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.
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.
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.