The unfolding situation in Japan and the European Union decision to stress test nuclear power plants brought to mind another pressing issue: nuclear bombs, and especially what happens when they are lost or damaged. A very interesting US Department of Defense document on this subject is available on t’internet describing ‘accidents involving US nuclear weapons, 1950-1980′.
These include an incident over the Mediterranean Sea in 1956 when an aircraft carrying two nuclear capsules disappeared and was never heard of or seen again; and another incident in 1956 at an unnamed “overseas base” (possibly RAF Lakenheath in the UK) when an aircraft slid off a runway and hit “a storage igloo containing several nuclear weapons”. Then, in 1965, an aircraft loaded with a nuclear weapon fell off an aircraft carrier into the Pacific, sinking unrecoverably into the depths. In 1966, over Spain, a B-52 carring four nuclear weapons was in collision with another plane, resulting in contaminated soil and vegetation, but apparently nothing more serious.
This one, meanwhile, could almost be slapstick comedy if it wasn’t so serious: in 1980 at an air force base in Arkansas, a “repairman dropped a heavy wrench socket, which rolled off a work platform and fell toward the bottom of the silo. The socket bounced and struck the missile, causing a leak from a pressurised fuel tank. The missile complex and surrounding area were evacuated…”. Fuel vapour subsequently exploded but thankfully the nuclear warhead didn’t go off.
The document also describes an incident in northern Greenland in 1968, when a B-52 with four nuclear weapons crashed and burned up. All the nuclear weapons were destroyed in the fire, says the report.
Or maybe not. A BBC investigation in 2008 established that only three of the bombs were accounted for. The fourth is presumably up there in the ice somewhere.
It is also likely that the US 1950-1980 list seriously underplays the number of incidents. It lists 32 accidents, but other reports refer to more, such as this one, which says the US Navy reported 233 “nuclear weapon incidents” between 1965 and 1983.
This provokes a couple of considerations. First, if this is a partial picture of US incidents, it doesn’t even bear thinking about how many times in the Soviet Union nuclear bombs were accidently dropped off ships, lost in the ice, or had wrenches dropped on them. Second, though the US military is hardly forthcoming, European countries are generally less likely to declassify information on nuclear accidents. In the UK for example, a serious accident at a US airbase in 1958 was believed to involve nuclear weapons, but the government always denied this, though of course it could just be that there was no nuclear accident…
So while the European Commission is thinking about stress testing nuclear plants, perhaps it could also put an appeal out to EU governments to disclose the extent of their nuclear arsenals, and to declassify information relating to nuclear weapon accidents and incidents. Of course it won’t happen because anything military is generally beyond the EU’s reach, but it would be nice to know the truth about how contaminated with radiation Europe already is.
PS: interesting Cablegate cable (from 2008) on nuclear power and Japan: http://cablesearch.org/cable/view.php?id=08TOKYO2993