Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How Many Broken Arrows?

Nuclear Weapons Accidents

by Michael H. Maggelet

 Over the past few decades, the Department of Defense has made several changes to the "narrative summaries of nuclear weapons accidents". 
  In 1968, DOD released the first list which contained 17 accidents. 
  By 1977, the list had changed to 27 accidents.
  In 1980, the most recently updated list, the accident tally remained at 32, and did not include the  four Thor launch accidents which occurred at Johnston Island in 1962. At least two of these accidents were released to the media by DOD at the time, and published in Time magazine. Why they weren't included in the accident tally is unknown.
  Background on the Johnston Island accidents was declassified by Field Command, Defense Nuclear Agency in 1983, and DOD has declassified films, messages, and other papers on the accidents and cleanup. FC DNA also issued a press release in 1983 which the media ignored (I read about the JI accidents in Chuck Hansen's 1988 book "US Nuclear Weapons, The Secret History"- remember, this is long before the internet as we know it existed, and FOIA material was not readily accessible).
  The problem identifying past accidents is the change over the years defining what is an "incident versus an "accident". Jim Oskins and I use the original DOD definition from 1957 which states in part-
"(6) Public Hazard, Actual or Implied. (Note: Accidents that involve  major mechanical damage  to the weapon without burning, explosion, or contamination are listed in this category)." 
Thus, while many weapons have been accidentally salvoed or dropped, the event may, or may not have damaged internal components (which require the weapon to be returned to the production agency for disassembly and repair, or retirement). The key phrase is "major mechanical damage", and is dependent on the weapon involved (for example, early large diameter bombs involved in accidents suffered internal damage from salvoes to include damage to the IFI mechanism, or extensive damage to the HE sphere, or a displaced secondary).

  Therefore, we have concluded after reviewing hundreds of incident reports (published in "Broken Arrow, Volume II- A Disclosure of Significant US, Soviet, and British Nuclear Weapon Incidents and Accidents, 1945-2008") that the accident list is near 66 for the US. The UK accident list is zero (counting UK weapons), and six accidents in the former Soviet Union (to include the four known submarine accidents).  Two US weapons, which were test duds, sat underground for years at the Nevada Test Site, and were not included in the DOD accident list (apparently since they were not DOD weapons). The Soviets also abandoned in place at least one unexploded warhead at the Semipalatinsk test site (the US and Soviet weapons were later destroyed). More information on these accidents is forthcoming.  
   In 1993, the US Navy declassified some aspects on the loss of the USS Scorpion, which sank on May 22, 1968 about 400 miles southwest of the Azores with two nuclear torpedoes. It should also be noted that weapons lost at sea pose no nuclear detonation hazard, since nuclear components exposed to saltwater deteriorate (in the case of plutonium, dissolve into a localized gelatinous sludge).
  In 1995, the Department of Energy released its list of "Unrecovered Nuclear Weapons and Classifed Components" which corrected some early discrepancies in the DOD accident list. Among these was a change in the location of the loss of a Mark 7 Betty bomb from a P-5 ASW aircraft in the Pacific, instead of Puget Sound. Also included was a narrative for the Scorpion accident. However, some discrepancies remain from the early accidents, for example, the statement that a B-36 crashed on Vancouver Island where the aircraft actually flew on another 200 miles after it's crew bailed out and crashed on Mt. Kologet in British Columbia. One of the reasons we published our first book was to correct these errors and dispel myths about purported accidents.   
  We have several unresolved dates for other Broken Arrows, and if the FOIA process is any indication, we will be waiting years for a response.

Excerpt from "Broken Arrow, Volume II" by Michael H. Maggelet and James C. Oskins
Table I
Additional U.S. Broken Arrows, 1945 to 1989
Accident/ Date              Event
 1.  1949-1953               Mk 4 bomb/Beta Crate/40 foot trailer
 2.  1951-1962               Mk 6 Beta Crate/40 foot trailer
 3.  1951-1962               Mk 6/C -124, weapon dropped
 4.  1951-1962               Mk 6/C-124, weapon dropped
 5.  Unknown date         Unknown bomb, accidentally salvoed
 6.  1952- Unknown location    Unknown bomb, accidentally salvoed
 7.  Mar 1956- Loring AFB, ME    Mark 17, accidentally salvoed
 8.  1956-1963               Mk 1 BOAR W7, impact damage
 9.  1957-1966               Mk 39 bomb/B-52, accidentally salvoed
10. 1957-1964               T-4 ADM, fire damage
11. July 19, 1957           Mk 15/A3D, weapon jettisoned
12. Feb 8, 1958              Mk 15/B-52, weapon salvoed
13. May 1958                 Mk 21/B-52 or B-47, weapon dropped
14. Apr 1960                  W-31/Honest John, warhead dropped
15. Jul 31, 1958             Possibly W7/AF Missile Dev Center
16. 1958-1967               Mk 28 bombs/At Sea, flood
17. Dec 13, 1960           Unknown weapon(s)/location
18. Oct 27, 1961 Italy   W49/Jupiter, tritium leak, Gioia del Colle
19. Nov 6, 1961             Plutonium Release/Pantex Plant
20. Jul 19, 1962             W49/Jupiter, lightning strike
21. Dec 15, 1962           Mk25/AIR-2A Genie/F-106
22. Mar 28, 1964           Mk 34 & Mk 57, flood
23. Nov 17, 1964           W28/Hound Dog/B-52G, frag damage
24. Jul 15, 1965             W28/Mace Missile, lightning strike
25. Jan 19, 1966            W45/Terrier, missile dropped
26. Feb 7, 1966              Mk 28FI, weapon dropped
27. Mar 25, 1967- DMZ Viet Nam    W44 ASROC/USS Ozbourn, fire
28. May 17, 1989           Unknown weapon + 9 pits, Pantex Plant, Amarillo, TX, tritium leak
Copyright 2008-2014 by Michael H. Maggelet


  1. I was in 2nd or third grade at Carswell AFB when a C-124 with a collasped front landing gear was on the runway. The SP's were everywhere. My mom said it was simply "an exercise, called a Broken arrow". As I kid I didn't give it any thought, but now I wonder. In high school I read a book that detailed the crash. I cannot locate any mention on the web. By the way, my dad was a Lt. col in the JAG corps, so if they wanted to hide it, I guess they could. Any ideas? I know it existed because I saw it. And I had read about it an long forgotten book. I am trying to re-collect of some of the details for a book my sister is writing.

  2. In the book I read about it, the claim was that 9 nuclear weapons became "unsecured". And I think that still constitutes a "Broken Arrow".