Recently declassified documents tell a story of a far more terrifying 1961 incident involving American nuclear weapons. We're talking Travolta-in-Battlefield-Earth terrifying. Say goodbye to the Eastern Seaboard terrifying. Ted Cruz as President terrifying.
According to a 1969 report authored by a Pentagon safety expert obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by author Eric Schlosser, a B-52 was forced to jettison a pair of Mark 39 nuclear bombs over North Carolina. The Mark 39's were 250 times more powerful than the bomb that leveled Hiroshima in 1945.
While this seems scary on the face of it, nuclear devices are equipped with a number of redundant failsafe systems designed to mitigate against accidental detonation, even when dropped from aircraft. These systems obviously worked, or the annual OBFT would be held in coastal Asheville.
Well, one of them did, anyway. Mark 39 bombs featured four separate failsafe mechanisms. In the case of one of the two munitions dropped from the faltering B-52, three of the four failed. The only backstop that performed as designed was a single toggle switch - a simple electrical circuit. The author of the 1969 report deems the failure of that switch "a postulate that seems credible".
Such a failure would've loosed 4 megatons of destructive force, sending lethal fallout as far north as Philadelphia. Setting aside the fact that losing the City of Brotherly Love might be a net positive, millions of other lives would've been jeopardized.
Writing in slate.com about Schlosser's forthcoming book, Command and Control, Will Oremus offers us this comforting conclusion:
Here’s the scary part: We still have thousands of nuclear warheads, many of which are ready to be launched at a minute’s notice. In an interview with Mother Jones, Schlosser says it’s remarkable—no, “incredible”—that a major city hasn’t been destroyed since Nagasaki. But he doesn’t think our luck will last. His prediction: “If we don’t greatly reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world, or completely eliminate them, a major city is going to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon.”Hey, have a great week!