Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mystery of the Missing Nuke

While this sounds like an installment of Encyclopedia Brown gone horribly wrong, recent reporting from the BBC suggests that in the late 1960's the US lost a nuke. Here's the story...

During the height of the Cold War, northern Greenland was of utmost strategic importance to the United States. If Russia was to launch an attack against the US, it would come from over the North Pole and thus over Greenland. The Americans installed an Air Force base in the small Greenlandish (that can't be right, can it?) village of Thule. This location allowed for monitoring of the skies for incoming missiles. B-52 bombers equipped with nukes flew constant missions around the base, prepared to fly to Moscow and strike in a moment's notice.

But one day one of those B-52s, strapped with four nuclear devices, experienced an equipment malfunction and crashed onto the ice below. The conventional explosives surrounding the nukes detonated without triggering the nukes themselves because the crew hadn't armed the bombs. With assistance from the Danes and Greenlanders, recovery missions came to a startling discovery- only three of the bombs could be accounted for. Conventional wisdom holds that when the plane crashed, one of the nukes, instead of fragmenting, lodged itself into the thick ice. Subsequent submarine missions turned up nothing.

From the article- William H Chambers, a former nuclear weapons designer at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory who once ran a team dealing with accidents, including the Thule crash. "There was disappointment in what you might call a failure to return all of the components," he told the BBC, explaining the logic behind the decision to abandon the search.
"It would be very difficult for anyone else to recover classified pieces if we couldn't find them."
The view was that no-one else would be able covertly to acquire the sensitive pieces and that the radioactive material would dissolve in such a large body of water, making it harmless.

Seemingly this has little relevance today, but it makes me wonder. How secure are the nuclear weapons of the world? States with nuclear weapons are the US, Russia, China, France, the UK, India, Pakistan and Israel. Looking at that list you have to deduce that Pakistan and possibly India are the worries. How safe are the warheads in Pakistan? That's a question of much debate and could be the subject of another post, but if the United States can have an accident and lose a nuke, how hard would it be for the Pakistani's to "misplace" one? A top priority of the Obama administration should be to secure Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

It's just a matter of time before we get here,though.

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