The Broken Arrow Project: Visualizing the Dangers of Maintaining the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

January 24, 1961 - Goldsboro, North Carolina

DOD: During a B-52 airborne alert mission structural failure of the right wing resulted in two weapons separating from the aircraft during aircraft breakup at 2,000-10,000 feet altitude. One bomb parachute deployed and the weapon received little impact damage. The other bomb fell free and broke apart upon impact. No explosion occurred. Five of the eight crew members survived. A portion of one weapon, containing uranium, could not be recovered despite excavation in the waterlogged farmland to a depth of 50 feet. The Air Force subsequently purchased an easement requiring permission for anyone to dig there. There is no detectable radiation and no hazard in the area.

CDI: This report does not adequately convey the potential seriousness of the accident. The two weapons were 24 megaton nuclear bombs. Combined, they had the equivalent explosive power of 3, 700 Hiroshima bombs. All of the bombs dropped on Japan and Germany in World War II totaled 2.2 megatons. The Office of Technology Assessment's study, The Effects of Nuclear War, calculated that a 25 megaton air burst on Detroit would result in 1.8 million fatalities and 1.3 million injuries. Upon recovering the intact bomb it was discovered, as Daniel Ellsberg has said, that "five of the six safety devices had failed." "Only a single switch," said nuclear physicist Ralph E. Lapp, "prevented the bomb from detonating and spreading fire and destruction over a wide area." This accident occurred four days after John F. Kennedy became President. He was told, according to Newsweek, that, "there had been more than 60 accidents involving nuclear weapons," since World War II, "including two cases in which nuclear-tipped anti-aircraft missiles were actually launched by inadvertence." As a result of the Goldsboro accident many new safety devices were placed on U.S. nuclear weapons and the Soviets were encouraged to do the same.



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