How a Cold War nuke almost exploded in North Carolina

When a B-52 bomber broke apart over North Carolina in 1961, a nuclear bomb fell to earth. Only a low-voltage switch kept it from exploding, according to a published report.

Tim Chong/REUTERS
A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam performs a fly-by at the Singapore Airshow in 2012. When a B-52 on a training mission broke apart in 1961, a nuclear weapon landed in a field in North Carolina.

Countering a long-time narrative by the US government, a massive nuclear bomb falling toward Goldsboro, North Carolina, after a B-52 bomber broke apart in 1961 bypassed several fail-safes, meaning an apocalyptic explosion was stopped only by a tiny last-ditch, low-voltage switch, new Freedom of Information Act documents explain.

The hydrogen bomb, which would have been 260 times more powerful than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, had deployed its parachute as it fell and had begun its activation procedure, according to secret documents obtained by journalist Eric Schlosser and detailed in the Guardian newspaper.

Entitled “Goldsboro Revisited or: How I Learned to Mistrust the H-bomb,” the document, written eight years after the incident, states conclusively that “one simple, dynamo-technology, low-voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe,” writes Sandia Labs scientist Parker Jones.

“The MK 39 Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52," Mr. Jones adds.

The two H-bombs released by the torn-apart bomber landed in a field and a meadow, near Faro, N.C. The US government has long suggested that there was little to no danger to the American population because of the bombs’ fail-safe measures. More specifically, the Defense Department once told a UPI reporter that the bombs were, in fact, unarmed and could not have exploded.

But according to Mr. Jones, forensics showed that a firing signal was sent to the nuclear device when the Faro bomb hit the ground. The signal fizzled thanks only to the last-ditch switch.

An explosion could have spread fallout across major cities like Philadelphia, even New York, threatening millions of American lives. As it was, few Americans have ever known how close the country came to a nuclear disaster.

The incident occurred in the midst of Cold War jockeying between the US and the Soviet Union, which were both building massive nuclear potential for their ostensibly defensive arsenals. A roadside marker near faro, erected last year, commemorates the incident as “Nuclear Mishap.”

The South has experienced other nuclear near-misses. Three years before the Goldsboro incident, a 7,600 pound Mark 15 nuclear bomb was lost in the waters of Wassaw Sound, near Tybee Island, Ga., after a bomber and a fighter jet collided during training exercises. The bomb was never located.

Arguments continue to this day about whether the lost Tybee Island nuke was armed. Documents from the Atomic Energy Commission have maintained the bomb did not have an active nuclear core installed, though Assistant Secretary of Defense W.J. Howard testified to Congress in 1966 that the bomb was “a complete weapon, a bomb with a nuclear capsule.”

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