My Turn: A long history of nuclear near misses

  • A massive column of billowing smoke, thousands of feet high, mushrooms over the city of Nagasaki, Japan, after an atomic bomb was dropped by the United States on Aug. 9, 1945. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 7/29/2019 8:45:57 AM

Many people think that the only times we came close to a nuclear war or a nuclear weapons accident are the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the false alarm of a North Korean missile attack that sounded in Hawaii on Jan. 13, 2018. In reality, these accidents are far more common. Here are several examples.

In 1961, a B-52 bomber crashed in Goldsboro, N.C.. It was carrying a load of live nuclear bombs, each with a one megaton yield, eighty times as powerful as the atomic bombs that dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On one of those bombs, five of its six safety catches failed to hold. If the sixth had failed, a large part of North Carolina would have been obliterated. A similar B-52 crash occurred in Palomares, Spain, in 1966, with some of its bombs lost and still not found.

On Nov. 9, 1979, U.S. early warning computers mistook an erroneously installed training tape for an actual Soviet missile attack. By dint of sheer luck, our radar stations reported no such incident, and so we narrowly avoided the worst.

On June 3, 1980, a failed computer chip led to another false alarm. Our early warning systems showed no further evidence of a Soviet missile attack, but as far as nuclear war goes, it was another near miss. Another such false alarm occurred three days later, and its underlying cause was the same – a failed computer chip.

On Sept. 26, 1983, a Soviet early warning satellite reported five U.S. missiles coming at the Soviet Union. Stanislav Petrov, the warning officer in charge, played his hunch that the U.S. would never attack with only five missiles and dismissed the satellite report as a false alarm. It turns out that the satellite had mistaken the sun’s reflection off clouds as a missile attack. Once again, the world had been within minutes of a nuclear war.

On Jan. 25, 1995, Russian early warning radar mistook a Norwegian scientific research rocket for an American missile attack. Russian forces went on full alert, but when Russian satellites showed no further signs of an attack, the crisis passed. It was yet another near miss resulting from a false alarm.

On Aug. 29, 2007, a B-52 mistakenly loaded with live nuclear bombs flew from Minot Air Force Base in Minot, N.D., to a base in Louisiana, where it sat unguarded for nine hours. Thirty-six hours passed before a maintenance crew discovered that the weapons were live.

On Oct. 23, 2010, a launch control center at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming lost contact with 50 live, nuclear-armed ICBMs under its control. Nearly an hour passed before contact was re-established.

On many occasions, former defense secretary William Perry has warned us that we have avoided nuclear war to date chiefly because of dumb luck. How much longer will our luck hold?

After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it was the world’s hope that such events would never happen again, just as it is now.

On Friday, Aug. 9, New Hampshire Peace Action will be holding a remembrance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in front of the State House in Concord. The event starts at 5:30, and the public is cordially invited to attend and learn what it can do about the nuclear arms race.

(John Raby lives in New London.)




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