January 24, 1961 – The United States Just Barely Escapes Blowing Itself Up

In a recently declassified document written in 1969, the supervisor of the nuclear weapons safety department at Sandia National Laboratories analyzes a report by Dr. Ralph Lapp about a previously unknown accident in which the U.S. almost destroyed itself by a nuclear accident. Two hydrogen bombs were dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on Jan. 24, 1961 after a B-52 bomber broke up in flight. One of the bombs actually carried out functions as if it were being armed and fired — its parachute opened and trigger mechanisms engaged. Three of the four safety mechanisms failed, but one did not, and thus a single switch averted the blast which would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that flattened Hiroshima. As an article in “Mother Jones” points out:

It would have pulverized a portion of North Carolina and, given strong northerly winds, could have blanketed East Coast cities (including New York, Baltimore, and Washington, DC) in lethal fallout.”

According to Eric Schlosser, who obtained this and other newly declassified documents in the course of writing his riveting book on nuclear weapons, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, this was just one of 1,200 accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1968.



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