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uclear devices are the most dangerous weapons that mankind has built and used to date, their mere existence succeeding in making the two superpowers of the Cold War reluctant to use these warheads to avoid assured mutual destruction. Given the destructive power of a nuclear device, their handling tends to be as sensitive as possible. However, errors may occur. Specifically, nuclear bombs can be lost by their personnel. In the jargon used by the US Army, these situations are called “broken arrow”; the term refers to an event in which a nuclear device is involved but which does not raise the risk of a nuclear war.

The first such event occurred in 1950 when a B-36 Pacemaker was forced to detonate a Mark IV nuclear device that lacked a uranium nucleus above British Columbia and Canada. The crew members who survived the event said they had to detonate the nuclear device due to sleep problems in accordance with military protocols.

A failed drill

This first “broken arrow” incident took place during an exercise that was supposed to simulate a nuclear bomb attack on a city in the Soviet Union. To prepare for a possible confrontation with Soviet forces, the U.S. Army Strategic Air Command (SAC) has asked the Atomic Energy Commission to approve an exercise to use a real nuclear device.

The military received the necessary approvals for the experiment, including a nuclear device without a plutonium nucleus but containing uranium and conventional explosives, which was to be transported from Alaska to Montana, San Francisco, to the destination of Texas Carswell Air Force Base.

P-36 Peacemaker (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately for the 17 crew members, the exercise did not go according to the plan devised by the SAC, and shortly after takeoff, the ice began to form on the surface of the aircraft, which led to the failure of three engines, respectively a sudden decrease of flight altitude. Because of this, the captain of the mission decided to detonate the nuclear device over the coast of British Columbia, in accordance with security protocols that provided for the destruction of any secret equipment so as not to fall into the hands of enemies.

After dropping the device, the plane continued to fall, and the crew had to use parachutes to escape alive. Shortly afterward, US and Canadian military forces began searching for the crew, rescuing 12 of its 17 members. The U.S. military has said that after the crew left the plane, it ended up in Pacific waters, but as evidenced by an expedition that took place three years later, its remains were identified on Mount Kologet. It was not until 1954 that an Air Force team managed to reach the wreckage of the plane and destroy it to avoid divulging American technological secrets.

The accident in 1950 was the first of its kind in history, but, unfortunately, it was not the last. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union lost another 23 nuclear warheads with the potential of a nuclear explosion that could have started World War 3 and ended humanity. You would be scared to know the number of close calls that occurred during the Cold War toward human extinction.

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