WASHINGTON: Nuclear weapon accidents should worry everyone until they are contained and proven harmless. At the same time, we have to be rational about the risks.
The latest example of how well those risks have been balanced comes from the Guardian, a very fine paper that I used to write for when I lived in East Africa. They published a story on Friday claiming that much of the East Coast of the United States came within a hair’s breadth (or an electronic switch, if you want to be completely accurate) of death or serious injury when a Mk 39 thermonuclear bomb fell to earth in North Carolina. The bomb — one of two aboard — deployed after the B-52 carrying it disintegrated in the air.
The story is based on a formerly classified study of the 1961 Goldsboro incident.
Here’s the nub:
“…a senior engineer in the Sandia national laboratories responsible for the mechanical safety of nuclear weapons concludes that ‘one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe’.
“Writing eight years after the accident, Parker F Jones found that the bombs that dropped over North Carolina, just three days after John F Kennedy made his inaugural address as president, were inadequate in their safety controls and that the final switch that prevented disaster could easily have been shorted by an electrical jolt, leading to a nuclear burst. ‘It would have been bad news – in spades,’ he wrote….