10 Devastating Nuclear Events and Accidents
Nuclear weapons are the most destructive devices on earth. The technology used to create these weapons involves nuclear fusion reactions. The man who first developed the idea of a nuclear chain reaction was Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd. In 1934, Szilárd patented the idea of the atomic bomb. In 1939, he wrote a letter to Albert Einstein in search of Einstein’s signature. The letter resulted in the U.S. Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project assembled the most talented physicists from the United States, Great Britain, and Canada. The secret project was in response to atomic bomb developments in Nazi Germany. The Third Reich was in the process of creating a nuclear weapon. The Allies became well aware of the Nazi’s nuclear program on June 23, 1942 when the first major nuclear accident was recorded. A poorly developed nuclear reactor exploded in Leipzig, Germany.
The first successful detonation of a nuclear weapon was performed by the U.S. on July 16, 1945. The bomb was named Trinity and it was detonated southeast of Socorro, New Mexico. Since that time, thousands of nuclear tests have been carried out all over the world. With the majority coming from the five superpowers, including the United States, the former Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China. Many devastating nuclear accidents have occurred over the years. The details surrounding nuclear weapons programs fall under the highest security standards in all nations will the technology. When a major nuclear event occurs, limited information is released to the public. Many times, scientific studies are not conducted to measure the true radiation damage caused by a nuclear accident. This has caused confusion in reporting the true environmental damage of the world’s nuclear accidents. During the nuclear arms race of the 1950s and 60’s, many Broken Arrow events occurred and nuclear warheads were lost. A Broken Arrow is a nuclear accident that does not create the risk of a nuclear war.
10. The Demon Core
On August 21, 1945, an American physicist named Harry Daghlian made a critical mistake while performing neutron reflection experiments on a subcritical mass of plutonium. Daghlian accidently dropped one of the neutron-reflective tungsten carbide bricks on the core making it critical. The event produced a burst of neutron radiation that irradiated Daghlian. He died 25 days later.
On May 21, 1946, Canadian physicist Louis Slotin and other scientists were in a Los Alamos laboratory conducting an experiment that involved creating a fission reaction by placing two half-spheres of beryllium (a neutron reflector) around the same plutonium core. In the experiment, Slotin was holding a screwdriver separating the hemispheres when his hand slipped and the hemispheres of the beryllium reflector closed. This caused the plutonium core to become supercritical and it released an extremely high dose of radiation on the scientists. Slotin reacted very quickly and pulled the two halves apart, stopping the chain reaction, saving the lives of the seven other men in the laboratory. Louis Slotin died nine days later from acute radiation poisoning. The scientist assisting in the experiment received a high radiation dose, which caused serious injuries.
Following the accidents, the 6.2-kilogram (14 Ib) subcritical mass of plutonium was given the nickname The Demon Core. The two events and subsequent deaths were the only major nuclear accidents to occur during The Manhattan Project. The Demon core was used in the ABLE detonation test on July 1, 1946.
9. Goldsboro B-52 Crash
On January 24, 1961 an American B-52 bomber was on a 24-hour airborne alert mission over the Atlantic seaboard. The aircraft was carrying two Mark 39 nuclear weapons onboard. During the mission, the B-52 was scheduled to meet with a tanker for mid-air refueling. While the plane was being refueled, the B-52 captain, Major W.S. Tullock, was notified that his aircraft had a leak in its port wing fuel cell. The plane was directed to assume a holding pattern off the coast until the majority of fuel was used up. However, the captain soon reported that his plane had lost 37,000 pounds (17,000 kg) of fuel in three minutes. He was immediately ordered to land at Seymour Johnson Air Base, which is located in Goldsboro, North Carolina. As the plane descended to 10,000 feet, the pilots were no longer able to control the aircraft. The captain ordered the crew to eject, which they did at 9,000 feet (2,700 m). The plane broke apart as it spiraled to the ground and the nuclear weapons were separated from the craft.
The wreckage of the plane and its two nuclear warheads landed in a 2-square-mile (5.2 km2) area of tobacco and cotton farmland near Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five crewmen attempted to parachute to safety, but three died. One of the nuclear weapons discovered had become active. Five of the six arming devices on the nuclear warhead activated, causing it to carry out many of the steps needed to arm itself, such as the charging of the firing capacitors and the deployment of a retardation parachute. The pilot’s safe and arm switch was not activated preventing detonation. However, nuclear material was released into the atmosphere.
The second bomb plunged into a muddy field at around 700 miles per hour. It disintegrated and the bombs tail was discovered about 20 feet (6.1 m) under the earth. Some of the nuclear weapon was recovered, including the tritium bottle and all the plutonium. However, excavation was abandoned due to uncontrollable ground water flooding. Most of the thermonuclear stage, containing uranium, was left in the North Carolina ground. It is estimated to lie around 55 feet (17 m) below the earth. The Air Force purchased the land to prevent interference with the nuclear remnants.
8. Baneberry Blast
The Nevada Test Site is a U.S. Department of Energy reservation located in southeastern Nye County, Nevada, about 65 miles northwest of the city of Las Vegas. The site was established for the testing of nuclear devices on January 11, 1951. It is composed of approximately 1,350 sq mi (3,500 km2) of desert and mountainous terrain. Between 1951 and 1992, there were a total of 928 announced nuclear tests at Nevada Test Site, which included 828 underground explosions. Sixty-two of the underground tests included multiple, simultaneous nuclear detonations. The site was the primary testing location of American nuclear devices. About a third of the nuclear tests were conducted directly in aquifers, while others were well above the water table. When the final test was performed in 1992, the U.S. Energy Department estimated that more than 300 million curies of radiation remained in the area, making the site one of the most radioactively contaminated places in the U.S.
One of the most notable nuclear accidents at the Nevada Nuclear Site was the Baneberry blast which occurred on December 18, 1970, during the Operation Emery series of nuclear tests. The Baneberry bomb was detonated as planned at the bottom of a sealed vertical shaft 900 feet below the Earth’s surface. However, after the explosion, the bombs energy cracked the soil of the ground in an unexpected way. This caused a plume of hot gases and radioactive dust to be released three and a half minutes after ignition. The reaction continued for many hours.
As a result of the accident, government officials had nuclear fallout rain down on them. It was estimated that 6% of the explosion’s radioactive products were released into the atmosphere. The plume released 6.7 MCi of radioactive material, including Iodine-131 and a high ratio of noble gases. The winter weather did not help the situation and the hot cloud was carried to three separate altitudes and dispersed through the jet stream. This caused radionuclide-laden snow to fall in Lassen and Sierra counties in northeast California. The radioactive snow was also reported in northern Nevada, southern Idaho and some eastern sections of Oregon and Washington State. The explosion was felt in Canada, the Gulf of Mexico, and over the Atlantic Ocean. After the accident, a six month moratorium was placed on the U.S. nuclear testing program.
7. Soviet Submarine K-219
The K-219 submarine was a ballistic missile sub used by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It carried 16 missiles equipped with an estimated 34 nuclear warheads. On October 3, 1986, the submarine was on patrol 680 miles (1,090 km) northeast of Bermuda when the seal in one of the missile hatch covers failed. This allowed seawater to leak into the missile tube and react with residue from the missile’s liquid fuel, producing nitric acid. The K-219 suffered a subsequent explosion and fire in the missile tube.
The Soviet Navy claimed that the leak was caused by a collision with the submarine USS Augusta. However, the United States Navy has challenged the claim because the K-219 had previously experienced a similar problem, and one of the submarines missile tubes was disabled and welded shut because of the accident. After the explosion occurred in silo six, the remains of the RSM-25 rocket and its two nuclear warheads were ejected into the sea. The vessel quickly surfaced to permit its twin nuclear reactors to be shut down. The submarine was then strapped to a Soviet freighter, and an attempt to tow the vessel was made. However, the flooding had reached a point beyond recovery and the K-219 sank to the bottom of the Hatteras Abyssal Plain, in 18,000 feet (5,500 m) of water.
The K-219′s full arsenal of nuclear weapons and reactors went down with the vessel. In 1988, the Soviet hydrographic research ship Keldysh positioned itself over the wreck and reported that the submarine was sitting in the upright position on the bottom of the ocean. It had broken into sections and it appeared that several missile silo hatches had been forced open, and the missiles, along with the nuclear warheads they contained, were gone. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev privately communicated news of the disaster to U.S. President Ronald Reagan before publicly acknowledging the incident. The K-219 Soviet submarine nuclear accident was one of the most controversial events of the Cold War.