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The Military United States Technology

DoD Report On 32 "Nuclear Accidents" 241

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the i-meant-to-do-that dept.
natebjones writes "Remember the time the US Air Force accidentally dropped a nuclear bomb on a family in South Carolina? [This DoD report lists] that and 31 other nuclear accidents including: nuclear bombs inadvertently falling through bomb bay doors; the accidental firing of a retrorocket on an ICBM; the vast dispersal of radioactive debris; and the loss of enriched fissile material and nuclear bombs (which are 'still out there somewhere')."
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DoD Report On 32 "Nuclear Accidents"

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  • Keep in mind... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DesScorp (410532) <DesScorp@NOsPAM.Gmail.com> on Monday April 05, 2010 @08:54AM (#31733216) Homepage Journal

    ... while "nuclear weapons accident" sounds scary, it almost always involves a malfunction or mistake that can't set off a detonation. It's pretty hard to split an atom, which is why we poured billions into learning how during the Manhattan Project. Tom Clancy's book The Sum of All Fears had a scenario where terrorists acquired an Israeli warhead lost in the desert during the 1973 war. But almost all of the "lost" warheads from USAF are in the ocean, where they can do no harm.

  • Re:Keep in mind... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 05, 2010 @09:07AM (#31733328)

    Of course, you don't have to actually split any atoms to cause a catastrophe. Simply spraying radioactive bits and pieces over a wide area (basically all of the stories in TFA) is pretty bad on its own.

  • by vlm (69642) on Monday April 05, 2010 @09:07AM (#31733334)

    Three people at a test reactor is sad but pretty small potatoes compared to the Scorpion, Thresher, and the six Russian/Soviet subs.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Lost_nuclear_submarines [wikipedia.org]

  • by LWATCDR (28044) on Monday April 05, 2010 @09:08AM (#31733338) Homepage Journal

    " the accidental firing of a retrorocket on an ICBM;" You use retro rockets to de orbit. ICBMs don't go into orbit they use a ballistic trajectory.
    I would like to know more details about that little comment.
    Frankly this is a big so what. None of the listed accidents are new and I think they are all in the Wikipedia and have been listed for years.
    They left out the Titan II explosion in the 80s that blew a multi mega warhead a good distance from the silo and caused the Air Force to retire the Titan II.
    Hey on the bright side in the 50s and 60s every major US city was ringed with Nike SAM sites and some of them had nuclear warheads on them. They have all been retired for a good long while.

    This is so not news it is at best a badly written history lesson. Actually it is nothing but political diatribe on how evil nuclear weapons are. Frankly this should be pushed to the politics page or just not on Slashdot since it tells us nothing new. Heck the freaking learning channel covered this a few years ago.

  • Re:Keep in mind... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by slimjim8094 (941042) <slashdot3@jus t c o n n e c t e d .net> on Monday April 05, 2010 @09:08AM (#31733342)

    Exactly. They're much safer than conventional bombs. A friend of mine did (among other things) munitions decomission in the Army (throw the bomb in a big pit and blow it up). Apparently, the expanding foam "Great Stuff" was invented to decomission nuclear weapons - you used it to fill the bomb's trigger component. Since the trigger was useless, the weapon was useless.

    And, of course, you can drop them, bump them, hammer them, shock them, etc... without blowing it up. Try that with C4

  • Re:Keep in mind... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymusing (1450747) on Monday April 05, 2010 @09:09AM (#31733356)

    FTA: In 1961 a B-52 carrying two 24 megaton nuclear weapons (equivalent to 3,700 “Hiroshima bombs”) broke up in the air over Goldsboro, North Carolina. One bomb fell as far as 10,000 feet and sunk into the “waterlogged farmland.” The Air Force dug as deep as 50 feet trying to excavate the weapon, which contained uranium, but was unsuccessful. Finally, the Air Force purchased an easement on the land. Reportedly, a Pentagon document stated that five of the bomb’s six safety mechanisms had failed; “only a single switch” prevented the nuclear detonation of this 24 megaton device.

    What are the chances of the final safety mechanism ever deteriorating or otherwise failing due to age?

  • by markass530 (870112) <markass530@NosPAm.gmail.com> on Monday April 05, 2010 @09:10AM (#31733372) Homepage
    Not really nuclear accidents. Nuke Weapons have a ridiculous amount of safeguards and settings needed to happen to actually go off. So it is impossible for a true nuclear weapon accidents. Maybe call em' accidents that involved nuclear weapons. any other phrase is alarmism
  • by JWSmythe (446288) <[moc.ehtymswj] [ta] [ehtymswj]> on Monday April 05, 2010 @09:21AM (#31733488) Homepage Journal

        Nailed to the ceiling is a serious understatement. In 4 milliseconds, the reactor went critical, vaporized all the water around it, and sent a shock wave out which (among other things) sent a control rod through the operator and impaled him in the ceiling. I wonder what killed him. It was probably being instantly cooked alive by the steam, rather than the fact that he had a control rod run through his body which left him dangling in non-gravitational respective positions.

        Always respect the laws of gravity, or they will catch up to you. At least usually. If you're crushed, steamed and impaled (simultaneously at that), it probably doesn't matter much any more.

  • Re:Keep in mind... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DesScorp (410532) <DesScorp@NOsPAM.Gmail.com> on Monday April 05, 2010 @09:24AM (#31733534) Homepage Journal

    "thanks to the Manhattan project, we now have devices lying around that are designed to split atoms."

    Except that it's still not that easy. Its very likely that the mechanisms surrounding the radioactive cores were damaged during the drops, so most will be unusable anyway. Even if they're perfectly preserved, you still have to find them... and considering that the combined efforts of the Air Force and Navy couldn't do so with advanced diving and search technology, good luck with some terrorist group doing so a hundred miles off the coast. And even if they had the unbelievable fortune of finding a device, they'd still have to recover it, and arm it.

  • Re:Keep in mind... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by vlm (69642) on Monday April 05, 2010 @09:26AM (#31733552)

    A friend of mine did (among other things) munitions decomission in the Army

    I took a lame one week version of that class in the summer of 93. Frankly the decommissioning part is pretty simple, if you can't figure out how to blow stuff up, you've got big problems. The class was mainly how to survive doing that, and some nifty tricks that save lives. Double fusing and double priming, do everything in an excavated pit with only one man in at a time, let EOD handle the rusty/damaged stuff, always test the burn rate of the actual fuse you intend to use, don't lay down your fuse in a big ole coil, fuse so long that if you twist your ankle the medics could haul you out, don't try to do multiple pits at one time (in an effort to avoid dealing with range control, whom seem universally to be a PITA), etc. And a lot of distance safety rules, which boil down to if you're not walking far enough to get sweaty, its probably not safe enough.

    And, of course, you can drop them, bump them, hammer them, shock them, etc... without blowing it up. Try that with C4

    With the exception of hammer and electrical shock, you can pretty much do that to bulk C4 without serious harm. You can also burn it, although the fumes are quite toxic. Note that C-4 is a very specific chemical substance that is a plastic explosive. Its entirely possible that another plastic explosive, say, PETN det cord, is much more sensitive to shock than bulk C-4. From memory, ANFO is harmless in sub-ton quantities without a very hefty booster.

  • Re:Keep in mind... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by digitaldrunkenmonk (1778496) on Monday April 05, 2010 @09:34AM (#31733632)

    The problem with bombs that have laying about for decades is that they decompose and lose some reactivity. They still pose a danger due to the conventional explosives they contain and the radioactive material, but past their shelf life they will not result in a catastrophic explosion and will release their contents relatively slowly.

    What would be interesting to see is if the old bombs that have been left around have maintained the perfect symmetry required to properly compress the plutonium and ignite the nuclear fire; otherwise the ensuing explosion will be weak compared to the optimum yield, if it can occur at all. If critical mass is not met, an explosion will not occur on the scales liked to a proper nuclear blast. An explosion will still occur, maybe, but it will be trivial in terms of the actual damage done by air pressure versus radioactive contamination from the remaining fuel.

  • Re:Keep in mind... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JWSmythe (446288) <[moc.ehtymswj] [ta] [ehtymswj]> on Monday April 05, 2010 @09:38AM (#31733674) Homepage Journal

        As I understand it, the shell and core are normally separated. When the device is "armed", the core is inserted into the center of the shell. To detonate, the explosives around the shell must simultaneously explode, compressing the fissionable material until it reaches critical mass, and then BOOM. That last step takes a lot less time than it seems in reading it.

        So, an unarmed nuke has no chance of causing a nuclear explosion. An explosion around the shell would just collapse the shell, which is not catastrophic. The core by itself isn't all that dangerous, except it'll make your hair fall out, give you radiation burns, and you won't live all that long after that. :)

        If it's > 50' under ground *AND* the explosives around the shell detonated for some unknown reason, it'd probably make a radioactive area that's already property of the US Gov't. If, for some strange reason, the core had been inserted and the explosives spontaniously blew ... well ... I wouldn't want to be too close to it. :) ... if they never recovered the weapon, how would they know 5 safeties failed? This sounds like a little political posturing.

  • Re:Keep in mind... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by vlm (69642) on Monday April 05, 2010 @09:54AM (#31733894)

    You dropped, bumped, hammered, shot and lit a C4 block?

    No idea for the OP, who's writing sounded like a combat engineer-ish perspective, but for me it was mostly very close second hand. My job at the ammo depot included maintenance of the computerized list of NSNs (essentially a military UPC code) and lot/serial numbers that failed those tests, which we would never issue to troops or transfer/ship, in peacetime are issued to EOD for training, and in wartime would probably be "disposed of" by myself and buddies, although I never got to do that. I knew guys whom were later assigned to the testing labs, but I didn't know them very well.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safety_testing_of_explosives [wikipedia.org]

    I would imagine anyone issued demolition explosives whom survived an IED attack or ambush in the sandbox has probably "dropped, bumped, hammered, shot and lit a C4 block", and if the safety features failed, I'd have been the guy doing the grunt work for essentially an army style "product recall".

    That sounds like an amazing drinking game.

    Oh, we drank a lot. What a surprise, that when policy segregates out the illegal-drug users and tobacco smokers, you're left with only the legal drug users, mostly alkies. Seems like every drunk I know is or was in the army or at least the military in general...

  • Re:Keep in mind... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by commodore64_love (1445365) on Monday April 05, 2010 @09:58AM (#31733936) Journal

    This conversation reminds me of a conversation I was having with an Amway rep about buying some kind of vitamins or lotion:

    "It's all natural, so it's perfectly safe."

    "Yeah... well... cyanide is also natural and it's definitely not safe."

    The Amway person frowned and walked away. He didn't want to hear any negativity that might pull him out of his good-feeling cult group.

  • Re:Keep in mind... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ShadowRangerRIT (1301549) on Monday April 05, 2010 @10:12AM (#31734148)

    Technically, I believe the gun-type fission weapon design [wikipedia.org] is vulnerable to accidental detonation. Of course, the U.S. only produced a few of these before switching over to the much safer and more powerful implosive design, usually implemented nowadays as a fusion boosted design, [wikipedia.org] often with multiple stages. [wikipedia.org]

    Of course, as I noted, the gun-type fission weapon was only produced for a short time in the 1940s and early 50s by the U.S., and was the only design used in South Africa's nuclear program (run from the 60s to the 80s and dismantled in the early 90s). So yeah, as long as it's an implosion type weapon (or the fusion boosted version of such a weapon), the danger is negligible (aside from the small risk of spreading some nuclear material if the weapon disintegrates). Implosive weapons have such incredibly tight design tolerances that a sufficient impact would actually disable the weapon permanently, not set it off, as the necessary alignment in the components would be disrupted. Many nuclear weapons are usually air burst designs for this reason (plus the enhanced damage done by bursting a mile up or so).

  • Re:Keep in mind... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by HungryHobo (1314109) on Monday April 05, 2010 @10:16AM (#31734196)

    Interesting little side note:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_nuclear_fission_reactor [wikipedia.org]

    Oklo uranium deposit behaved as a natural nuclear fission reactor in Precambrian times with natural water as neutron moderator.

  • Re:Keep in mind... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by careysub (976506) on Monday April 05, 2010 @11:25AM (#31735218)

    Although C4 is pretty safe in normal handling (the plasticizer desensitizes the RDX to some extent), RDX based explosives can be detonated accidentally. (The Wikipedia article implying that it cannot is incorrect.)

    If you read the document you read of several weapons exploding in accidents. The earliest ones all involved Comp B, a TNT/RDX mixture. Later weapons often used the very dangerous and more powerful HMX.

    Since the 1970s the U.S. has moved to using a very unusual high explosive, TATB, which genuinely can only be detonated by another detonation shock.

  • Re:Keep in mind... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pilgrim23 (716938) on Monday April 05, 2010 @11:25AM (#31735220)
    In 1964 the military euthanized a herd of cattle. Why? Because, when the Alamogordo blast went off, cows from a few herds were dusted with fallout. The military purchased these cows to keep an eye on them. Some had actual skin burns from the radiation; areas of discoloration where hair never grew back or grew back white -just like a thermal burn. Some were kept at Oak Ridge, some at Los Alamos. All were subjected to many many tests and allowed to live out their lives. If purchased in 1945 these cows would be about 2-3; by 1964 they would be about 25 or so (or 80-90 in cow years). Yep Radiation! Everyone panic..
  • gee, that's funny, since that's part of my point:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludic_fallacy [wikipedia.org]

    The ludic fallacy is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan. 'Ludic' is from the Latin ludus, meaning 'play'. It is summarized as "the misuse of games to model real-life situations".[1] Taleb characterizes the fallacy as mistaking the map (model) for the reality (see map-territory relation), an inductive side-effect of human cognition.
    It is a central argument in the book and a rebuttal of the predictive mathematical models used to predict the future - as well as an attack on the idea of applying naïve and simplified statistical models in complex domains. According to Taleb, statistics only work in some domains like casinos in which the odds are visible and defined. Nassim's argument centres on the idea that predictive models are based on platonified forms, gravitating towards mathematical purity and failing to take some key ideas into account:
    It is impossible to be in possession of all the information.
    Very small unknown variations in the data could have a huge impact (though, Taleb does differentiate his idea from that of the highly mathematized representations in Chaos's theories Butterfly effect).).
    Theories/models based on empirical data are flawed, as events that have not taken place before cannot be accounted for.

    so, to summarize, you regurgitate part of my point back at me, as if you are refuting me

    Kid, I've browsed from one side of this Internet to the other.

    thanks for the patronization, dad. but apparently you haven't been around enough to even coherently understand and refute what i'm fucking saying in the first place. if i may be so patronizing as you, i think you need to see more sides of the internet, kid

  • Re:Keep in mind... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by torkus (1133985) on Monday April 05, 2010 @05:38PM (#31742304)

    Agreed on the first. I wasn't sure what type of fissile material was missing.

    However on the second I'm not so sure it's cost prohibitive at this point. Even 100,000's of thousands of man-hours of calculations are childs-play for computers. In particular, the physics and modeling of an implosion device seems a natural fit for the engines of 3D graphics cards...some of which even have a programming language to do almost exactly that.

    Going further, shaped-charge explosives are not exceptionally expensive or difficult to design individually. Shaping large pieces of metal is done with explosives regularly. More involved than a simple gun-assemble, sure, but still something within the ability of a decent college or commercial company.

  • by Sanat (702) on Tuesday April 06, 2010 @12:58PM (#31751146)

    We swung the angles with theodolites which were highly accurate transits. Shooting Polaris (north star) and making the "current date & time" adjustments gave us a true north reference.

    We would then transfer those angles down through a tube in the silo and finally transfer the angles to a first surface mirror (has no parallax) for internal references within the silo.

    This was so if the weather was bad we would not have to work outside but use one of the two mirrors for reference. We had two mirrors so if one was tampered with by someone then the angle would be off between them and we would then know to re-establish the reference azimuth for them. This never happened to my knowledge as everyone had top-secret clearances with crypto endorsements.

    We used the Wild-Heerbrugg T3-A theodolite for our work. This device had a light source that would allow us to align the reticle to a mirror or even another theodolite. There was also a microscope for reading the angular value derived as we worked down at the .1 arc second of angles.

    Also remember that we were at the height of the tension with the USSR during this time period and we felt just having one more missile up and aimed accurately just might be the deterrence we needed to prevent a nuclear war.

    We also had an experimental device that would give us true north by sensing the rotation of the Earth. I was on the team that tested it but I do not know if it ever went into production and field use or not.

    The concept for a nuclear missile is if you could lighten the payload some more then it would go more deeply into enemy territory thus increasing the range and making the enemy more vulnerable. That is the reason for not attempting to extinquish the solid propellant but just disconnect from the 3rd stage at the proper moment.

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