of the Philippine Sea.
They remain at a depth of 4900 m near the Japanese island.
After 10 weeks of searching, on April 16, 1958, the Tybee bomb was declared irretrievably lost. According to a document written by the pilot who dropped it, the bomb did not have a nuclear capsule - it was not installed before the study.
However, some are concerned that this information may not be correct. In 1966, a US official described the bomb as "stuffed," meaning it contained a plutonium core. If true, the Mark 15 bomb could have triggered a full-fledged thermonuclear explosion.
Today it is believed that the bomb was buried under a one and a half meter layer of silt on the seabed. In a final report released in 2001, the US Nuclear Weapons and Proliferation Agency concluded that if the explosives inside the bomb were left unscathed, they could pose a "serious explosion hazard" to personnel and the environment. Therefore, it is better not to touch it, even with the aim of raising it to the surface.
But can nuclear weapons explode underwater?
As life shows, maybe. On July 25, 1946, the United States detonated an atomic bomb on Bikini Atoll, a chain of picturesque tropical islands surrounded by turquoise coral reefs and the deep blue Pacific Ocean.
The US military attached a bomb 27 meters below a group of ships filled with pigs and rats and detonated it.
Several ships sank instantly. The vast majority of animals died - either from the first explosion, or later radiation poisoning. In a stunning photo from that day, a giant white mushroom cloud rises against the backdrop of a palm-fringed beach.
As a result of these tests, the islands were so contaminated with radiation that the plankton in the photographs glowed. The atoll is still polluted - the people who once lived there never returned home, like Chernobyl, the place became a wild expanse.
According to Lewis, there is very little chance that we will ever find the three missing nuclear bombs. The reasons for this are partly the same as why they could not be found immediately.
Firstly, because the coordinates of the place where they were lost are quite approximate, they are searched for by photographs, and this is very difficult.
When planes crash into the ocean, the black box is often found days or weeks later. This may give the impression that with the help of modern technology, finding such objects in vast stretches of water is quite simple. But the black boxes have a special “underwater beacon,” a repeating electronic pulse that helps pinpoint their location.
Lost nuclear weapons did not have such equipment. To find it, experts have to narrow the search area, and then carefully clean the ocean. This is a grueling and inefficient process that requires divers or submarines.
Another way could be to look for bursts of radiation, as retired military officer Derek Duke did when looking for a bomb off Tybee Island. But that, too, is extremely difficult, in part because nuclear bombs don't actually emit radiation.
“They are designed in such a way that they do not pose a radioactive threat to the people who work with them,” says Lewis. “They do have a radioactive trace, but it is very small and only noticeable at close range.”
In 1989, another Soviet nuclear submarine K-278 Komsomolets sank in the Barents Sea off the coast of Norway. Like the K-8, it was also nuclear-powered, and by then carried two nuclear torpedoes. For decades, its wreckage lay under 1,7 km of Arctic water.
But in 2019, scientists boarded a ship and found that the level of radiation in water samples taken from a vent pipe was 100 times higher than seawater should normally be.
However, this case is unusual. The radioactive elements most likely leaked not from the submarine's nuclear torpedoes, but from its nuclear reactor due to a crack that could have formed during the accident. Only half a meter beyond the ventilation pipe was the level of radiation normal.
Lost nuclear weapons fascinate Lewis not so much because of their potential danger, but because they symbolize the fragility of our defense system when dealing with dangerous inventions.
“I think we have the illusion that people who work with nuclear weapons are somehow different from all other people, that they make fewer mistakes or that they are somehow smarter. But the reality is that organizations working with nuclear weapons are really the same as the rest of the organizations created by people. They are wrong. They are not perfect,” says Lewis.
Even in Palomares, where all the lost nuclear bombs were found, the ground is still polluted by the radiation from the explosion of two of them. Some US military personnel who participated in the initial cleanup activities, such as raking topsoil into barrels, subsequently developed cancers that they believe are related to the incident.
In 2020, several military survivors filed a class action lawsuit against a Veterans Affairs official, although many of the claimants are now in their 70s or 80s.
Meanwhile, the local community has been demanding a more thorough cleanup of the region from the authorities for decades. Palomares has been called "the most radioactive city in Europe" and local environmentalists are now protesting plans by a British company to build a resort here.
Lewis is confident that such losses of weapons, which occurred during the Cold War, are unlikely to be repeated. Operation Chrome Dome ended in 1968, and planes with nuclear bombs no longer fly on regular exercises.
“And the duty of planes with weapons in the air stopped for obvious reasons,” he says. “In the end, we decided it was too dangerous.”
Nuclear submarines remain an exception to this, on which accidents still occur today. The United States currently has 14 ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), while France and the UK have four each.
To serve as a nuclear deterrent, these submarines must remain undetected during operations at sea, which means they cannot send any signals to the surface to reveal their position.
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They move mainly by inertia - in fact, the crew relies on machines with gyroscopes that can calculate where the submarine is at any given time. To do this, you need to know the place where the boat was last, in which direction it was heading and how fast it was moving.
This potentially inaccurate system has led to a number of incidents, most recently in 2018 when a British ballistic missile nuclear submarine nearly crashed into a ferry.
Perhaps the era of lost nuclear weapons is not yet over.
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