Nuclear warfare: Is there anything more pants-wettingly terrifying? When those big bombs go up in the air, the only thing left will be ashes and apologies. We all know that if the warheads start flying, mutually assured destruction is the end result. Thankfully, nobody’s been dumb enough to launch a nuke since we hit Nagasaki. But people make mistakes, and the Department of Defense just released a frightening paper listing multiple cases of the world very nearly coming to the point of nuclear holocaust. Here are ten of the scariest times nuclear armaments have almost accidentally been detonated.
Riviere-Du-Loup, Quebec - 1950
Boy, this one sure makes us lousy neighbors. In 1950, a U.S. Air Force B-50 was dispatched to Canada to retrieve one of the Mark 4 atomic bombs we had secretly deployed there. The Cold War was a crazy time, you know. The mission went fine until the plane ran into a spot of engine trouble. The captain had to make a split-second decision: go down with the plane and possibly die in a horrific atomic fireball, or try to control the explosion somehow. He opted for the latter, ejecting the bomb over the St. Lawrence River set to detonate at 2,500 feet above ground. The resulting blast terrified unsuspecting locals and doused the land with 100 pounds of uranium.
Suffolk, UK - 1956
You don’t have to put a bomb in the air for it to be dangerous, as this disquieting storage accident proves. A trio of Mark 6 atomic bombs were being stored at Royal Air Force Station Lakenheath in Suffolk, but they were about to make a very unpleasant new friend. A B-47 bomber on a routine training mission came in for a rough landing on July 27th, overshooting the runway and tearing through the storage silo that contained the three deadly brothers. The wrecked airplane then proceeded to gout burning jet fuel all over the three bombs, one of which even had its detonation mechanism exposed. It’s a miracle that none of them went up, which would have created a titanic disaster.
Tybee Island - 1958
It’s a dangerous world up in the sky, and if you’re not careful you’ll run into something. When a B-47 bomber took off from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida carrying a 7,600-pound Mark 15 hydrogen bomb on a training exercise, nobody was expecting anything untoward. And then it crashed into a F-86 fighter plane. Oops! The pilot managed to eject the bomb above the ocean and land the bomber safely, but the bomb plummeted to the sea floor and was never recovered. If the Air Force was to be believed, the nuclear capsule was removed before the flight and replaced with a lead dummy, but later Congressional testimony indicated that that puppy was live and it’s still resting down at the bottom of the Atlantic. Yikes.
Mars Bluff, South Carolina - 1958
If you’re a homeowner, this next tale will chill you to the bone. On a relaxing March day in 1958, Walter Gregg and his family were going about business as usual at their homestead in the small town of Mars Bluff. Then, a nuclear bomb fell out of the sky and exploded. And it was one of ours! That morning, a B-47 Stratojet took off from nearby Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah on its way to England, carrying a payload of Mark 6 nuclear bombs. When a crewman was sent to investigate a warning light in the bomb bay, he accidentally pulled the emergency release pin, sending the 8,000 pound bomb through the bay doors and onto the Gregg house below. Thankfully, the fissionable core had been removed for the flight, but it still contained enough explosives to send a mushroom cloud in the sky and totally decimate the house. Amazingly, nobody was killed.
NORAD - 1979
The process of retaliating to a nuclear attack is in three stages. First, you identify the attack and where it’s coming from. Second, you determine the response. Third, you press the button. On November 9, 1979, American national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski got the call he never wanted to receive: The missile detection system at NORAD had reported that 250 Russian missiles were in flight toward targets in America. Carter had seven minutes to determine how to respond. This was it — World War III. Except it wasn’t, thankfully. Some idiotic technician had accidentally triggered training software in the NORAD mainframe while he was training for the worst-case scenario that Brzezinski was currently living. Fortunately, other observers had the clear-headedness to double check and figure out that no birds were in the sky.
Damascus, Arkansas - 1980
Some of the incidents on this list happened as a result of technology gone out of control, but this one is just simple butterfingers. A worker at the Titan II Launch Complex was conducting maintenance on the missile silo when he dropped a wrench socket into the depths. It fell 80 feet and punched a hole right through a missile’s first-stage fuel tank. The complex and surrounding areas were swiftly evacuated, and later that day the missile exploded, sending the 740-ton launch door flying 200 feet into the air. Even scarier, the missile’s nuclear warhead was also launched, landing 100 feet away. Thankfully, its safety features held and no radioactive material was released on its short and unplanned flight.
Western Europe - 1983
As we’ve already seen, training exercises can be dangerous if some people aren’t in on the “training” part. Case in point: Able Archer. This was a 1983 NATO exercise that started in November to simulate escalating conflicts with the Eastern Bloc that would climax in a nuclear exchange. There was just one problem; it was just too realistic. In the lead up to the exercise, tensions with the USSR were at a high point, and it was our fault. The United States sent planes to the very limit of Soviet airspace just to show them we could get there, and they were convinced that Ronald Reagan would push the button. So when forces massed in Europe, the Communists started to panic, readying ICBMs for launch. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, but we were very close to the Big One.
North Atlantic Ocean - 1986
Nuclear submarines are creepy things, like sharks lurking under the surface of the water, ready to kill anything unlucky enough to piss them off. While on routine patrol in the North Atlantic, Russian nuclear submarine K-219 suffered a leak in a missile hatch cover, allowing seawater to enter the tube and cause an explosion. The crew tried to deal with it by venting the tube and the two nuclear warheads contained within to the bottom of the ocean. The fire continued to spread, and the sub was forced to surface, where one of its crewmen sacrificed his life to shut down the two nuclear reactors that powered the vehicle. On October 6th, the sub sank three miles deep to its final resting spot, with all of its nukes still on board.
Svalbard, Norway - 1995
When a missile hits the atmosphere, it’s tough to tell whether it means good or ill. That was certainly the case in 1995, when a scientific rocket launched from the Andoya Rocket Range off of Norway’s northeastern coast prompted an international incident. The rocket, which was designed to study the aurora borealis effect, was picked up by Russian radar scanners. They interpreted it as a preliminary strike from NATO, presumably carrying an EMP device that would knock out scanners to allow for a full-fledged assault. The reports went all the way up the chain of command to President Boris Yeltsin, who armed the “nuclear briefcase” that was used for launching retaliatory missiles. Thankfully, he didn’t press the button, but this was the first and only time that bad boy has ever been fired up.
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Minot, North Dakota - 2007
Let’s close this list with the most recent nuclear foul-up the U.S. military has perpetrated. Although there weren’t any fireworks, the implications of this one are chilling to say the least. In August 2007, six AGM-129 cruise missiles were loaded aboard a B52-H bomber at Minot Air Force Base to be transported to Louisiana. Only one problem — all six of those missiles still had their nuclear warheads attached and were ready to roll. They were supposed to have been replaced with dummy training warheads for the trip, but because the crew had no idea, they just flew across the country as casual as can be, packing enough force to decimate New York City multiple times over. Needless to say, when this information came out (the Air Force tried to suppress it), the shit hit the fan.