Ever since they arrived on the scene in 1945, nuclear weapons have been involved in a number of accidents. It includes incidents like accidental criticality, non-nuclear detonation, nuclear test accidents, partial meltdown, release of nuclear materials and subsequent contamination, etc.
What is even more concerning is that some nuclear weapons have been lost and are still not recovered. Such cases usually happened when planes or other vessels carrying nuclear weapons met with an accident. To understand the risks, here’s a quick look at some of the missing nukes that are yet to be recovered.
USAF B-47 Stratojet, AF Ser. No. 52-534 (1956) – This plane was lost over the Mediterranean Sea when it was passing through dense clouds. It had taken off from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida and was scheduled to arrive at an overseas base. The incident occurred when the plane was flying at around 14,000 feet. The plane was carrying two nuclear weapon cores, both of which were lost. Neither the plane nor the cores have been recovered till date.
USAF C-124 (1957) – This plane was carrying three nuclear bombs during a routine flight. When pilots experienced loss of power, they were forced to jettison the weapons over the Atlantic Ocean. The nuclear bombs have not been found till date.
Tybee Island mid-air collision (1958) – This was a mid-air collision between a USAF B-47 bomber and a USAF F-86 Sabre. The incident occurred in Savannah, Georgia when the planes were taking part in a simulated combat practice. The B-47 was carrying a Mark 15 Mod 0 nuclear bomb. After the crash, the bomb had to be jettisoned over the Atlantic Ocean. The bomb remains untraceable.
Philippine Sea A-4 incident (1965) – A B43 nuclear bomb on-board U.S. Navy A-4E Skyhawk aircraft was lost when the plane fell off from aircraft carrier Ticonderoga. The incident occurred in Philippine Sea. The aircraft carrier was on its journey from Vietnam to Yokosuka, Japan. The pilot, plane and the nuclear bomb were never recovered.
U.S. submarine USS Scorpion (SSN-589) (1968) – This submarine mysteriously sank when it was on its journey towards Norfolk, Virginia from Rota, Spain. Investigators were not able to identify the reason why the submarine sank. All 99 crew members are considered to have died in the accident. The submarine with its two W34 nuclear warheads was lost.
What are the risks of missing nukes?
Finding these missing nukes will be a tough task. At the time they were lost, authorities had already carried out a thorough search. Finding the missing nukes will not be easy for anyone, as their exact location is not available. Over the years, corrosion would have made these nukes unusable. Even if someone finds them, they won’t be able to use it in the way it was meant to be used.
The only major risk is the accidental release of nuclear material. This could happen when corrosion enters deep inside the nuclear weapon. Release of nuclear material will lead to contamination of surrounding areas. It could create serious health issues for people who are exposed to radiation. The radiation can also harm local flora and fauna.
At a personal level, you face very limited risk from missing nukes. The probability is pretty low that you will ever come in contact with missing nukes or get contaminated from the release of nuclear material.