Four close calls highlight history of nuclear goofs

The Guardian, LONDON

Thu, May 01, 2014 - Page 7

These are some of the incidents that illustrate how close the world has come to accidental nuclear apocalypse:

WASHINGTON, JUNE 1980

A faulty computer chip triggered a nuclear attack warning on the US, giving the impression that more than 2,000 Soviet missiles were on the way.

CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS

In October 1962, four nuclear-armed Soviet submarines were deployed in the Sargasso Sea at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. US warships had warned Moscow that they would be practicing dropping depth charges, but the message did not reach the submarines.

With his communications cut off and believing himself under attack, one commander ordered a launch of nuclear warheads, declaring: “We’re going to blast them now.”

He was persuaded to desist by his second-in-command.

SOVIET UNION, 1983

Just after midnight on Sept. 25, 1983, an alert sounded at a Soviet satellite early warning station.

The data suggested five intercontinental ballistic missiles were heading toward the country.

Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich defied protocol by not reporting the incident to his superior, gambling that it was a false alarm.

It turned out that sunlight glinting off US territory had confused the satellite.

RUSSIA, 1995

On Jan. 25, 1995, scientists in Norway launched a Black Brant rocket to study the aurora borealis over the Svalbard region in the Arctic Ocean.

They warned Moscow, but the message never reached the radar operators at the Russian early warning stations, who mistook the rocket for an incoming Trident submarine-launched missile.

Then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin was discussing a response to the perceived threat with his top military commander when the rocket fell to Earth outside of Soviet territory.