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Yes, atomic bomb that fell in US almost went off, says document

An H-bomb that accidentally plunged into a North Carolina field in 1961 came far too close to actually exploding, according to a secret document newly published by the Guardian.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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"Yeah. It would have been bad news -- in spades." Screenshot by Edward Moyer/CNET

Newly declassified documents are on everyone's mind these days, as are inadequate safeguards on national-security programs. But the latest secret doc to see daylight makes the NSA's surveillance missteps look rather like child's play -- at least in comparison to nuking your own country.

That's right, the Guardian reports that the US nearly took out a nice chunk of the Eastern seaboard in 1961 when a B-52 bomber broke apart in midair over North Carolina and dropped two hydrogen bombs -- one of which came one electrical switch away from detonating.

The incident has been talked about for years, but this is the first time this secret document discussing the matter has been published in declassified form, the Guardian says.

The document -- obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by journalist Eric Schlosser (whom some may know as the author of "Fast Food Nation") -- shows that Parker Jones, a supervisor of nuclear safety at Sandia National Laboratories, determined in a report on the accident that "one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe." Jones found that three other safety mechanisms in the bomb failed to operate.

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

Deadly fruit: The fallen H-bomb in a North Carolina field. US Air Force/Wikimedia Commons

A Wikipedia entry on the accident notes that the explosive power of each 3.8-megaton bomb exceeded "the yield of all munitions (outside of testing) ever detonated in the history of the world by TNT, gunpowder, conventional bombs, and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts combined." It also says the bombs had 100 percent kill zones of 17 miles. The Guardian writes, "had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and as far north as New York City -- putting millions of lives at risk."

The second bomb plunged into a field and disintegrated, according to the Wikipedia writeup, which notes that "most of the thermonuclear stage [of that bomb], containing uranium, was left in situ" and that "The Army Corps of Engineers purchased a 400-foot circular easement over the buried component."

The Christian Science Monitor notes that "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."

Schlosser, whose book "Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety" has just been published, told the Guardian: "The US government has consistently tried to withhold information from the American people in order to prevent questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy. We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here's one that very nearly did."

Withholding information from the American people to prevent questions being asked about policy? Does that sound familiar at all?

As reported on Newsobserver.com, last year a plaque was placed in Eureka, N.C., to commemorate the crash of the B-52. The last surviving crew member is shown on the left in the photo. The Newsobserver story is worth reading; click the photo-credit line below to do so. Josh Shaffer/newsobserver.com