Nuclear Weapons | Do Accidents Happen?

Have there been nuclear weapon accidents or incidents? Yes, there have been many. We are lucky to not have detonations or major spills of radioactive material. An accident near Damascus Arkansas on 18 Sep 1980 illustrates how a simple event can cause a situation of monumental potential for disaster.

Local PBS television stations will broadcast on 10 Jan 2016 a program on the American Experience detailing this accident and others. Here is a short preview. Here is a Q&A with the director and the author.


Two airmen technicians were servicing a Titan II missile in an underground silo with a hydrogen bomb mounted on top. The bomb had 3x the explosive energy of all the bombs dropped in WWII including the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan. It was based on the design of this one, the B53, developed during the Cold War. It had a 9 megaton yield.

National Nuclear Security Administration

An airman was using a large socket wrench 3 feet (90 cm) long and about 25 pounds (11 kg). The socket alone was about 6 pounds (2.7 kg). By accident, he dropped the socket nearly 80 ft (24 m). It punctured the fuel tank and created a spill. Early the next morning the spilled fuel exploded. The warhead landed about 100 ft away. Fortunately, there was no radioactive leak or detonation. There was one fatality.


About half of the American people were either not born or were young children when the Cold War ended near 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have not grown up with the reality of an arms race and the threat of nuclear war many of us older citizens recall.

As the Cold War progressed after WWII, both the United States and the Soviet Union each armed with over 30,000 nuclear weapons. The two most significant reductions in the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons took place when the Bush administrations were in office. See the blue line. It is currently at about 5000. Click to enlarge.

Hans M. Kristensen | Federation of American Scientists

According to author Eric Schlosser, our arsenal of nuclear weapons includes many older systems. They need frequent attention and maintenance. Complacency and lack of attention by the public is a growing problem. We need a healthy public debate about the need for nuclear weapons and their role in the arsenal in the future. Ignoring the problem leads to increasing numbers of situations where fallible human actions, faulty equipment, or both could lead to a disaster.

Humans are incredibly skilled at developing complex systems. Managing and maintaining these complex system is difficult and time consuming. So far, we have been lucky. We can not and should not count on luck forever. We need the attention of the smartest minds to develop a wise plan of action.

21 thoughts on “Nuclear Weapons | Do Accidents Happen?

  1. It is a scary thought to think about stockpiles of thermonuclear bombs rusting away in forgotten bunkers. Then again, it is a frightening to think about atomic bombs in any state. We are a crazy species when you think about it. Very fine article Jim. Take care. Bob

  2. What I can’t get ove are the oil spills. I know what you mean by major spills of radioactive material, but the number of incidents of oil spills have been outrageously high.

    • Both have terrible impacts on the surroundings. There must be continued awareness and maintenance in order to prevent accidents from happening. It requires an educated public willing to pay the costs. I’m afraid we are losing that.

      Thank you for commenting, Maria.

  3. I was a nuclear weapons officer on a submarine at one point in my career and so am familiar with these issues, at least as they were some decades ago. In my opinion, the land-based part of the triad should be eliminated. Air Force morale in that branch has been low for a long time. Day to day operation consists of junior officers doing 24-hour shifts and rote routines that seldom vary. Competition for perfection of performance is measured by competitive tests which have resulted in some scandals. For those of you who may remember the ads, it is something like being the Maytag Repairman. Air-launched systems are not much better and probably also should be eliminated.

    Trident submarines, however, are a different matter. While operations are not exactly exciting, each sub is a complex, functioning unit, complete with a chain of command for supervision and dealing with a constantly changing ocean environment (temperature, salinity, currents, navigation, and occasionally, sonar contacts with other navies. They have drills, and periodically, they randomly choose one sub from among those on patrol and launch a missile with a dummy warhead to prove the integrity of the whole system.

    You are right, Jim, about the dangers of these things. The potential of accidental explosion will exist so long as human beings are part of the systems. This is getting worse because we will soon have a Commander in Chief who, based on comments made during the debates, seems not to understand even the concept of the “nuclear triad”.

  4. As with so many issues today, the “nuclear issue” seems to me to have lost much of its immediacy precisely because there have been few problems. Fukushima was mentioned during the last earthquake in its vicinity, but a high percentage of our population would have no idea what happened at Chernobyl, or Three Mile Island. And when “nuke” entered our vocabulary as a term for warming up a burger in a microwave — well, who would worry about that?

    One person I read on such issues is Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College. This article gives a taste of his perspective.

  5. It’s hard to know what to do to ward off an attack by a group that isn’t a nation but that acquires some sort of nuclear device from a country like North Korea or Pakistan and smuggles it into the United States.

  6. Thank you for this post, Jim. Trump reminds me of a bull in a china shop, only he wants the china to be nuclear weapons and power plants. As Bugs Bunny would say, “What a maroon”.

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