Jeffrey LewisNuclear Weapons: Lost & Found

One of my favorite cocktail party gambits is to explain that the United States lost nuclear weapons all the time during the Cold War, including one off the coast of Georgia in 1958. After a moment of awkward disbelief, I can deftly lighten the mood with a Deliverance joke or two.

So I was amused to see that the a 20-person team from the Air Force, Navy, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, national laboratories and Department of Energy converged on a spot off the Georgia coast to investigate some suspiciously high radiation readings.

It looks like, almost 50 year later, the Air Force may have located the nuclear weapon, once thought “irretrievably lost.”

Now, you might think this closes the case on the lost nuclear weapon inventory. And you’d be wrong. Here is a list from the Center for Defense Information, based on Department of Defense releases.

March 10, 1956, Over the Mediterranean Sea
“A B-47 bomber carrying two nuclear weapon cores in their carrying cases disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea. The aircraft, on a nonstop flight from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, to an undisclosed overseas airbase, was lost with its crew. After takeoff the B-47 was scheduled for two in-flight-refuelings before reaching its final destination. The first refueling was successfully completed, but the aircraft never made contact with the second refueling tanker over the Mediterranean Sea. Despite an extensive search, no trace of the aircraft, the nuclear weapon cores, or crew, were ever found.

July 28, 1957, Over the Atlantic Ocean
“A C-124 transport aircraft that was having mechanical problems jettisoned two nuclear weapons without their fissile cores off the east coast of the United States. The C-124 was en route from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware when it lost power to its number one and two engines. The crew determined that level flight could not be maintained with the weight of the weapons onboard and decided to jettison the cargo. Although neither weapon detonated, both are presumed to have been damaged from impact with the ocean surface and to have sunk almost instantly. Neither the weapons nor debris were ever found. The C-124 safely landed at an airfield near Atlantic City, New Jersey, with the remaining weapon and nuclear warhead aboard.

September 25, 1959, Off Whidbey Island, Washington
“A U.S. Navy P-5M aircraft carrying an unarmed nuclear depth charge without its fissile core crashed into Puget Sound near Whidbey Island, Washington. The weapon was never recovered.

January 24, 1961, Goldsboro, North Carolina
“In what nearly became a nuclear catastrophe, a B-52 bomber on airborne alert carrying two nuclear weapons broke apart in midair. The B-52 experienced structural failure in its right wing and the aircraft’s resulting breakup released the two weapons from a height of 2,000-10,000 feet. One of the bomb’s parachutes deployed properly and that weapon’s damage was minimal. However, the second bomb’s parachute malfunctioned and the weapon broke apart upon impact, scattering its components over a wide area. According to Daniel Ellsberg, the weapon could have accidentally fired because “five of the six safety devices had failed.” Nuclear physicist Ralph E. Lapp supported this assertion, saying that “only a single switch” had “prevented the bomb from detonating and spreading fire and destruction over a wide area.”
“Despite an extensive search of the waterlogged farmland where the weapon was believed to have landed, the bomb’s highly enriched uranium core was never recovered. In order to prevent any discovery of the lost portion of the weapon, the Air Force purchased an easement which required that permission be obtained before any construction or digging could begin in the area. Three crew members were killed in the crash.

December 5, 1965, Aboard the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) in the Pacific Ocean
“An A-4E Skyhawk strike aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon rolled off an elevator on the U.S. aircraft carrier Ticonderoga and fell into the sea. Because the bomb was lost at a depth of approximately 16,000 feet, Pentagon officials feared that intense water pressure could have caused the B-43 hydrogen bomb to explode. It is still unknown whether an explosion did occur. The pilot, aircraft, and weapon were lost.

Spring 1968, Aboard the USS Scorpion (SSN-589) in the Atlantic Ocean
“Although the Pentagon has not publicly released details of the accident, it probably refers to the nuclear powered attack submarine USS Scorpion that was lost at sea. The sub, carrying unidentified nuclear weapons, was last heard from on May 21, 1968, while returning to Norfolk, Virginia, after a three month training exercise in the Mediterranean Sea. The USS Scorpion sank 400-500 miles southwest of the Azores. The U.S. initially suspected that the Soviet Union was somehow involved. The suspicions were allayed when the research ship Mizar (T-AK-272) photographed the wreckage lying on the sea floor at 10,000 feet.”

Hans Kristensen, over at www.nukestrat.com, has some background on the 1958 incident, based on a declassified DOD Search and Recovery Assessment.

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