The Mystery of the Vanishing Nukes

We all lose or misplace things from time to time. Our wallet, our car keys, our remote control, no matter how vigilant we are these things just seem to vanish from time to time. There are even those occasions when they remain gone forever, despite our best efforts to relocate them. In most cases, it may be just a minor inconvenience or annoyance, but what of things that people have lost that have potentially earth shattering consequences? I’m not talking about car keys here, but of the rather unsettling habit that human beings have developed of losing track of things that we really should make sure we never lose. I’m talking about how sometimes we have managed to lose whole nuclear weapons, yes in the plural, as in more than one. Say what?! Over the years, various nations have gone and managed to just up and lose dozens of nuclear weapons under a variety of circumstances, and just like your keys or wallet, sometimes they have gone missing without a trace; seemingly vanished off the face of the earth.

Missing nukes are often referred to as “Broken Arrows,” defined as “an unexpected event involving nuclear weapons that result in the accidental launching, firing, detonating, theft or loss of the weapon which does not result in the threat of nuclear war.” These broken arrows occurred much during the Cold War between the late 1950s and the mid-1960s, which was a tense time of unprecedented nuclear weapon stockpiling and transportation of such devices. Even amid all of this confusion and mayhem, one might be inclined to think that there would be no possibility that someone could just lose a nuke, or that one could simply go missing, but they would be wrong. In fact, perhaps even more disturbing than the idea that a nuclear weapon can disappear without a trace is the sobering fact that it has happened with an alarming frequency. To date, the US reportedly has lost 11 nuclear weapons, and there are around 50 nuclear devices unaccounted for worldwide. In many of these cases, the nukes have seemed to vanish off the face of the earth and no one has any idea of where they have gone.

A nuclear warhead

A nuclear warhead

Many cases of disappearing nukes happened over water. During the height of the Cold War it is estimated that 365 days a year there were airborne nuclear weapons aboard US bombers, typically following four main routes that passed over Greenland, the Mediterranean, Japan and Alaska. Considering the vast distances involved and the lack of fuel capacity to allow planes to cross oceans on one tank of fuel, these missions required midair refueling, a dangerous and hairy operation which, along with the threat of other possible midair problems and perils, such as storms, enemy fire, or simply running out of gas, lie at the heart of some of the most spectacular cases of mysteriously disappearing nukes.

One infamous case occurred on 10 March 1956, when a B-47 Stratojet took off from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on a non-stop transatlantic flight to deliver two nuclear weapon cores in special transport cases to an undisclosed overseas base. Considering the enormous distance involved, two in-flight refuelings were scheduled. The first refueling went off without a hitch, yet the plane failed to show for its second refueling over the Mediterranean Sea. Considering the cargo the plane had been carrying, an extensive search was immediately launched to try and locate the missing aircraft, but no trace of the plane, debris, the crew, or its nuclear payload could ever be found. It is as if the bomber just flew off the face of the earth. It is assumed that the plane went down somewhere over the Mediterranean, possibly due to running out of fuel, but no one has any idea where, and the plane’s disappearance, as well as the location of the missing nuclear cores, remain a complete mystery to this day.

Another nuclear bomb was lost in the Atlantic in 1968, when an American B-52 bomber went down over Greenland and crashed into the ice of North Star Bay, near Thule Air Force base, detonating its conventional explosives in a spectacular fireball. Unfortunately, the plane had also been carrying four nuclear warheads, at least one of which was never recovered and is thought to have been sealed in the ice after the explosion melted it and it subsequently refroze. Additionally, uranium, tritium and plutonium were scattered over a 2,000-foot radius in the vicinity, leading to serious health problems in those who engaged in recovery efforts. So sensitive was this incident that the military covered it up for decades. It is still unknown as to how many bombs of the four onboard were actually lost and to what extent the radioactive contamination spread. The missing bomb or bombs have never been found and presumably still remain trapped somewhere down in the Greenland ice.

A B-52 bomber

A B-52 bomber

In some cases, the planes with their nuclear cargo never even made it into the air. What must be one of the most ridiculous cases of a vanishing nuke happened on 10 Dec. 1965 on board the USS Ticonderoga, an aircraft carrier that was on its way to Yokosuka, Japan from Vietnam. An A-4E Skyhawk carrying an extremely powerful B-43 hydrogen bomb was carried up one of the carrier’s huge aircraft elevators to be loaded onto the deck and prepared for takeoff. The crew surely could not have believed what happened next. Rather than the proud, patriotic, and heroic image of this majestic fighter jet preparing to bolt forth into the sky, those on board were instead treated to the absurd sight of the plane simply rolling off the deck to plunge into the ocean, complete with its pilot and onboard nuclear weapon. The plane would go on to sink five kilometers (16,400 feet) into the ocean depths and would resist all efforts to locate it. To make matters scarier, experts at the time were concerned that the extreme depths involved might actually set off the bomb. This incident was kept under wraps by the government for a long time since it showed that the U.S. had nuclear weapons in Vietnam and also that they had defied a treaty with Japan to not bring such weapons into Japanese territory. To this day the location of the plane, its pilot, and its potent nuclear payload remains unknown.

Some of the missing warheads were not lost over the sea, but under it. In April of 1989, the Russian submarine Komsomolez experienced a catastrophic fire on board during a mission off the coast of Greenland. The resulting damage crippled the sub and sent it hurtling down 1,700 meters (5,500 feet) into the cold blackness to the bottom of the ocean along with the two nuclear warhead equipped torpedoes it was carrying. The nukes were never found. On May 22, 1968, the American nuclear submarine the USS Scorpion was on its way back to Norfolk, Virginia from a three month training exercise in the Mediterranean Sea and was 320 nautical miles south of the Azores when it suddenly vanished along with its two nuclear warheads. The U.S. was at first convinced that the Russians were involved in its disappearance, but the wreckage of the sub was later found strewn about the bottom at a depth of 3,300 meters (10,800 feet) by the research ship Mizar. Because of the incredible depths involved, the nuclear warheads were never recovered and remain lying upon the bottom of the sea.

Nuclear submarine

Nuclear submarine

It would be somewhat comforting for Americans to think that these are incidents which have only occurred in the middle of the ocean or in faraway lands, but the alarming fact is this is not the case, with 7 of the 11 missing nukes disappearing on U.S. soil. Where to even begin? On July 28, 1957, a C-124 transport plane experienced technical problems when two of its engines lost power after it departed Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The flight crew could not keep the aircraft on a level flight and so this necessitated the jettisoning of its two nuclear weapons off the East coast of the United States, which promptly sank into the ocean to never be seen again. Although the C-124 landed safely near Atlantic City, New Jersey, neither the warheads nor their debris were never located. On September 25, 1959, a U.S. Navy P-5M aircraft carrying a nuclear depth charge went down to smash into the Puget Sound near Whidbey Island, Washington and was never seen again, its nuclear payload lost forever to the deep dark sea.

On January 24, 1961, a nuclear catastrophe nearly occurred when a B-52 bomber carrying two fully operational nuclear warheads and flying on alert over Goldsboro, North Carolina, experienced a defective fuel line and sudden structural failure in one of its wings. The plane’s wing disintegrated, sending it plummeting towards the ground far below and killing three of its crew. The two nuclear weapons were released during the breakup from an altitude of 2,000-10,000 feet. Emergency parachutes had been installed in the warheads, and for one of the nukes the parachute deployed as planned and the weapon would later be safely recovered. However, the second warhead’s parachute malfunctioned and the weapon plowed into some swampy farmland, smashing it to pieces and sending debris flying over a wide area. It would later be revealed that the weapon had had a high probability of accidentally detonating, as five of the six onboard safety devices had failed, leaving only a single switch that had saved the entire area from being consumed in a devastating nuclear explosion. Although many of the bomb’s components were eventually recovered, the highly enriched uranium core was never found even after thorough desperate searches of the area by the military. It is thought that the extremely dangerous core had lodged itself as far down as 50 meters (165 feet) into the marshy, waterlogged ground. Such was the concern over the missing core that the Air Force acquired an easement on the land which required anyone planning to develop the area or start any sort of construction to first obtain permission from the military in order to keep the weapons grade core from falling into the wrong hands.

Perhaps the most notorious and indeed scariest incident on U.S. soil happened on Feb. 5, 1958, when a powerful, 7,000 pound Mark 15 hydrogen bomb, with over 100 times the destructive force of the Hiroshima bomb, disappeared over Wassaw Sound only 12 miles from Savannah, Ga., a city with a population of over 100,000 people. A B-47 Stratojet bomber piloted by Howard Richardson, Bob Lagerstrom and Leland Woolard, had been engaged in a night training flight over Sylvania, Georgia at an altitude of 36,000 feet when it accidentally collided with an F-86 Saberjet fighter, destroying the fighter and badly damaging one of the bomber’s wings. After three unsuccessful attempts to land with their payload aboard, the pilots were then instructed to jettison their nuclear weapon before trying to attempt another emergency landing, so pilot Maj. Howard Richardson dropped the bomb over the Wassaw Sound off of Tybee Island in a location near the mouth of the Savannah River before finally managing to land safely at nearby Hunter Army Airfield.

Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb

Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb

It was thought at the time that the recovery of the nuclear weapon would be swift, as it had been ditched in an area of shallow water which wasn’t particularly secluded, yet this would not prove to be the case. The area was completely shut off by the military and a massive search was launched for the missing nuclear weapon, including aerial searches, underwater divers, and meticulous scouring of the surrounding land by soldiers, yet after 2 months the bomb had still not been located. Shortly after, the military called off the search and deemed the weapon to be “irretrievably lost.” In the wake of the failed attempts to recover the lost nuclear weapon, the military went through great pains to enact a cover-up of the event and it has only come to light in the face of partially declassified documents gradually released on the incident. The Air Force would later claim that the missing bomb posed no threat if left undisturbed, but gave the ominous warning in a declassified report that “an intact explosive would pose a serious explosion hazard to personnel and the environment if disturbed by a recovery attempt.” It also made sure to monitor all dredging in the area, stating in another declassified document:

There exists the possibility of accidental discovery of the unrecovered weapon through dredging or construction in the probable impact area. … The Department of Defense has been requested to monitor all dredging and construction activities.

Showing that humans have the disturbing propensity to not learn a single thing, it later came to light in a partially declassified memo that the Air Force had wasted no time in promptly requested a new nuclear warhead to replace the lost one. The memo states:

The search for this weapon was discontinued on 4-16-58 and the weapon is considered irretrievably lost. It is requested that one [phrase redacted] weapon be made available for release to the DOD (Department of Defense) as a replacement.

The missing nuclear weapon of Tybee Island to this day has never been recovered and still lies somewhere out in the water near a major American metropolis. As its existence has become known to the general populace, there has been a great deal of outrage directed towards the military for losing the bomb in the first place, as well as its sudden decision to call off its search for it despite the potentially devastating consequences it could pose to the populace. Understandably, local residents want an investigation relaunched, and want the bomb found and removed. The Air Force has countered various accusations by stating repeatedly that the bomb poses no threat and even trying to downplay the threat by claiming the bomb was not fully functional. This claim stands in stark contrast to a recently declassified 1966 congressional testimony of former assistant secretary of defense W.J. Howard, who stated that the Tybee Island bomb was a “complete weapon, a bomb with a nuclear capsule,” and that it had represented one of only two weapons lost up to that time that was complete with a plutonium trigger.

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In addition to the obvious danger of having a fully operational nuclear weapon lying so close to a major city, there is also the matter of the plutonium and other hazardous materials, such as uranium and beryllium, leaking into the environment. This is potentially horrible news for people and wildlife of the area, as well as for the rich crabbing industry of Wassaw Sound. There have been extensive efforts by several salvage companies to try and locate the missing bomb since its existence became public, but there are also those who think that it should be left alone. The bomb contains many dangerous elements, including the highly unstable lithium deuteride, as well as the over 400 pounds of TNT designed to act as a catalyst for the plutonium trigger to implode and thus create a nuclear explosion, and these have been slowly degenerating from being submerged for so many years. It is thought that any attempt to remove the bomb could be a highly perilous proposition. One can only hope that if someone does manage to find and retrieve it that it will be someone with good intentions and not one of the many enemies of the U.S. who would love to get their hands on some unguarded, unsecured intact nuclear weapon. The Tybee Island lost nuke remains elusive, sitting out there in the ocean somewhere posing an ill-defined threat. The Pentagon has notoriously been secretive about the whole affair and has seemingly failed to engage in any in-depth analysis of the situation.

The one thing that is no doubt going through your mind right now is just what exactly is the level of threat posed by these vanished nuclear weapons? This largely depends on who you ask. Otfried Nassauer, an expert on nuclear armament and the director of the Berlin Information Center for Transatlantic Security says:

Weapons that are on the ocean floor are hardly unlikely to explode. Perhaps this risk is somewhat greater with the bombs that were lost on land. But virtually nothing is known about whether such bombs can explode spontaneously.

Don Moniak, a nuclear weapons expert with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League in Aiken, South Carolina said:

There could be a fission or criticality event if the plutonium was somehow put in an incorrect configuration. There could be a major inferno if the high explosives went off and the lithium deuteride reacted as expected. Or there could just be an explosion that scattered uranium and plutonium all over hell.

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The bottom line seems to be, we don’t know. Perhaps more of an impending threat is the risk of leaked radioactive or other dangerous substances from these missing weapons. Lithium, beryllium and enriched uranium are all building blocks of nuclear weapons that can cause a whole laundry list of health problems in humans and wildlife, as well as irreversible environmental damage. The effects of corrosion on such lost nukes could mean that such dangerous materials could be released slowly into the environment over decades. The problem is only exacerbated by the Pentagon’s determination on putting a lid on the extent of the problem and its insistence on secrecy. There is also the obvious threat of some terrorist group attaining these lost nuclear materials.

Where have these nuclear weapons gone? What threat do they pose? What is the military doing about it? More importantly, how many more are there out there that have vanished without a trace that we don’t even know about? It is startling that not only can this happen, but that we can have so little of an idea of what the repercussions might even be. This all seems rather unbelievable, yet even in this day and age of enhanced security and nuclear awareness this can still happen. Vanishing, unaccounted for nukes are still apparently very much a thing. Bear in mind that there are 7 of these things missing somewhere on U.S. soil. Do you know where they are? I know I don’t. But I sure wish I did. Sleep tight.