Antinuclear

Australian news, and some related international items

The lost nuclear bombs that no one can find

The exception to this progress is, of course, nuclear submarines – and even today, there are near-misses.

For Lewis, the fascination with lost nuclear weapons isn’t the potential risks they pose now – it’s what they represent: the fragility of our seemingly sophisticated systems for handling dangerous inventions safely.

“I think we have this fantasy that the people who handle nuclear weapons are somehow different than all the other people we know, make fewer mistakes, or that they’re somehow smarter. But the reality is that the organisations that we have to handle nuclear weapons are like every other human organisation. They make mistakes. They’re imperfect,” says Lewis.

planes carrying nuclear bombs no longer fly around on regular training exercises. “Airborne alerts ended for reasons that must be obvious to us,” he says. “In the end, the decision was made that it was too dangerous.”

The exception to this progress is, of course, nuclear submarines – and even today, there are near-misses.

BBC By Zaria Gorvett, 5th August 2022,

It was a mild winter’s morning at the height of the Cold War.

On January 17, 1966, at around 10:30am, a Spanish shrimp fisherman watched a misshapen white parcel fall from the sky… and silently glide towards the Alboran Sea. It had something hanging beneath it, though he couldn’t make out what it was. Then it slipped beneath the waves.

At the same time, in the nearby fishing village of Palomares, locals looked up at an identical sky and witnessed a very different scene – two giant fireballs, hurtling towards them. Within seconds, the sleepy rural idyll was shattered. Buildings shook. Shrapnel sliced towards the ground. Body parts fell to the earth

A few weeks later, Philip Meyers received a message via a teleprinter – a device a bit like a fax that could send and receive primitive emails. At the time, he was working as a bomb disposal officer at the Naval Air Facility Sigonella, in eastern Sicily. He was told that there was a top secret emergency in Spain, and that he must report there within days. 

However, the mission was not as covert as the military had hoped. “It was not a surprise to be called,” says Meyers. Even the public knew what was going on. When he attended a dinner party that evening and announced his mysterious trip, its intended confidentiality became something of a joke. “It was kind of embarrassing,” says Meyers. “It was supposed to be a secret but my friends were telling me why I was going.”

For weeks, newspapers around the globe had been reporting rumours of a terrible accident – two US military planes had collided in mid-air, scattering four B28 thermonuclear bombs across Palomares. Three were quickly recovered on land – but one had disappeared into the sparkling blue expanse to the south east, lost to the bottom of the nearby swathe of Mediterranean Sea. Now the hunt was on to find it – along with its 1.1 megatonne warhead, with the explosive power of 1,100,000 tonnes of TNT.

In fact, the Palomares incident is not the only time a nuclear weapon has been misplaced. There have been at least 32 so-called “broken arrow” accidents – those involving these catastrophically destructive, earth-flattening devices – since 1950. In many cases, the weapons were dropped by mistake or jettisoned during an emergency, then later recovered. But three US bombs have gone missing altogether – they’re still out there to this day, lurking in swamps, fields and oceans across the planet.

“We mostly know about the American cases,” says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-proliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies, California. He explains that the full list only emerged when a summary prepared by the US Department of Defense was declassified in the 1980s.

Many occurred during the Cold War, when the nation teetered on the precipice of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) with the Soviet Union – and consequently kept airplanes armed with nuclear weapons in the sky at all times from 1960 to 1968, in an operation known as Chrome Dome.

“We don’t know as much about other countries. We don’t really know anything about the United Kingdom or France, or Russia or China,” says Lewis. “So I don’t think we have anything like a full accounting.”

The Soviet Union’s nuclear past is particularly murky – it had amassed a stockpile of 45,000 nuclear weapons as of 1986. There are known cases where the country lost nuclear bombs that have never been retrieved, but unlike with the US incidents, they all occurred on submarines and their locations are known, if inaccessible.

One began on 8 April 1970, when a fire started spreading through the air conditioning system of a Soviet K-8 nuclear-powered submarine while it was diving in the Bay of Biscay – a treacherous stretch of water in the northeast Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of Spain and France, which is notorious for its violent storms and where many vessels have met their end. It had four nuclear torpedoes onboard, and when it promptly sank, it took its radioactive cargo with it.

However, these lost vessels didn’t always stay where they were. In 1974, a Soviet K-129 mysteriously sank in the Pacific Ocean, along with three nuclear missiles. The US soon found out, and decided to mount a secret attempt to retrieve this nuclear prize, “which was really a pretty crazy story in and of itself”, says Lewis.

The eccentric American billionaire Howard Hughes, famous for his broad spectrum of activity, including as a pilot and film director, pretended to become interested in deep sea mining. “But in fact, it wasn’t deep sea mining, it was an effort to build this giant claw that could go all the way down to the sea floor, grab the submarine, and bring it back up,” says Lewis. This was Project Azorian – and unfortunately it didn’t work. The submarine broke up as it was being lifted.

“And so those nuclear weapons would have fallen back to the sea floor,” says Lewis. The weapons remain there to this day, trapped in their rusting tomb. Some people think the weapons remain there to this day, trapped in their rusting tomb – though others believe they were eventually recovered.

Every now and then, there are reports that some of the US’ lost nuclear weapons have been found.

Back in 1998, a retired military officer and his partner were gripped with a sudden determination to discover a bomb dropped near Tybee Island, Georgia in 1958. They interviewed the pilot who had originally lost it, as well as those who had searched for the bomb all those decades ago – and narrowed down the search to Wassaw Sound, a nearby bay of the Atlantic Ocean. For years, the maverick duo scoured the area by boat, trailing a Geiger counter behind them to detect any tell-tale spikes in radiation.

And one day, there it was, in the exact spot the pilot had described – a patch with radiation 10 times the levels elsewhere. The government promptly dispatched a team to investigate. But alas, it was not the nuclear weapon. The anomaly was down to naturally occurring radiation from minerals in the seabed.

So for now, the US’ three lost hydrogen bombs – and, at the very least, a number of Soviet torpedoes – belong to the ocean, preserved as monuments to the risks of nuclear war, though they have largely been forgotten. Why haven’t we found all these rogue weapons yet? Is there a risk of them exploding? And will we ever get them back?

A shrouded object

When Meyers finally got to Palomares – the Spanish village where a B52 bomber came down in 1966 – the authorities were still looking for the missing nuclear bomb……………

Eventually, the parachute was pulling so hard on the line and hook that it simply snapped – sending the nuclear bomb slowly gliding back down towards the bottom. This time, it ended up even deeper than before. 

………………… A month later they used a different kind of robotic submarine – a cable-controlled underwater vehicle – to grab the bomb by its parachute directly, and haul it up. It had shifted in its casing, so it couldn’t be disarmed the usual way, via a special port in the side – alarmingly, the officers instead had to cut into the nuclear weapon. “[It would have been] kind of nerve wracking to drill a hole in a hydrogen bomb,” says Meyers. “But they did it. They were prepared to do that.”

A swampy mystery

Unfortunately, the three lost bombs still out there today did not meet with such successful recovery efforts. …………………………………………………

Take the lost Tybee island bomb, which is still lying in silt somewhere in Wassaw Sound. ……………………………..

As it happens, having so many safety features is highly necessary – mostly because they don’t always work. In one case in 1961, a B-52 broke up while flying over Goldsboro, North Carolina, dropping two nuclear weapons to the ground. One was relatively undamaged after its parachute deployed successfully, but a later examination revealed that three out of four safeguards had failed.

In a declassified document from 1963, the then-US Secretary of Defence summed up the incident as a case where “by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted”.

The other nuclear bomb fell free to the ground, where it broke apart and ended up embedded in a field. Most parts were recovered, but one part containing uranium remains stuck under more than 50ft (15m) of mud. The US Air Force purchased the land around it to deter people from digging.

Some incidents are so baffling, they almost sound made up. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary occurred when a training exercise on the USS Ticonderoga went badly wrong in 1965. An A4E Skyhawk was being rolled to a plane elevator, while loaded with a B-43 nuclear bomb. It was a disaster in slow-motion – the crew on deck quickly realised that the plane was about to fall off, and waved for the pilot to apply the brakes. Tragically, he didn’t see them, and the young lieutenant, plane and weapon vanished into the Philippine Sea. They’re still there to this day, under 16,000 ft (4,900 m) of water near a Japanese island.

………………………….. A permanent loss

Lewis thinks it’s unlikely that we will ever find the three missing nuclear bombs. This is partly down to the same reasons they weren’t found in the first place.

…………………………………. In 1989, another Soviet nuclear submarine, the K-278 Komsomolets, sank in the Barents Sea off the coast of Norway. Like the K-8, it was also nuclear-powered, and it had been carrying two nuclear torpedoes at the time. For decades, its wreck has been lying under a mile (1.7km) of Arctic water.

But in 2019, scientists visited the vessel – and revealed that water samples taken from its ventilation pipe contained radiation levels up to 100,000 times higher than would normally be expected in sea water. …………

For Lewis, the fascination with lost nuclear weapons isn’t the potential risks they pose now – it’s what they represent: the fragility of our seemingly sophisticated systems for handling dangerous inventions safely.

“I think we have this fantasy that the people who handle nuclear weapons are somehow different than all the other people we know, make fewer mistakes, or that they’re somehow smarter. But the reality is that the organisations that we have to handle nuclear weapons are like every other human organisation. They make mistakes. They’re imperfect,” says Lewis.

Even at Palomares, where all the nuclear bombs that were dropped were eventually recovered, the land is still contaminated with radiation from two that detonated with conventional explosives. Some of the US military personnel who helped with the initial clean-up efforts – involving shovelling the surface of the soil into barrels – have since developed mysterious cancers which they believe are linked. In 2020, a number of survivors filed a class action suit against the Secretary of Veterans Affairs – though many of the claimants are currently in their late 70s and 80s.

Meanwhile, the local community has been campaigning for a more thorough clean-up for decades. Palomares has been dubbed “the most radioactive town in Europe“, and local environmentalists are currently protesting against a British company’s plans to build a holiday resort in the area.

Lewis is confident that losses of the kind that occurred during the Cold War are unlikely to happen again, mostly because operation Chrome Dome was ended in 1968, and planes carrying nuclear bombs no longer fly around on regular training exercises. “Airborne alerts ended for reasons that must be obvious to us,” he says. “In the end, the decision was made that it was too dangerous.”

The exception to this progress is, of course, nuclear submarines – and even today, there are near-misses. The US currently has 14 ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) in operation, while France and the UK have four each.

To work as nuclear deterrents these submarines must remain undetected during operations at sea, and this means they can’t send any signals to the surface to find out where they are. Instead, they must navigate mostly by inertia – essentially, the crew rely on machines equipped with gyroscopes to calculate where the submarine is at any given time based on where it was last, what direction it was headed and how fast it was travelling. This potentially imprecise system has resulted in a number of incidents, including as recently as 2018 when a British SSBN almost bumped into a ferry.

The era of lost nuclear weapons might not be over just yet.

Zaria Gorvett is a senior journalist for BBC Future and tweets @ZariaGorvett  https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220804-the-lost-nuclear-bombs-that-no-one-can-find

August 6, 2022 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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