Highlights

  • USA lost 3 nuclear bombs, with no hope yet of recovery
  • Many nuclear bombs lost by US, USSR; most recovered
  • Most 'broken arrow' incidents occurred during Cold War

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Doom Tech | USA misplaced 3 nuclear bombs in 3 different incidents; weapons still missing

Since the 1950s, the United States of America has misplaced at least three nuclear weapons, with no hope yet of recovery.

If you had a bomb that could kill 3 lakh people in one go, would you just misplace it? Now imagine, losing not one, not two, but three such nuclear bombs, all on separate occasions. And then not even being able to find them.

Since the 1950s, the United States of America has misplaced at least three nuclear weapons, with no hope yet of recovery.

The first incident involved a 3,400-kg Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb which was lost near Tybee Island, Georgia in 1958. The nuclear bomb was on a B-47 bomber aircraft taking part in a training mission. The B-47s encountered another training drill. A mix-up occurred and a crash followed in which the B-47 was damaged. The pilot decided to drop the bomb in water to reduce weight and do an emergency landing. The nuclear bomb fell 30,000 ft into waters of the Wassaw Sound bay, but thankfully no blast occurred.

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The second incident took place in 1965 when a B43 thermonuclear bomb was lost in the Philippine Sea during a military drill. It occurred onboard the USS Ticonderoga. An A4E Skyhawk carrying a nuclear bomb was being rolled onto a plane elevator. The plane started falling off the elevator, and the pilot didn't see the crew waving and asking him to apply brakes. The plane with the nuclear bomb onboard fell into the sea, and sank.

In the third incident, a B28FI thermonuclear bomb was lost in 1968 when a B-52G Stratofortress bomber plane crashed in sea ice near Thule Air Base, Greenland. The plane crashed after the crew ejected due to a fire. Seat cushions kept near a heat vent had caught fire. The plane was carrying 4 nuclear bombs, and 1 was never found. The incident led to radioactive contamination over a wide area.

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These scary cases raise a very alarming question - can these lost nuclear bombs suddenly explode?

Experts say that the risk of misplaced bombs spontaneously exploding is low. Many nuclear bombs use conventional explosives as the first step which then sets off a nuclear chain reaction. Fail-safes include keeping the nuclear material separate. This can help avoid a nuclear blast even if the conventional explosives go off. Due to this, the radioactive material won't get hot enough for a reaction. To do this, the plutonium capsule is added to the weapon at the last minute. Another fail-safe is nuclear material squeezing out in case of an accidental blast. If the conventional explosives go off, the radioactive material is ejected before compression.

But despite access to advanced technology, why hasn't America been able to locate its bombs?

The first reason is that the bombs fell into water, and unlike planes, they do not contain underwater beacons. When searching underwater, visual search is the main tool, and scouring the seas bit-by-bit is difficult. Trying to find the bombs by looking for radiation spikes is also not feasible, as nuclear bombs are not very radioactive. This is to keep military personnel safe.

The US is not the only country to have misplaced nuclear weapons. In 1968, a Soviet submarine carrying three nuclear missiles sank in the Pacific. Two years later, a fire sank a submarine carrying 4 nuclear torpedoes in the Bay of Biscay. In 1986, a fire onboard a submarine carrying 30 nuclear weapons caused it to sink in the Atlantic. In 1989, a submarine with nuclear torpedoes sank in the Atlantic due to a fire.

Since 1950, over 30 known 'broken arrow' incidents have taken place. A 'broken arrow' is an unexpected event involving nuclear weapons, including accidental launches, firing, theft, or loss. The American mishaps came to light after documents were declassified in the 1980s. Many of the incidents occurred at the height of the US-Soviet Cold War. Thankfully, no nuclear detonation happened in any of the 32 incidents. But, at least 2 incidents led to radioactive contamination in the area.

With advancement in military systems over the decades, is the 'broken arrow' era over now?

Experts say that nuclear bombs are less likely to be misplaced now. Nuclear missiles are not flown around constantly now, like they were during the Cold War. However, nuclear submarines are still vulnerable to mishaps. This is because ballistic missile submarines need to stay undetected at sea. Nuclear submarines cannot send signals to the surface to ascertain their locations. So, they depend on estimates to find their location. This inexact system is unsafe, symbolised by the 2018 incident in which a UK submarine nearly hit a ferry.

In a world obsessed with constantly having bigger and badder weapons, such mishaps with mass-destruction weapons are a wake-up call for modern human society.

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