A secret document, published in declassified form for the first time by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, reveals that the US Air Force came dramatically close to detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima.
The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the US Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro on Jan. 23, 1961. The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, one of the devices behaving precisely the way a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.
Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons — equivalent of 36 million tonnes of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York.
Though there has been persistent speculation about how narrow the Goldsboro escape had been, the US government has repeatedly publicly denied that its nuclear arsenal has put US lives in jeopardy through safety flaws.
However, in the newly published document, a senior engineer in the Sandia national laboratories responsible for the mechanical safety of nuclear weapons concluded that “one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe.”
Parker Jones found that the bombs were inadequate in their safety controls and that the final switch that prevented disaster could easily have been shorted by an electrical jolt leading to a nuclear burst.
“It would have been bad news — in spades,” he writes.
Jones drily titled his secret report Goldsboro Revisited or: How I Learned to Mistrust the H-Bomb — a quip on Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satirical film about nuclear holocaust, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
The accident happened when a B-52 bomber got into trouble having embarked from Seymour Johnson air force base in Goldsboro on a routine flight.
As it went into a tailspin, both the hydrogen bombs it was carrying became separated, one falling into a field near Faro, the other plummeting to a meadow off Big Daddy’s Road.
Jones found that of the four safety mechanisms in the Faro bomb, designed to prevent unintended detonation, three were either triggered by the fall or failed to engage. When the bomb hit the ground, a firing signal was sent to the nuclear core of the device, and it was only that final highly vulnerable switch that averted calamity.