7 Nuclear Weapon Screw-Ups You Won't Believe We Survived
From the 1950s up through the early 1990s, the specter of nuclear war cast a shadow over the world like a giant, gloomy mushroom tattoo. Hollywood and our own morbid imaginations came up with any number of scenarios that would wipe out humanity in a series of blinding flashes: robots, Russian and American policies of mutually assured destruction. But Kubrick was probably closest when he imagined the nuclear era as a game of poker between cocky, absent-minded lunatics. Only he probably didn't go far enough. After all, he could have never imagined ...
During the Cold War, American and Soviet military leaders temporarily forgot why nuclear bombing yourself was a bad idea. The "nuclear weapons tests" conducted on home soil were officially for research purposes. In reality, each explosion was the military equivalent of punching your fist into your open hand and pointing at the guy whose ass is totally grass.
Anyone close enough to wonder why it was suddenly so windy and blinding were told the explosions were being set off at a safe distance. For instance, Area 51, the army base in the middle of the Nevada desert (where conspiracy theorists believe the Army is reverse-engineering UFOs), was actually one of the most active nuclear test sites in the world. Russia was able to set off their weapons in the similarly desolate region of the country known as "the part that's not Moscow."
And letting the fallout get blown off to the part that's not Russia.
But as technology advanced and the bombs grew bigger and more explode-y, the idea that there was such a thing as a "safe distance" was rendered ridiculous. For instance, according to the Seattle Times, "over the years the atmospheric tests conducted over America exposed a quarter-million assembled troops, plus communities downwind in Nevada and Utah, to an estimated 12 billion curies of radiation, or 148 times the release from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear-plant meltdown."
Being the more pragmatic of the superpowers, in 1961 the Soviets decided to get all of their reckless endangerment out of the way with one test -- the Tsar Bomba, thusly named because of the Soviet tendency to put "tsar" in front of anything that's stupidly big.
The Tsar Tank was to regular tanks what Ferris wheels are to regular tanks.
Rather than trying to keep pace with America's increasingly precise guided missile delivery systems, Russia's solution was to build and test a bomb that was so big that aim literally didn't matter. It was like losing an archery competition and throwing a hand grenade at the target to remind the winner just how little aim mattered in the face of your sheer ass-slapping lunacy.
The Tzar Bomba was so impractically big that creating a parachute to slow its descent disrupted the Soviet textile industry. If you're wondering why they needed a parachute in the first place, it's because no matter how high you dropped it from, the resulting explosion would reach up into the sky and disintegrate your plane unless you gave yourself some kind of head start. In fact, the bomb was originally supposed to be twice as big as it ended up being, but they realized that it would be impossible to drop such a bomb from an airplane without killing everyone aboard. Also, it probably would have cracked the earth like an egg. Who the hell knows?
"If we don't try to destroy all life on earth, we'll never know if we can."
The scaled-down version of the bomb was still big enough to cause a fireball that was seen 600 miles away, meaning if it was dropped over Manhattan, you would have been able to watch New York City burn from Virginia. Windowpanes would have been broken down through South Carolina. Even though they dropped Tsar Bomba over a deserted area in the Arctic Circle, wooden houses were destroyed and stone houses had their roofs blown off hundreds of miles away. The shock wave was so extreme that even with the parachute giving them a 20-mile head start, the plane that dropped it was knocked into a free fall for a half-mile before catching itself and continuing to get out of Dodge.
Tsar Bomba turned heads worldwide. The insane cost of producing it and everyone's terrified expressions combined to make it the biggest bomb anyone has ever dropped.
The code name came from the Old Testament passage in which enemies are instructed to turn their swords into gardening weapons and garden together instead of killing each other. Applying that logic to nuclear weapons, the United States posed the question: Why use carefully placed dynamite when you could create a new harbor in seconds with nuclear weapons? Edward Teller, the American who invented the hydrogen bomb, suggested lining up 26 of them across the Isthmus of Panama for the purpose of instantly creating a second Panama Canal. He never got Panama to go along with it. A 1958 plan to detonate a nuclear bomb in Alberta to collect oil sands did get the approval of the Alberta government, but was vetoed by Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker for being crazier than a fist full of shit.
"And I know what that feels like -- I shook hands with Nixon once."
The plan was really just a way for the military to get around the looming 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which made it illegal to test weapons in the upper atmosphere and in the ocean. The Sedan Test was Operation Plowshare's second test and it was, in scientific terms, a son of a bitch. The bomb was placed underground in a remote section of the Nevada desert in the hopes that nobody would notice. But the nuclear bomb erupted out of the earth like a pissed-off radioactive volcano, releasing the seismic equivalent of a 4.75 earthquake and launching 6.6 million cubic yards of radioactive earth into the atmosphere. How much is that? Here's a picture from the observation deck of the quarter-mile-wide crater the explosion left behind.
"Can anyone else feel their sperm dying?"
And here's an aerial view of the crater. The little speck in the lower right hand corner is the observation deck.
Turns out nuclear weapons make a righteous skate park.
The land that used to be inside that crater, now radioactive and floating around in the atmosphere, had to come down eventually. Much of it fell over the Midwest, with some counties in Iowa recording higher levels of radiation than any county in Nevada. When it was all said and done, Sedan had exposed more innocent people to radiation than any other weapons test in American history. Just like the Old Testament had envisioned.
And making the bitchinest stock footage ever.
As was often the case, the two powers fed off of each other's dipshittery. Seeing that America was getting to blow up its Western states under the guise of testing construction equipment, the Soviet Union decided they wanted glow-in-the-dark canals and harbors, too. And so in 1965, the Soviet military exploded the base of the Chagan River to test the lake-making properties of apocalyptic weaponry.
Welcome to Lake Bearded Face of Satan!
The blast made a hole 328 feet deep and well over 1,000 feet wide. Radiation, unlike the American tests, stayed pretty much in the neighborhood, although some did get over Japan's airspace. It did successfully create Lake Chagan, which is still highly radioactive today, though people now swim in it because they're Russian and therefore don't give a shit about anything. Still, when compared with our radioactive mud rain, the Russians probably won that round.
"Wow, a radioactive lake. Nice. We'll send you a postcard when we get back from our vacation. TO THE MOON."
Operation Fuck the Sky!
A lot of nuclear testing was focused on space. As far as we can tell, this was for the same reason some people in their late twenties have Thundercats fetishes: We were discovering our nuclear capabilities at the same time that we were spending a lot of time thinking about space.
Initially America lucked out because all of the atom bombs fired into the high atmosphere didn't really do anything. Instead of leaving well enough alone, the decision was made to up the caliber. Instead of WWII style atom bombs, in 1962, a hydrogen bomb was dispatched 250 miles into the air from the Pacific Ocean to the Southeast of Hawaii. The most powerful weapon in the world at the time was going to be used to see if a vital aspect of our survival could be messed with. As the Honolulu Advertiser would confirm the following day, the test, named Starfish Prime, was a success.
That warm, patriotic feeling is actually your organs slowly cooking.
The detonation released an enormous electromagnetic pulse that knocked out power in Hawaii 870 miles away and wrecked one-third of all the satellites orbiting the earth at that time. Basically, unless a satellite was hiding behind the earth, it was rendered useless.
Down on earth, the flash could be seen as far as 2,000 miles away. Worst of all from the military's perspective, it didn't fuck up the magnetosphere: it made it briefly thicker.
This is where we're hauled off to become human batteries, right?
Having achieved our probable primary objective of convincing the Russians we were operating on pure Bond-villain logic, the Soviet Union contacted the American foreign ministry in September of the next year to request that nuclear weapons in outer space be banned. On the spectrum of requests that probably shouldn't need to be made, this ranks somewhere around "Don't turn the ocean into lava." It was such a strange, unprecedented request that it took five years to ratify, by which time the U.S. had fired an additional 105 nukes into the upper atmosphere.
"Seriously though, keep an eye on those Ruskies! They want to destroy the world."
America's Accidental Self-Bombing
For decades, Americans pissed their pants over the possibility that they or their livelihoods would go out in a flash. One American family really got a taste of what that would be like. March 11, 1958 was a normal day at the Gregg residence. Bill Gregg was in his tool shed. His wife was out on the front porch sewing. His daughters were in a play house their Dad had constructed with his bare hands. His son was in the tool shed with his father, learning how to be a goddamned red-blooded American man. Somewhere in the distance an eagle shrieked as it rode an American buffalo to an apple-pie-eating contest at a baseball field.
All this quintessential American scene needs is a flag-waving child and a massive nuclear weapon.
Unbeknownst to the Greggs, seven miles above them a B-47E bomber was transporting an atomic bomb from Savannah, Georgia, to England, and things were not going according to plan. A warning message informed the pilot that the pin that secured the nuclear bomb in place hadn't been set properly, and bombardier Bruce Kulka was sent to check it out. The bomb bay didn't leave much room for anything other than the bomb, so Kulka had to stick his arm down into the bay and literally grope around like a blind man, searching for the unset pin. Upon feeling what he thought was the pin, and was actually the emergency release lever, the bomb dropped to the belly of the plane onto the bomb bay doors, with Kulka riding it like Slim Pickens waving a cowboy hat and hiyaing (ask your parents). Thinking fast, Kulka grabbed onto something inside the plane just as the bomb bay doors gave way, saving his life, and ensuring that the only nuclear bomb ever dropped on America didn't kill anyone.
Though it certainly made an impression.
Fortunately, nuclear weapons don't detonate on impact, so the State of South Carolina wasn't wiped off the map. Also fortunate for the Greggs, the radioactive materials were not inside the bomb at the time of the drop. Still, the detonation managed to wreck their house and their car and injure the entire family of five. Somewhere between six and 14 chickens were killed, which isn't bad for a weapon that technically wasn't loaded.
The Greggs received the incredible compensation of $44,000 and were forced to sue the U.S. government for increased damages, eventually cranking their reward all the way up to $54,000 minus lawyer's fees. Today the site is still marked by a crater 20 feet deep and 75 feet wide.
It's since filled with water, so we guess it's now an old fission hole. Ha! Ha! Ha!
Between May and December 1957, the U.S. military began a series of war games meant to simulate a Soviet invasion of California. For added authenticity, they decided to conduct these games in the vicinity of an actual nuclear explosion, presumably because the local fireworks depot was all out of dry ice and smoke bombs. As many as 16,000 soldiers maneuvered dangerously close to the blast sites of various atomic bombs for tests with names like Troop Test Smokey, which was presumably launched by its adorable bear mascot. All in, a total of 250,000 people were involved in the entire operation.
Alright guys, now charge at that nuclear explosion and ... see what happens?
The jaunty music makes this nuclear dust cloud much less horrifying.
As seen in this footage used in the documentary The Atomic Cafe, the government managed to get the troops to run at the blast by supplying them with completely inaccurate information about nuclear weapon radiation. So even though this 1951 film indicates that it was well known that alpha particle radiation could enter the body through openings in the skin like the nose and mouth, an interview with soldiers immediately after the test has one soldier smiling while explaining "I got a mouth full of dirt!"
"They should stick that shit on chips, it's really salty."
The toll of all this Red Dawning was later estimated at 38,000 thyroid tumors developing and 1,900 people dying, but, once again, that was determined only after fighting the government in court and gathering overwhelming evidence. It wasn't until the 1970s that the government began offering compensation to anyone.
Oh, also 1,200 pigs were subjected to extreme, immediately life-threatening radiation as well. We would have mentioned that earlier in the article, but we didn't want any of you animal-lover types to read that first and let it be your whole impression of the entry.
It's like watching a beautiful sunset. On the surface of Venus.
Fan the Flames
In October of 1962, America and Russia were in the thick of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As Russian ships closed in on the American blockade of Cuba, the world was essentially a giant powder keg with President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev each holding a lighter. The White House put a number of restrictions on its military in hopes of preventing any sparks that could ignite a full-blown war. One of the restrictions was an order that all pilots stay at least 100 miles away from Soviet airspace.
However, on October 26, 1962 (the same day Vasili Arkhipov saved the world in a sub off Cuba), one American U-2 was flying an intelligence mission over the Arctic. Due to magnetic anomalies, flying over the top of the world is tricky business. The instruments don't work, so pilots at the time were forced to rely on an old navigational tool, the sextant.
Yep, a pilot flying so high that he can see the curvature of the earth was using the same instrument as an 18th century pirate.
While the primitive system had worked in the past, with the fate of the world hanging in in the balance, the shit took this opportunity to hit the fan. The pilot lost his way and ended up over Siberia, deep in Soviet territory. As Soviet Migs raced to intercept the plane, the U.S. sent out F-102A fighters to escort the lost U-2 home. For good measure, the Air Force armed the American fighter jets with nuclear missiles and gave the pilots clearance to launch them as they saw fit.
The U-2 made it out of Soviet airspace safely, but for a good 15 minutes, while everyone was watching the world almost end in Cuba, the fate of humanity was being controlled by a handful of fighter pilots, who are notoriously cocky, erratic loose cannons who have trouble following orders.
Admittedly, we learned everything we know about fighter pilots from Top Gun.
Misplacing the Keys to the End of the World
The good ol' USA is one of the few countries who have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world a couple times over. America controls this "Hammer of God" power via an electronic device, known as the football, carried by the president all the time. To activate the football, you need to first type in codes, which are kept on a card nicknamed the "biscuit," which is also kept with the president at all times. Without the biscuit, the president is essentially carrying around a bag of useless wires.
And without biscuits he's gonna be grizzlin' all night.
While Bill Clinton is notoriously bright, he's also notoriously absent-minded, and is an admitted ADD sufferer. We've covered before how he actually lost the football for a few minutes, but that's only because we hadn't heard about the time Clinton actually lost the biscuit for months. If that sounds like sort of a big deal to you, you're not alone. Clinton and his staff realized what a huge deal this was, and lied about having lost them to the military. An aid told the general in charge of checking on the biscuit that Clinton had it, but was in a very important meeting. The general said he'd wait, at which point he was eventually let in to see the president, who told him he'd left it upstairs. Eventually, like a student caught without his homework, Clinton came clean that he had misplaced the biscuit and that America was defenseless against nuclear attack.
"Hey, at least I told the truth this time. I totally almost fucked our country."
In Clinton's defense, the Cold War was over, so really who cares if you can launch a bunch of missiles at Russia. The same can't be said for Jimmy Carter, who allegedly left the biscuit in his suit when it was sent out for dry-cleaning. Even the hawkish Republicans have been known to lose track. In 1975, while presiding over a Peace Conference in Paris, the White House was too busy puzzling over that wacky long French bread and misplaced the Nuclear Doomsday Football. Ford's press secretary recalls, "It was one of those things: 'Didn't you bring the football? No, I thought you had the football.'"
When briefing the newly elected President Carter on the use of the football, a military attache opened the case to show the president the suitcase that can destroy the world. Much to his horror, inside the case full of sensitive electronic gadgetry somebody in the Ford administration had placed an empty beer can and a "large condom used by horse breeders."
There's nothing like a little drunken bestiality to go along with your apocalypse.
After WWII, it didn't take long for the Brits to build their own nuclear arsenal, but the English were always serious about their WMD and always kept them under the most intense security. In fact, the Brits never even had codes for their nuclear weapons. They had something much more secure: an English gentleman's honor. Their military never included fail-safes on their nuclear weapons, and kept them secured behind a bike lock. Asked why they were so trusting, officials gave the most British answer ever: "It would be invidious to suggest ... that senior Service officers may, in difficult circumstances, act in defiance of their clear orders."
"Oh my ... that's very poor form."
For more ways planet earth was (and is) endangered, check out Nuke the Moon: 5 Certifiably Insane Cold War Projects and 5 Ways The World Could End (You'd Never See Coming).
And stop by LinkSTORM to see Cracked's WMD facility.
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