Posted September 27th, 2013 by Alex Wellerstein
The threat of nuclear weapons accidents isn’t a new one. Even in 1945, Los Alamos physicists sweated when contemplating all that could possibly go wrong with their bombs, if they went off at the wrong place or the wrong time. Or didn’t go off at all. That’s the bind, really: a nuclear state wants a weapon that always goes off exactly when you tell it to, and never goes off any other time. That’s a hard thing to guarantee, especially when the stakes are so high in both directions, and especially since these two requirements can be directly in tension.
I recently heard Eric Schlosser give that elegant formulation at a talk he gave last week in support of the release of his new book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. I haven’t had a chance to read the book, yet (it’s currently en route), but I’m looking forward to it. I read Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation a decade (!) ago and found it completely eye-opening. But I went to his talk last week not sure what to expect. From McDonald’s to nuclear weapons accidents? Stranger things have happened, but I worried that maybe he would take the “easy” route with regards to the accidents, not bothering to learn to nitty-gritty technical details that let one talk about such things sensibly, or, at the very least, sensationalize the findings. So I was pretty pleased to find that neither seemed to be the case. Schlosser has seriously done his homework, spending 6 years digging through records, FOIAing documents, and interviewing weapons designers. His discussion of the risks seemed right on the mark so far as I could tell — they don’t need to be exaggerated one bit to be perfectly horrifying. He answered questions expertly, even a tough, devil’s-advocate one from Hugh Gusterson. So I’ve been looking forward to reading the full book.
Last week, the Guardian released a new document, obtained by Schlosser through a FOIA request, regarding one particular accident, the 1961 crash of a B-52 near Goldsboro, North Carolina, which resulted in the jettisoning of two Mark-39 hydrogen bombs. The document in question is a government nuclear expert’s evaluation of a popular account of the Goldsboro accident, in which he finds some major errors (like overstating the yield of the bomb), but ultimately concludes that at least one of the bombs was, in fact, pretty damned close to accidental detonation: “one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe … It would have been bad news – in spades.”
I’ve been watching how the above document has been discussed by people on the web. The most interesting response has been people saying, “I thought that bomb lacked a nuclear core?” You know that there have been too many nuclear weapons accidents when people start getting them confused with one another. The missing-bomb-that-maybe-lacked-a-core is the 1958 Tybee bomb, where a Mark-15 hydrogen bomb was lost near Savannah, Georgia. Different bomb, different day.
The other response I commonly saw was one that assumed that any such fears of a bomb going off accidentally were exaggerated. Now this is kind of an interesting response. For the one thing, they’re discounting a contemporary, internal, once-classified evaluation made by a relevant expert. In exchange, they’re parroting either general skepticism at the idea that a nuclear weapon could technically be unsafe, or they are parroting a standard line about how hard it is to set off an implosion bomb accidentally, because all of the lenses need to detonate at exactly the same time. Which is sometimes the right approach (though not all American bomb designs were “one-point safe” — that is, there were designs that ran a real risk of producing a nuclear yield even if just one of the explosive lenses accidentally fired), but in this case, it’s entirely irrelevant, for reasons I’ll explain below.
I’ve been in touch with Schlosser since the talk, and he shared with me a video he had (somehow) gotten his hands on produced by Sandia National Laboratory (the weapons lab that specializes in making bombs go off at just the right moment) about the Goldsboro accident. He’s put it up on YouTube for me to share with you. It is only a few minutes long and worth the watch.
I love the CGI — “all the sudden, now that weapon system is free.” The bomb looks so… liberated. And the part at the end, where they talk about how they had plenty of opportunities for future data, because there were so many accidents, is wonderfully understated. But the stuff that really hits you in your gut is the description of exactly what happened:
“All of the sudden now that weapon system [the Mk-39] is free. As the weapon dropped, power was now coming on, and the arming rods were pulled, the baroswitches began to operate. The next thing on the timing sequence was for the parachute to deploy. When it hit the ground, it tried to fire.” “There was still one safety device that had not operated. And that one safety device was the pre-arming switch which is operated by a 28 volt signal.” “Some people could say, hey, the bomb worked exactly like designed. Others can say, all but one switch operated, and that one switch prevented the nuclear detonation.” “Unfortunately there had been some 30-some incidents where the ready-safe switch was operated inadvertently. We’re fortunate that the weapons involved at Goldsboro were not suffering from that same malady.”
What’s amazing about the above, in part, is that everything in quotation marks is coming from Sandia nuclear weapons safety engineers, not anti-nuclear activists on the Internet. This isn’t a movie made for public consumption (and I’ve been assured that it is not classified, in case you were wondering). It’s a film for internal consumption by a nuclear weapons laboratory. So it’s hard to not take this as authoritative, along with the other aforementioned document. Anyone who brushes aside such concerns as “hysterical” is going to have to contend with the fact that this is what the nuclear weapons designers tell themselves about this accident. Which is pretty disconcerting.
There are further details in another document sent to me by Schlosser, a previously-classified review of nuclear weapons accidents from 1987 that clarifies that one of the reasons the Goldsboro bomb in particular almost detonated was because of the way it was tossed from the aircraft, which removed a horizontally-positioned arming pin. That is, an arming pin was supposed to be in a position that it couldn’t be removed accidentally, but the particulars of how violently the aircraft broke up as it crashed were what armed the bomb in question. The other bomb, the one whose parachute didn’t fire, just had its HE detonate while it was in the mud. From the 1987 review:
Before the accident, the manual arming pin in each of the bombs was in place. Although the pins required horizontal movement for extraction, they were both on a lanyard to allow the crew to pull them from the cockpit. During the breakup, the aircraft experienced structural distortion and torsion in the weapons bay sufficient to pull the pin from one of the bombs, thus arming the Bisch generator. The Bisch generator then provided internal power to the bomb when the pullout cable was extracted by the bomb falling from the weapons bay. The operation of the baroswitch arming system, parachute deployment, timer operation, low and high voltage thermal batteries activation, and delivery of the fire signal at the impact by the crush switch all followed as a natural consequence of the bombing falling free with an armed Bisch generator. The nonoperation of the cockpit-controlled ready-safe switch prevented nuclear detonation of the bomb. The other bomb, which free-fell, experienced HE detonation upon impact. One of the secondary subassemblies was not recovered.
The secondary subassembly is the fusion component of the hydrogen bomb. Normally I would not be too concerned with a lost secondary in and of itself, because bad folks can’t do a whole lot with them, except that in this particular bomb, the secondary contained a significant amount of high-enriched uranium, and lost HEU is never a good thing. The government’s approach to this loss was to get an easement on the land in question that would stop anyone from digging there. Great…
From the video, I was also struck by the picture of the ready-safe switch then employed. I’d never seen one of these before. Presumably “S” means “safe” and “A” means “armed.” It looks ridiculously crude by modern standards, one little twirl away from being armed. This little electronic gizmo was all that stood between us and a four megaton detonation? That’s a wonderful thing to contemplate first thing in the morning. Even the later switches which they show look more crude than I’d prefer — but then again, probably all 1950s and 1960s technology is going to look crude to a modern denizen. And again, just to reiterate, we’re not talking about “merely” accidentally igniting the explosives on the primary bomb — we’re talking about the bomb actually sending a little electrical charge through the firing circuit saying “Fire!” and starting the regular, full-yield firing sequence, stopped only by this little gizmo. A little gizmo prone to accidentally firing, in some of the bombs.
Lest you think that perhaps Sandia overstates it (which seems rather unlikely), take also the testimony of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara into account. In January of 1963, McNamara explained at a meeting between the Defense and State Departments that he was opposed to Presidential pre-delegation of nuclear weapons in part because of the danger of accidental detonation — either ours or the Soviets’. In the meeting notes, posted some time back by the National Security Archive and forwarded to me by Schlosser, McNamara’s participation is listed as follows:
Mr. McNamara went on to describe the possibilities which existed for an accidental launch of a missile against the USSR. He pointed out that we were spending millions of dollars to reduce this problem to a minimum, but that we could not assure ourselves completely against such a contingency. Moreover he suggested that it was unlikely that the Soviets were spending as much as we were in attempting to narrow the limits of possible accidental launch. He went on to describe crashes of US aircraft[,] one in North Carolina and one in Texas, where, by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.
This one’s interesting because it embeds these accidents in a context as well — the possibility of either us, or the Soviets, accidentally launching a nuke and wondering if a full-scale nuclear exchange has to follow. It’s not quite Strangelovian, since that would require a rogue commander, but it is very Fail-Safe.
As to what the Goldsboro blast would look like, the only time we tested this warhead at full yield was the shot “Cherokee” at Operation Redwing, in 1958. It was a pretty big boom, far more impressive than some of the Hiroshima shots that have been posted along with the Goldsboro story:
And, of course, you can use the NUKEMAP to chart the damage. I’ve added the W-39 warhead to the list of presets in NUKEMAP2, using 4 megatons as the yield (the tested yield was 3.8 megatons, though the W-39 is often stated as an even 4. I rounded up, just because quibbling over 200 kilotons seemed pointless), and a fission fraction of 55%. It’s a pretty big explosion, with a fallout plume capable of covering tens of thousands of square miles with hazardous levels of contamination (and nearly a thousand square miles with fatal levels). Note that the Cherokee test was a true airburst (the fireball didn’t touch the ground), and so didn’t generate any significant fallout. The Goldsboro bomb, however, was meant to operate on impact, as a surface burst, and would have created significant fallout.
Again, one doesn’t have to exaggerate the risks to find it unsettling. The bomb didn’t go off, that final switch thankfully did work as intended. But that’s cold comfort, the more you learn about the accident. Our current nuclear weapons are much safer than the Mk-39 was, back in 1961, though Schlosser thinks (following the testimony of experts) there are still some unsettling aspects about several of our weapons systems. If we are going to have nukes, he reasons, we should be willing to spend whatever it costs to make sure that they’ll be safe. That seems to me like an argument guaranteed to appeal to nobody in today’s current political climate, with the left-sorts wanting no nukes and no modernization, and the right-sorts not really wanting to talk about safety issues. But I’ll get to that more another day, once I’ve read the book.
If that bomb had gone off, we’d speak of “Goldsboro” as a grim mnemonic, in the same way that we do “Chernobyl” today. One wonders how that would have changed our approach to nuclear weapons, had the final switch not held strong.