Nuclear bombs are the most destructive weapons mankind has ever created – and you might think we would be pretty careful with them.
But a terrifyingly large number of thermonuclear weapons have been lost over the years – and at least one is buried somewhere in the Arctic ice.
Warming temperatures mean it’s only a matter of time before the warming climate releases the weapon’s payload into the sea.
US military parlance describes these lost weapons as “Broken Arrow” incidents, but few of them have a tidy ending like John Woo’s 1996 movie.
Perhaps the most mysterious “Broken Arrow” accident is the loss of a USAF B-47 Stratojet with the callsign Inkspot 59.
Inkspot 59 was one of four B-47E that took off from MacDill Air Force base in Florida On March 10, 1956, heading for Morocco.
Somewhere south of southeast of Port Say in Algeria, the four planes flew into thick cloud and only three emerged. Inkspot 59 has never been seen since.
Royal Navy ships on an exercise nearby were rushed to the scene but, despite an exhaustive search, there was no sign of any wreckage, nor any of the aircraft’s three crewmen.
Inkspot 59 was carrying two transport cases of weapons-grade uranium.
In July the same year, a B-47 bomber on a routine training mission crashed near RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk.
It collided with a building storing three partially-assembled Mark 6 nuclear bombs, with a potential yield of up to 160 kilotons.
While there was little chance of a full nuclear detonation the high explosive and depleted uranium-238 core of the bombs was sprayed with burning jet fuel – creating a potential ‘“dirty bomb” that could have devastated eastern England.
One official US report said that it was a "miracle" that one bomb with "exposed detonators" did not explode, and emergency services attending the fire reported "not just panic but a stampede out of Lakenheath”.
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Five years later, in 1961, technical problems on a USAF B-52G forced its crew to eject, and the bomber broke up around 1,500 feet over farmland near Goldsboro, North Carolina.
Two 3.8 megaton Mark 39 nuclear bombs feel from the disintegrating plane. One of them partially armed itself. While an official account claimed that the bomb was unarmed and was in no danger of exploding, a freedom of information request 52 years later revealed that only one of the bomb’s four arming switches had failed to trigger and that it had been very close to detonation.
Lt. Jack ReVelle, a bomb disposal expert involved in the weapon’s recovery, said "we came very close” to a nuclear detonation some 250 times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.
The second weapon slammed into the ground at around 700mph, breaking into two pieces. One section was buried around 20 feet under the field in Eureka, North Carolina, but the other piece was never found.
Instead the Air Force bought the surrounding land and declared the area permanently “off limits”.
In the same year as the Goldsboro crash, Lakenheath was the scene of another near-disaster. The pilot of a USAF F-100 Super Sabre armed with a Mark 28 nuclear weapon accidentally jettisoned his plane’s drop tanks while the aircraft was on the runway, spraying the bomb with burning aviation fuel.
A safety report concluded that the degree of heating involved could easily have caused a nuclear explosion. The full scale of the accident was only revealed in 2003, when the Ministry of Defence was forced to publish a list of 20 British accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1960 and 1991.
The true impact of a 1968 nuclear accident is yet to be discovered. A USAF B-52 bomber loaded with four 14-kiloton B28 bombs caught fire after one of its crew left a cushion over a heating vent. While the burning bomber was at 8,000ft, the crew bailed out, one of them dying in the process.
The aircraft, callsign HOBO 28, plummeted into North Star Bay, near Thule Air Force Base in Greenland.
The crash caused the B-52’s fuel tanks to explode, in turn detonating the bombs’ high-explosive components. Plutonium, uranium, and aircraft parts were scattered over a wide area. A large section of the plane melted the pack ice, sinking some 600 feet before the ice re-froze over it.
The crash sparked a major scandal, as the Danish government technically didn’t allow nuclear weapons on its territory at that time.
But while a Pentagon statement claimed that all four B28FIs were confirmed to have been destroyed in the crash, but reports in the Danish press in 2000 revealed that the thermonuclear stage of one of them had in fact never been recovered.
An official report declassified years later revealed that the burning warhead had melted its way through the ice: "Speculate something melted through the ice such as burning primary or secondary”.
Concentrations of plutonium in the seawater and marine life are described as “relatively low” and presents “an insignificant risk to man”.
With the polar ice-caps melting, though, that could all soon change.
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