Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fortunately, no atomic bombs were dropped on the Moon, but the same can't be said of North Carolina. The Tar Heel State's brush with nuclear catastrophe came on January 24, 1961, about half past midnight. A B-52 with two nukes on-board was cruising the skies near Goldsboro and Faro when its right wing leaked fuel and exploded. The jet disintegrated. Five crewmen survived, while three died.

The two MARK 39 thermonuclear bombs disengaged from the jet. Each one had a yield of two to tour megatons (reports vary), up to 250 times as powerful as the bomb that decimated Hiroshima. The parachute opened on one of them, and it drifted to the earth relatively gently. But the parachute failed to open on the other, so it plowed into a marshy patch of land owned by a farmer.

The nuke with the parachute was recovered easily. However, its twin proved much more difficult to retrieve. Because of the swampiness of the area, workers were able to drag out only part of the bomb. One of its most crucial components — the "secondary," which contains nuclear material — is still in the ground, probably around 150 feet down

The federal government bought rights to this swatch of land to prevent any owners from digging more than five feet under the surface. To this day, state regulators test the radiation levels of the ground water in the area every year. The head of the North Carolina Division of Radiation Protection has said that they've found only normal levels but that "there is still an open question as to whether a hazard exists."

The big question is whether or not North Carolina's own Fat Man and Little Boy could've actually detonated. Due to the technicalities of nuclear weapons — and the ambiguous nature of the terms "unarmed," "armed," and "partially armed" — it's hard to give a definitive answer. We do know this: The Defense Department said that the ill-fated B-52 was part of a program (since discontinued) that continuously kept nuclear bombs in the air, ready for dropping. So, the answer

is yes, that jet was fully capable of unleashing its A-bombs in completely armed mode, with all that this implies — mushroom clouds, vaporized people, dangerous radiation levels for decades, etc. According to the late Chuck Hansen — one of the world's leading authorities on nuclear weapons — the pilot of the B-52 would've had to throw a switch to arm the bombs. Since he didn't, the bombs couldn't have gone off. Hansen mentions the possibility that the switch could've been activated while the jet was breaking apart and exploding. Luckily this didn't happen, but it was a possibility. That switch apparently was the only thing that stopped the bombs from turning part of North Carolina into toast. The government's own reports show that for both bombs, three of the four arming devices had activated. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara further corroborated this during a press conference, saying that the nukes "went through all but one" of the necessary steps. Hansen told college students researching this near-miss:

This was a very dangerous incident and I suspect that steps were taken afterwards to prevent any repetition of it. I do not now know of any other weapon accident that came this close to a full-scale nuclear detonation (which is not to say that any such incident did not occur later).


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