These Missing Nuclear Weapons Could End Humanity

On the 5th of February, 1958, a Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb was loaded onto a B-47 aircraft stationed at Homestead Air Force Base in southern Florida. The plane was to take part in an extended training mission meant to simulate an attack on the Soviet Union. Over the course of nine hours, it took a winding, circuitous route across the United States, flying over the Gulf of Mexico, up to Chicago and then back down to its target in Radford, Virginia. The intent was both to exhaust the crew, as they would be on a trip to Moscow, and to assess the bomber’s ability to perform aerial maneuvers with heavy weapons aboard. The 3,400-kilogram nuclear bomb served as test cargo.

This might seem incredibly reckless to us today, but during the height of the Cold War training exercises like this were fairly routine. In fact, just two years later the United States would implement Operation Chrome Dome, a defense strategy in which planes armed with nuclear weapons were kept in the skies at all times, just in case war with the USSR ever broke out. Once above its target in Radford, the B-47 sent an electronic beam to a station on the ground, simulating a strike, after which it recorded the mission as a success. Unfortunately, on their way back to Florida there was a bit of a mix-up. As the crew celebrated, a group of F-86 fighter jets was flying out of Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. The jets were directed to intercept the bomber as part of a separate training mission, but what the pilots didn’t know was that there were actually two B-47s in the air.

Above Tybee Island off the coast of the state of Georgia, the Charleston squadron spotted its target. As one of the intercepting jets locked onto what he believed to be the sole bomber, a second aircraft appeared above him and the two collided. This was the plane with the bomb. The F-86 was destroyed and the pilot forced to eject. The B-47, meanwhile, managed to stay airborne, though just barely. It had been heavily damaged and was losing altitude. Deciding it was better to drop its cargo rather than risk a crash landing, the bomber’s pilot jettisoned the nuclear payload, releasing a bomb with an explosive yield equivalent to 1.7 megatons of TNT above U.S. soil. For some perspective, that is 113 times the strength of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. The blast radius from a weapon of this magnitude would have encompassed an area of around 620 square kilometers, just slightly smaller than New York City.

After being deployed, the bomb fell for over 9,000 meters before eventually crashing into Wassaw Sound. Luckily it didn’t detonate. If it had, thousands would have died instantly and the city of Savannah, less than a 30-minute drive from the crash site, would likely have become inhabitable due to radioactive fallout. A recovery mission was immediately organized. A joint Air Force and Navy operation searched the area for 10 weeks, but the weapon was never located. Experts believed it had sunk beneath several meters of silt on impact, effectively rendering it invisible to sonar. Subsequent recovery attempts have produced few results and to this day a bomb capable of vaporizing an entire city is buried somewhere just off the U.S. coast.

The story of the Tybee Island bomb is terrifying in its own right, but you want to know the worst part? It’s not the only time this has happened.

A similar thing occurred in 1965 when a training exercise being held on the USS Ticonderoga went horribly wrong. An attack jet carrying a live one-megaton nuclear bomb was being rolled into one of the ship’s plane elevators when it began to tilt. Before anyone knew what was going on, the jet rolled off the side of the aircraft carrier and fell into the Pacific Ocean, taking the pilot with it. Plane, pilot and bomb were never recovered.

In modern history, there have been 32 reported “broken arrow” events, which are accidents involving nuclear weapons. These range from crashes and unintended detonations to fires, accidental launches and potential meltdowns. In six of these incidents, the weapon was never recovered. Besides the six missing bombs, a number of nuclear-tipped torpedoes, primarily Soviet, have also disappeared or are otherwise unrecoverable. While only possessing a fraction of the destructive capability of a bomb or missile, these weapons still contain highly radioactive materials and could potentially leak contaminants into the surrounding ocean, killing sealife. 

You might be wondering how military officials and world leaders could simply abandon missing nuclear weapons. Shouldn’t governments be scrambling to recover these devices? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. All six of the missing bombs were lost at sea, whether in Wassaw Sound or deep in the Pacific. Simply figuring out the exact location of even one of these weapons would likely require hundreds of people searching for months, if not years.

Looking for something you dropped in the ocean is like looking for a needle in a haystack, only the haystack is hundreds of kilometers wide, shifts constantly and requires the use of advanced technology to search it. There are no points of reference or any kind of markers to guide you. Worse than that, stuff that falls into the ocean tends to move around. Currents and tides can carry even the heaviest objects for kilometers before they finally come to rest on the seafloor. And all of that is just to find the bomb. Recovery is a whole different story.

According to experts, digging up these weapons could prove more dangerous than simply letting them stay where they are. Take the case of the Tybee Island bomb. To date, there have been no unusual spikes in radiation detected in the area. This means, in all likelihood, the materials inside the bomb are still contained. Any attempt to retrieve it would risk potentially spilling toxic plutonium and uranium into the ocean. So even if you found it, it would be too dangerous to dig up. It’s safer to leave it alone. But that’s only assuming the device is disabled.

It’s normally protocol to remove the triggering mechanism from a nuclear weapon when it’s being used in a training mission, and the Airforce maintains that this was the case in the Tybee Island incident. However, former Assistant Secretary of Defense W.J. Howard described the bomb in a 1966 Congressional testimony as a "complete weapon, a bomb with a nuclear capsule." The fact remains that no one is really sure whether or not the bomb was disabled. There could potentially be an active thermonuclear weapon sitting just off of America’s Eastern seaboard.

If you’re freaking out about all this, that’s totally understandable. The idea that there are missing weapons capable of killing millions of people hiding somewhere beneath the ocean is chilling, to say the least. But I’m afraid I have some more bad news because here’s the thing, these are just the bombs we know about.

The vast majority of broken arrow incidents have been recorded by the United States, but there are seven other territories known to possess nuclear weapons. Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. While the U.S. has historically been at least semi-transparent about its nuclear mess-ups, these other nations have been much more secretive. We know very little if anything at all about their nuclear programs, and almost nothing of any mishaps. It’s extremely likely that we don’t have a full account of every broken arrow. Russia in particular has a tremendously checkered past when it comes to nuclear technology. Aside from the obvious example of Chernobyl, there is also the case of the Tsar Bomba.

The largest nuclear weapon ever detonated, this device had a 50 megaton yield, producing shockwaves that were felt around the globe and a mushroom cloud eight times the height of Mount Everest. The Bomba was so large that some scientists were afraid it might ignite the atmosphere. At the peak of its power, the Soviet Union maintained the largest nuclear stockpile ever held by a single nation with an estimated 45,000 weapons. Given the size of this arsenal and the historic recklessness of the Soviet military when it came to nuclear technology, it’s not a stretch to assume that they probably lost a bomb or two.

Other countries such as China and North Korea are even more secretive about their nuclear weapons programs. Both nations today are currently looking to expand their arsenals with the latter rumored to be on the cusp of resuming testing again. And even when it comes to the U.S, figures could very well be under-reported for reasons we might not be aware of. In the case of the USS Ticonderoga bomb, it took the U.S Navy 15 years to admit the accident even happened. Even worse, at the time, they claimed the bomb had been lost over 800 kilometers away from land, but it was later discovered it had disappeared just 109 kilometers from Japan’s Ryuki island chain.

It’s possible then that there could be dozens of lost nuclear devices lurking in unknown locations around the world, their presence only known by a handful of top officials. The danger that these weapons pose shouldn’t be understated. According to a declassified 1947 study from the Los Alamos laboratory, as many as 100 and as few as 10 could be enough to end society. We know we’ve lost six, but how many are we truly missing?

Granted, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a scenario where all of these weapons would explode simultaneously, but if even one were to denote, the scale of devastation, suffering, and environmental catastrophe would be unimaginable. It would be a disaster unparalleled in history. The sad reality is that through sheer recklessness our leaders have opened the door to the possibility of causing ourselves irreparable harm, both to humanity and the planet.

The majority of the world’s nuclear stockpiles were built during the Cold War as the United States and Soviet Union sought to intimidate one another and flex their military might. This arms race eventually culminated in a strategy of mutually assured destruction, otherwise known as MAD, a concept that saw both nations amass thousands of nuclear weapons as a kind of safeguard against any potential conflict. The thinking was that if both sides had enough firepower to wipe the other off the face of the planet then neither would pull the trigger. But humans are clumsy. We make mistakes. Even when every possible precaution is taken, accidents still happen. Just look at the Titanic, the Space Shuttle disasters or Fukushima. And nothing is a better testament to this than the nuclear strategies adopted by governments around the world.

Operation Chrome Dome for instance resulted in five separate crashes. A program meant to serve as a guarantee against the possibility of nuclear disaster itself nearly led to tragedy. The most infamous of these is the 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash. Now the subject of innumerable history specials and YouTube videos, this incident has become something of a legend. Not for what happened, but for what didn’t happen. Perhaps the most alarming broken arrow incident ever recorded, the Goldsboro crash occurred when a B-52 bomber flying over Goldsboro, North Carolina, suffered a mechanical failure. The aircraft’s right wing sprung a fuel leak and the plane was ordered to make an emergency landing. Just 24 kilometers from its base, the bomber began breaking up and exploded in mid-air, sending fiery debris hurtling toward Earth, along with two 3.8 megaton thermonuclear bombs.

Each one of these devices was more than twice as powerful as the Tybee Island bomb and contained more firepower than the combined destructive force of every man-made explosion from the beginning of time to the end of World War II. Luckily, neither bomb detonated. One landed safely, slowly brought to the ground after its parachute successfully deployed. The other, more disastrously, crashed with full force, digging itself 55 meters down into the earth. While pieces of this device were recovered, the bomb’s plutonium core still remains buried. The U.S. military initially attempted to retrieve it but abandoned the operation when it proved impossible to reach and simply purchased the land instead. Ironically, it was the bomb that landed with the parachute that posed the bigger risk. A later examination revealed that three of its four arming mechanisms had activated after separation. Literally, the only thing that prevented the weapon from going off was the failure of two wires to cross. All of this begs the question, is it all worth it?

The idea that we could somehow ensure our survival by constructing hordes of weapons capable of annihilating the planet seems like a bad idea from the start. When you then consider the possibility that any one of these devices could be lost or detonate accidentally, such a strategy appears downright irresponsible. Yes, MAD might prevent the world powers from pressing the proverbial button that leads to nuclear war, but what about all the broken arrows? Is it really worth the gamble? Or are we just two crossed wires away from, well, mutually assured destruction?