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DoD Report On 32 "Nuclear Accidents"

CmdrTaco posted about 4 years ago | from the i-meant-to-do-that dept.

The Military 241

natebjones writes "Remember the time the US Air Force accidentally dropped a nuclear bomb on a family in South Carolina? [This DoD report lists] that and 31 other nuclear accidents including: nuclear bombs inadvertently falling through bomb bay doors; the accidental firing of a retrorocket on an ICBM; the vast dispersal of radioactive debris; and the loss of enriched fissile material and nuclear bombs (which are 'still out there somewhere')."

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241 comments

Oh boy. (-1, Offtopic)

Pojut (1027544) | about 4 years ago | (#31733150)

I remember that, for a period of time, I had a nuclear accident in my pants every week.

Habanero chile Tuesday's FTL (or win, depending on how you look at it)

Keep in mind... (4, Interesting)

DesScorp (410532) | about 4 years ago | (#31733216)

... while "nuclear weapons accident" sounds scary, it almost always involves a malfunction or mistake that can't set off a detonation. It's pretty hard to split an atom, which is why we poured billions into learning how during the Manhattan Project. Tom Clancy's book The Sum of All Fears had a scenario where terrorists acquired an Israeli warhead lost in the desert during the 1973 war. But almost all of the "lost" warheads from USAF are in the ocean, where they can do no harm.

Re:Keep in mind... (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733238)

Where they can do no harm, until they do.

Re:Keep in mind... (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733452)

I'll never have a girlfriend, until I do.

Hey, I like your logic.

Re:Keep in mind... (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733744)

You never liked my logic, until you did!

Re:Keep in mind... (4, Insightful)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#31733268)

It's pretty hard to split an atom, which is why we poured billions into learning how during the Manhattan Project.

True enough that there are way more ways for an accident to not result in a full detonation than to do so. But the above statement is a bit misleading: thanks to the Manhattan project, we now have devices lying around that are designed to split atoms. (Itself, not difficult. Nature does it every second of every day.) Comparing the probability of an accident yielding a nuclear explosion to the pre-Manhattan odds is dubious.

Re:Keep in mind... (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733292)

Oh, well if Nature does it, it must be easy.

Re:Keep in mind... (4, Funny)

Thanshin (1188877) | about 4 years ago | (#31733580)

Oh, well if Nature does it, it must be easy.

And healthy!

Try our new, 100% natural, splitting uranium body lotion!

Re:Keep in mind... (4, Interesting)

commodore64_love (1445365) | about 4 years ago | (#31733936)

This conversation reminds me of a conversation I was having with an Amway rep about buying some kind of vitamins or lotion:

"It's all natural, so it's perfectly safe."

"Yeah... well... cyanide is also natural and it's definitely not safe."

The Amway person frowned and walked away. He didn't want to hear any negativity that might pull him out of his good-feeling cult group.

Re:Keep in mind... (5, Interesting)

DesScorp (410532) | about 4 years ago | (#31733534)

"thanks to the Manhattan project, we now have devices lying around that are designed to split atoms."

Except that it's still not that easy. Its very likely that the mechanisms surrounding the radioactive cores were damaged during the drops, so most will be unusable anyway. Even if they're perfectly preserved, you still have to find them... and considering that the combined efforts of the Air Force and Navy couldn't do so with advanced diving and search technology, good luck with some terrorist group doing so a hundred miles off the coast. And even if they had the unbelievable fortune of finding a device, they'd still have to recover it, and arm it.

Re:Keep in mind... (2, Insightful)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#31733590)

You're assuming that this article is talking about lost (ie, stolen) materials. It's about accidents, so you're arguing the wrong case to start with. And yes, it's more likely that a device will be too damaged to properly explode in an accident, but given enough accidents, odds are pretty good that at least a partial nuclear detonation could occur. Failing that, a blast of the conventional explosives (which has happened) could scatter some rather nasty radioactive material about, possibly in a residential area.

It's about accidents (1)

JDmetro (1745882) | about 4 years ago | (#31733952)

Car crashes stopped being called accidents (now they a called MVC's motor vehicle collisions) because there is no such thing as a accident. Just carelessness and negligence.

Re:Keep in mind... (1)

dunezone (899268) | about 4 years ago | (#31734118)

You still need to recover the lost weapon or materials. If the accidents occurred off coast, say even 50-100 miles, were looking at depths of water of a couple hundred feet minimum.

Now depending on the depth of the water it will take either the best diving equipment and divers or a submersible sub / robotic vessel. Were talking millions of dollars to perform this recovery with an experienced crew and no one spilling the beans.

If the military which has pretty much unlimited resources cant recover the material then I doubt a privately funded operation with limited resources and limited technology could find it, let alone recover it.

Re:Keep in mind... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733768)

considering that the combined efforts of the Air Force and Navy couldn't do so with advanced diving and search technology, good luck with some terrorist group doing so a hundred miles off the coast

Terrorist schmerrorist. Half of James Bond's opponents have this capability.

As for "advanced technology" -- yeah, advanced technology in pre-1980 terms. You gotta keep on lookin', using the latest tech, until you find it. What America could barely afford to do 30 years ago, a poor country like Haiti can afford to do with a Google search.

Re:Keep in mind... (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733812)

What America could barely afford to do 30 years ago, a poor country like Haiti can afford to do with a Google search.

Pa-lease, those niggers can't even keep their buildings from falling down. You think they can find something on the ocean floor?

Re:Keep in mind... (3, Interesting)

digitaldrunkenmonk (1778496) | about 4 years ago | (#31733632)

The problem with bombs that have laying about for decades is that they decompose and lose some reactivity. They still pose a danger due to the conventional explosives they contain and the radioactive material, but past their shelf life they will not result in a catastrophic explosion and will release their contents relatively slowly.

What would be interesting to see is if the old bombs that have been left around have maintained the perfect symmetry required to properly compress the plutonium and ignite the nuclear fire; otherwise the ensuing explosion will be weak compared to the optimum yield, if it can occur at all. If critical mass is not met, an explosion will not occur on the scales liked to a proper nuclear blast. An explosion will still occur, maybe, but it will be trivial in terms of the actual damage done by air pressure versus radioactive contamination from the remaining fuel.

Re:Keep in mind... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31734018)

Nature does it every second of every day

Not really true. Although radioactive decay is common, high energy nuclear fission reactions rarely (if ever) occur naturally.

Re:Keep in mind... (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733276)

Whereas the leftover warheads from the former USSR........well, they're not lost, I'm sure that former officials in Russia know exactly who they sold them to.

What are the terrorists waiting for then? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733612)

I mean, if some terrorists have paid a hefty sum for them, why wouldn't they use them ASAP instead of waiting until they're discovered? Especially since it isn't all that unlikely that if any officials in Russia have indeed sold nukes, they might get second thoughts about what they've done and speak up, if their conscience can't take it anymore.

Re:What are the terrorists waiting for then? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733776)

Who's to say terrorists bought them? Perhaps a hostile government was the buyer, (North Korea? Iran? a few others?) Secondly, who's to say what they bought was _fully functional_? Also, one shouldn't underestimate other nations' counterintelligence operations, it may well be that if a terror group DID get their hands on such weapons, they haven't been able to deliver the thing to it's intended target as yet. Granted, alot of "what if's", but still, worth considering.

Re:What are the terrorists waiting for then? (1)

HungryHobo (1314109) | about 4 years ago | (#31734244)

You think the politicians would keep quiet about catching terrorists with nukes?
You'd be able to hear the screams of "WE WERE RIGHT!!!" from states away.

Re:Keep in mind... (1)

onepoint (301486) | about 4 years ago | (#31733748)

while I am sure that you are correct. The advantage of this is that there is most likely a very interesting tracking device and at the right time, the codes for that tracking device will be sold ( or exchanged for a favor ) and the weapon can be dealt with.

again this is a simple idea, but I would not be surprised that this part of the play.

( using the results of diplomacy during 9/11, I recall an ambassador saying "while we feel for the pain and suffering for this incident, we will extract special concessions from the USA if they want our services )

"where they can do no harm" (2, Insightful)

circletimessquare (444983) | about 4 years ago | (#31733300)

right, because no one would bother looking for them

you lack imagination. plenty of other people don't lack imagination, and plenty of them mean you harm. so make up for your imagination gap, or you will someday suffer for it

Re:"where they can do no harm" (1)

FlyingBishop (1293238) | about 4 years ago | (#31733868)

No really, no one will bother looking for them. It would be easier to steal them from a US military silo than get them off the ocean floor.

like i said (2, Insightful)

circletimessquare (444983) | about 4 years ago | (#31734040)

you have no imagination

just because something is difficult or improbable, doesn't mean it won't get done. in fact, it is improbable events, with major implications, that pretty much define the whole game. from politics, to economics, to military campaigns, to history itself:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory [wikipedia.org]

The Black Swan Theory is used by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain the existence and occurrence of high-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations. Unlike the philosophical "black swan problem", the "Black Swan Theory" (capitalized) refers only to unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence and their dominant role in history. Such events are considered extreme outliers.

the point is this: don't worry about every improbable event, but DO worry about improbable events that radically change the game. some improbable events have extremely huge consequences. know them. make contingencies around them. good military intelligence is all about their analysis

our entire historical narrative is pretty much a litany of black swans. from the assassination of the archduke of austria to the collapse of lehman brothers: we talk about these historical events as inevitable. but thats all argument after the fact, hindsight, that's easy. however, shortly before lehman's collapse, or franz ferdinand's little trip to sarajevo, no one was seriously predicting anything remotely like what was about to happen, and yet these events changed absolutely everything

so you worry about the black swans. you worry about nukes sitting on the seabed that "nobody" will find

the black swans control your fate, my fate, the fate of the entire world

Re:like i said (1)

FlyingBishop (1293238) | about 4 years ago | (#31734290)

I have an imagination. What you're missing is that there are very likely places a hypothetical could get functional nukes, and the bottom of the ocean is not one of them. Could it happen? Yes. But when it does happen, the nuke will probably come from Russia or one of the new and growing number of nuclear-capable states intentionally selling a nuke, not from someone digging a defunct waterlogged nuke off the ocean floor.

Re:Keep in mind... (4, Insightful)

Paladin2ez (619723) | about 4 years ago | (#31733318)

Yes, there may be no detonation, but even a low-level atomic weapon having its high explosives going off is good enough to irradiate a good-sized area. Now imagine the impact of that weapon that set off it's high explosives, in mid-air, over a large metropolis. Dirty bombs are just as much of a pain in the ass. The destruction isn't wide spread, but you're still not going to want to live there. Actually, in the end, the economic and social damage may even be greater in the long run.

Re:Keep in mind... (1)

paeanblack (191171) | about 4 years ago | (#31733838)

Now imagine the impact of that weapon that set off it's high explosives, in mid-air, over a large metropolis

A mid-air impact?

Yeah, for some reason, the Air Force might decide to transport nuclear weapons over a large metropolis, have a release accident, and have the bomb strike another aircraft, which happens to somehow set off the conventional explosives.

Then again, there is a 50-year old nuclear reactor just down the road. 200,000 people live within one mile of it. I still sleep peacefully at night.

Re:Keep in mind... (4, Insightful)

Shakrai (717556) | about 4 years ago | (#31733970)

Now imagine the impact of that weapon that set off it's high explosives, in mid-air, over a large metropolis.

The public knee-jerk panic over anything with the word "nuclear" would be far more dangerous than the actual radiological release. Pu-239 has a long half life, low rate of spontaneous fission and breaks down via alpha decay. It's actually more dangerous with regards to metal toxicity than with regards to radioactivity. You can hold Pu-239 in your hands with no ill effects.

There are much more effective isotopes to use in a dirty bomb than weapons grade plutonium.

Re:Keep in mind... (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733328)

Of course, you don't have to actually split any atoms to cause a catastrophe. Simply spraying radioactive bits and pieces over a wide area (basically all of the stories in TFA) is pretty bad on its own.

Re:Keep in mind... (1)

khallow (566160) | about 4 years ago | (#31733398)

Simply spraying radioactive bits and pieces over a wide area (basically all of the stories in TFA) is pretty bad on its own.

"Pretty bad" being a whole lot less bad than a fission bomb due to the limits on how many people can be affected and how badly they can be affected.

Re:Keep in mind... (4, Interesting)

slimjim8094 (941042) | about 4 years ago | (#31733342)

Exactly. They're much safer than conventional bombs. A friend of mine did (among other things) munitions decomission in the Army (throw the bomb in a big pit and blow it up). Apparently, the expanding foam "Great Stuff" was invented to decomission nuclear weapons - you used it to fill the bomb's trigger component. Since the trigger was useless, the weapon was useless.

And, of course, you can drop them, bump them, hammer them, shock them, etc... without blowing it up. Try that with C4

Re:Keep in mind... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733514)

Actually C4 is a pretty stable compound. You can light it on fire and use it as cooking fuel like sterno. You can hammer it, drop it, bump it. A high energy shock might make for a bad day though.

Re:Keep in mind... (5, Informative)

gandhi_2 (1108023) | about 4 years ago | (#31733546)

I've used Composition C4 many of times in my Army career. I know first hand that you can drop, bump, hammer, shoot, and light on fire an M112 block of C4 without detonation.

To set off C4, you need a supersonic shockwave and a lot of heat at the same time. About the explosive power in a double overhand knot of 30-grain det cord, or an m6 or m7 blasting cap.

Re:Keep in mind... (4, Funny)

Thanshin (1188877) | about 4 years ago | (#31733650)

I've used Composition C4 many of times in my Army career. I know first hand that you can drop, bump, hammer, shoot, and light on fire an M112 block of C4 without detonation.

First hand?

You dropped, bumped, hammered, shot and lit a C4 block?

That sounds like an amazing drinking game.

Re:Keep in mind... (1)

gandhi_2 (1108023) | about 4 years ago | (#31733696)

Perhaps it should be pointed out: not all at the same time.

But there's a reason Comp B and C4 are used in place of Commercial Dynamite in military settings.

Re:Keep in mind... (5, Informative)

vlm (69642) | about 4 years ago | (#31734020)

But there's a reason Comp B and C4 are used in place of Commercial Dynamite in military settings.

I may as well argue the fine point that the nitro in commercial dynamite seeps and settles and "weeps" and it gives you a terrible headache by touch and perhaps by fumes, unless you rotate/flip the crates every couple months, and there is no freaking way us guys in at the ammo depot are going to successfully accomplish that. Everything else in the bunkers is absolutely zero maintenance, lock the door and walk away until you need it.

Also wood supposedly gets flammable from the seeping nitro, so we'd end up with some re-usable wood pallets being hazardous flammable waste and some being "safe", or so we hope.

They told us that sometimes we'd have to stock commercial dynamite at a depot anyway, because its cheap, but everyone involved hated dealing with it. Thus, maintenance-free RDX-based military dynamite instead.

Re:Keep in mind... (3, Interesting)

vlm (69642) | about 4 years ago | (#31733894)

You dropped, bumped, hammered, shot and lit a C4 block?

No idea for the OP, who's writing sounded like a combat engineer-ish perspective, but for me it was mostly very close second hand. My job at the ammo depot included maintenance of the computerized list of NSNs (essentially a military UPC code) and lot/serial numbers that failed those tests, which we would never issue to troops or transfer/ship, in peacetime are issued to EOD for training, and in wartime would probably be "disposed of" by myself and buddies, although I never got to do that. I knew guys whom were later assigned to the testing labs, but I didn't know them very well.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safety_testing_of_explosives [wikipedia.org]

I would imagine anyone issued demolition explosives whom survived an IED attack or ambush in the sandbox has probably "dropped, bumped, hammered, shot and lit a C4 block", and if the safety features failed, I'd have been the guy doing the grunt work for essentially an army style "product recall".

That sounds like an amazing drinking game.

Oh, we drank a lot. What a surprise, that when policy segregates out the illegal-drug users and tobacco smokers, you're left with only the legal drug users, mostly alkies. Seems like every drunk I know is or was in the army or at least the military in general...

Re:Keep in mind... (4, Interesting)

vlm (69642) | about 4 years ago | (#31733552)

A friend of mine did (among other things) munitions decomission in the Army

I took a lame one week version of that class in the summer of 93. Frankly the decommissioning part is pretty simple, if you can't figure out how to blow stuff up, you've got big problems. The class was mainly how to survive doing that, and some nifty tricks that save lives. Double fusing and double priming, do everything in an excavated pit with only one man in at a time, let EOD handle the rusty/damaged stuff, always test the burn rate of the actual fuse you intend to use, don't lay down your fuse in a big ole coil, fuse so long that if you twist your ankle the medics could haul you out, don't try to do multiple pits at one time (in an effort to avoid dealing with range control, whom seem universally to be a PITA), etc. And a lot of distance safety rules, which boil down to if you're not walking far enough to get sweaty, its probably not safe enough.

And, of course, you can drop them, bump them, hammer them, shock them, etc... without blowing it up. Try that with C4

With the exception of hammer and electrical shock, you can pretty much do that to bulk C4 without serious harm. You can also burn it, although the fumes are quite toxic. Note that C-4 is a very specific chemical substance that is a plastic explosive. Its entirely possible that another plastic explosive, say, PETN det cord, is much more sensitive to shock than bulk C-4. From memory, ANFO is harmless in sub-ton quantities without a very hefty booster.

Re:Keep in mind... (2, Funny)

Thanshin (1188877) | about 4 years ago | (#31733680)

And a lot of distance safety rules, which boil down to if you're not walking far enough to get sweaty, its probably not safe enough.

Which, in Slashdot terms, means you can pretty much survive any detonation at about ten paces.

Re:Keep in mind... (1)

TheLink (130905) | about 4 years ago | (#31733672)

> They're much safer than conventional bombs.

Inside many nuclear bombs is a conventional bomb (or more than one :) ).

So nukes are safer than conventional bombs in the sense that:

1) Most nuclear bombs aren't like landmines or "dumb bombs" - they don't just blow up if you sneeze on them the wrong way.
2) If a nuclear bomb doesn't explode properly you are likely to "only" get a "conventional boom" instead of a full nuclear blast. So instead of wiping out an entire city you just blow up a magnitudes smaller area (I'm not sure how much conventional explosive there is in a typical nuke). In contrast if you had the same amount of C4 or other conventional explosives to generate the same damage as a full nuclear blast, it'll be a lot more unsafe. If stuff goes wrong, you could still wipe out a significant part of a city :).

Re:Keep in mind... (2, Interesting)

Anonymusing (1450747) | about 4 years ago | (#31733356)

FTA: In 1961 a B-52 carrying two 24 megaton nuclear weapons (equivalent to 3,700 “Hiroshima bombs”) broke up in the air over Goldsboro, North Carolina. One bomb fell as far as 10,000 feet and sunk into the “waterlogged farmland.” The Air Force dug as deep as 50 feet trying to excavate the weapon, which contained uranium, but was unsuccessful. Finally, the Air Force purchased an easement on the land. Reportedly, a Pentagon document stated that five of the bomb’s six safety mechanisms had failed; “only a single switch” prevented the nuclear detonation of this 24 megaton device.

What are the chances of the final safety mechanism ever deteriorating or otherwise failing due to age?

Re:Keep in mind... (2, Informative)

confused one (671304) | about 4 years ago | (#31733526)

What are the chances that the detonators and HE charge are still intact? What are the chances that the nuclear charge is still intact? Did it even have the pit installed? What are the chances that there is a battery, still charged and connected to a still functional timing circuit, available to detonate the HE charges?

Re:Keep in mind... (1)

mpe (36238) | about 4 years ago | (#31733816)

What are the chances that the detonators and HE charge are still intact?

Some explosives become more unstable with time. Munitions dating from the First World War can still be dangerous.

Re:Keep in mind... (2, Informative)

confused one (671304) | about 4 years ago | (#31734088)

You're missing the point. If the charges aren't intact -- and I'm talking about the shape and density -- the boom will be limited to, at most, what you'd expect from a conventional weapon. Since this device is buried over 50 feet down, any resulting explosion will likely be contained for the most part. There have been several instances (some documented in the article) where unarmed nuclear weapons exploded without the Pu core (called the "nuclear capsule" in the report). Made a big hole in the ground but that was it.

Re:Keep in mind... (4, Interesting)

JWSmythe (446288) | about 4 years ago | (#31733674)

    As I understand it, the shell and core are normally separated. When the device is "armed", the core is inserted into the center of the shell. To detonate, the explosives around the shell must simultaneously explode, compressing the fissionable material until it reaches critical mass, and then BOOM. That last step takes a lot less time than it seems in reading it.

    So, an unarmed nuke has no chance of causing a nuclear explosion. An explosion around the shell would just collapse the shell, which is not catastrophic. The core by itself isn't all that dangerous, except it'll make your hair fall out, give you radiation burns, and you won't live all that long after that. :)

    If it's > 50' under ground *AND* the explosives around the shell detonated for some unknown reason, it'd probably make a radioactive area that's already property of the US Gov't. If, for some strange reason, the core had been inserted and the explosives spontaniously blew ... well ... I wouldn't want to be too close to it. :) ... if they never recovered the weapon, how would they know 5 safeties failed? This sounds like a little political posturing.

Re:Keep in mind... (1)

nedlohs (1335013) | about 4 years ago | (#31733912)

If it's > 50' under ground *AND* the explosives around the shell detonated for some unknown reason, it'd probably make a radioactive area that's already property of the US Gov't.

Plus the ground water, which I'm sure would do the right thing and not cross property lines.

Re:Keep in mind... (1)

confused one (671304) | about 4 years ago | (#31734170)

if they never recovered the weapon, how would they know 5 safeties failed?

They recovered part of the weapon. They also recovered an intact second weapon that deployed it's parachute after it we ejected from the aircraft. I'm guessing they determined this in the post accident review by looking at the second weapon.

Re:Keep in mind... (1)

Firethorn (177587) | about 4 years ago | (#31733752)

What are the chances of the final safety mechanism ever deteriorating or otherwise failing due to age?

Pretty much impossible. Even if the explosives had gone off, the force of the impact deformed the explosive charges such that even if they detonate that the bomb won't go nuclear. That's even without considering the 50 years of decay taking out other components.

Re:Keep in mind... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31734252)

Yeah - but even if the bom does not detonate, but is only damaged there is a huge risk left..

Do not forget materials like Plutonium are highly toxic and can case a severe radiation risk. Even micrograms are considered very dangerous, and there are huge quantities of this material in these bombs. If some of this material leaks out it can contaminate a REAL huge area, making it inhabitable for thousands of years.

So - even if these bombs do not explode, they are a huge risk for every living organism if they are damaged. I don't know how resistant the shell is to salt water, but in the long term every metal is affected by salt water under pressure.

I am not afraid about explosions. I AM afraid of material leaking out in the long term and spread contamination over huge area's by undersea streams and poison our food chain. The result could be an explosion of cancer casualties in a big area (think about a complete coastal area - or worse).

It's pretty hard to split an atom (1)

wiredog (43288) | about 4 years ago | (#31733362)

That's actually very easy, and happens naturally all the time. Natural decay is what makes radioactive substances radioactive. The hard part is separating out the enriched uranium. Once you do that it's very easy to make a bomb out of it.

Fusing atoms, now that's difficult.

Re:It's pretty hard to split an atom (1)

Thanshin (1188877) | about 4 years ago | (#31733738)

That's actually very easy, and happens naturally all the time. [...] Fusing atoms, now that's difficult.

Yeah, we all know fusion never happens naturally.

You'd need like a ridiculously hot place.

Re:It's pretty hard to split an atom (1)

Dragonslicer (991472) | about 4 years ago | (#31734232)

That's actually very easy, and happens naturally all the time. Natural decay is what makes radioactive substances radioactive. The hard part is separating out the enriched uranium. Once you do that it's very easy to make a bomb out of it.

My apologies for stating the bleeding obvious here, but "splitting an atom" usually refers to fission, not alpha, beta, or gamma decay. Fission and decay are two very different things.

Yeild (1)

WED Fan (911325) | about 4 years ago | (#31733376)

It's pretty hard to split an atom

The explosion in San Antonio was around the same as a 500 lb bomb. It shattered windows in town. That was a bunker accident. Other accidents had no explosion of the weapon.

Re:Keep in mind... (2, Insightful)

WrongSizeGlass (838941) | about 4 years ago | (#31733388)

TFA says this is a list of "accidents" that occurred before 1980. I wonder:
* How many "accidents" have happened since 1980?
* How bad any of them have been? (not that there is actually a good accident)
* What's happened to the items lost at sea? Are they safe or will their protective casings start to deteriorate after decades?

Re:Keep in mind... (4, Funny)

JWSmythe (446288) | about 4 years ago | (#31733402)

where they can do no harm

    That ranks right up with "what could possibly go wrong", and "there's nothing to worry about".

    A nuke in the water is still a chunk of radioactive material in a steel casing, just waiting for the casing to rust away.

    If the TNT goes pop, then that's all fun and games (assuming the nuke wasn't armed). If the casing is compromised, you have three eyed fish and giant octopuses resulting from the radiation (note: sarcasm). A little extra radiation isn't really all that good for you, me, nor the ecosystem. Hell, looked at what happened to Japan. Just two small nukes, and now you have generations of short people [sciencelinks.jp] with tiny hands,small penises [average-pe...-chart.com] , and some weird fantasies [mitchieville.com] . (BTW, the last link is border line NSFW, use at your own risk when the boss isn't looking. :)

    I for one welcome our mutant three eyed octopus overlords.

The Dolphin Nuke threat (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733490)

... while "nuclear weapons accident" sounds scary...(stuff deleted).... But almost all of the "lost" warheads from USAF are in the ocean, where they can do no harm.

Two words: Dolphin Terrorists

Re:Keep in mind... (1)

Thanshin (1188877) | about 4 years ago | (#31733550)

But almost all of the "lost" warheads from USAF are in the ocean, where they can do no harm.

Well, as other people are already addressing the possibility of a terrorist organization finding and activating the lost warheads I'll just comment on another, even more dangerous, possibility.

Mutant sharks.

Re:Keep in mind... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733616)

All one needs is a focused explosion to detonate the nuclear source. it is easier than you think to "split the atom". That is why there are safeties that prevent the focused intial detonator and even if it does not go nuclear, you get the "dirty" effect.

Re:Keep in mind... (1)

LordVader717 (888547) | about 4 years ago | (#31733750)

The difficult part is enriching enough uranium which would require large dedicated facilities. Once you have the uranium though, it's not inconceivable for relatively small efforts by certain groups to create a powerful fissile weapon. There's certainly no shortage of talented engineers in the world.

Re:Keep in mind... (2, Interesting)

ShadowRangerRIT (1301549) | about 4 years ago | (#31734148)

Technically, I believe the gun-type fission weapon design [wikipedia.org] is vulnerable to accidental detonation. Of course, the U.S. only produced a few of these before switching over to the much safer and more powerful implosive design, usually implemented nowadays as a fusion boosted design, [wikipedia.org] often with multiple stages. [wikipedia.org]

Of course, as I noted, the gun-type fission weapon was only produced for a short time in the 1940s and early 50s by the U.S., and was the only design used in South Africa's nuclear program (run from the 60s to the 80s and dismantled in the early 90s). So yeah, as long as it's an implosion type weapon (or the fusion boosted version of such a weapon), the danger is negligible (aside from the small risk of spreading some nuclear material if the weapon disintegrates). Implosive weapons have such incredibly tight design tolerances that a sufficient impact would actually disable the weapon permanently, not set it off, as the necessary alignment in the components would be disrupted. Many nuclear weapons are usually air burst designs for this reason (plus the enhanced damage done by bursting a mile up or so).

You should fix the summary (3, Informative)

NotSoHeavyD3 (1400425) | about 4 years ago | (#31733264)

It's specifically a list of accidents with nuclear weapons, not just any old nuclear accidents. (Just mentioning that since there are some of those in the military as well. For example the SL-1 which is notable since it killed 3 people, including one guy who got accidently nailed to the ceiling.)

Re:You should fix the summary (5, Interesting)

vlm (69642) | about 4 years ago | (#31733334)

Three people at a test reactor is sad but pretty small potatoes compared to the Scorpion, Thresher, and the six Russian/Soviet subs.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Lost_nuclear_submarines [wikipedia.org]

Re:You should fix the summary (3, Informative)

DesScorp (410532) | about 4 years ago | (#31734074)

Soviet boats have had reactor failures, but the US boats were doomed by other causes. The Scorpion was likely sunk by either a torpedo malfunction, or trash disposal device malfunction which caused massive flooding. In the Thresher's case, it was faulty welds on piping which caused flooding and shorted out the electrical system. With the loss of electrical power, the reactor shut down... as designed... to prevent a nuclear accident. Ironically, this is what doomed the crew. With no power, they couldn't surface. But in the cases of both US boats, the reactors operated precisely as planned in both accidents. They aren't "nuclear accidents". In neither boat was the reactor a cause.

Re:You should fix the summary (2, Interesting)

JWSmythe (446288) | about 4 years ago | (#31733488)

    Nailed to the ceiling is a serious understatement. In 4 milliseconds, the reactor went critical, vaporized all the water around it, and sent a shock wave out which (among other things) sent a control rod through the operator and impaled him in the ceiling. I wonder what killed him. It was probably being instantly cooked alive by the steam, rather than the fact that he had a control rod run through his body which left him dangling in non-gravitational respective positions.

    Always respect the laws of gravity, or they will catch up to you. At least usually. If you're crushed, steamed and impaled (simultaneously at that), it probably doesn't matter much any more.

Re:You should fix the summary (1)

NotOverHere (1526201) | about 4 years ago | (#31734258)

... In 4 milliseconds, the reactor went critical.

Remember kids... a critical reactor is a happy reactor. Descriptions of criticalilty just describes the net change from the previous neutron cycle. Zero change is critical and sustaining. Sub is down; Supercritical is increasing. A supercritical reactor might turn into an angry one.

What the operators in SL-1 did was take it prompt critical. That's where there is fractionally enough neutrons just from the immediate fission, not slower (and more controllable) thermal neutrons. That's what happens when you violate procedure and take a control rod out not the four inches directed, but defeat interlocks and take it all the way out.

Re:You should fix the summary (1)

mmontour (2208) | about 4 years ago | (#31734248)

Another nuclear accident not involving US weapons was the failed Soviet spy satellite Cosmos 954 [nrcan.gc.ca] which smeared a nuclear reactor core over a large part of northern Canada in 1978.

This was one of a family of satellites. Several reactor cores are still up in orbit, for now...

And yes, these are true reactors not just RTGs.

Ignorant conclusion at end of article (5, Insightful)

vlm (69642) | about 4 years ago | (#31733310)

The conclusion at the end was pretty ignorant.

This small sampling of harrowing accounts clearly chinks the counter-intuitive and commonly argued position that nuclear weapons actually make the world a safer place. It reminds us that the shattering blast and fiery rain of a nuclear detonation may not occur because of war, terrorism, or miscalculation, but rather, because of something more common: an "accident."

Nuclear deterrence / M.A.D. theory has never been proposed as a way to prevent "A" individual nuclear detonation, so the article claiming that they've somehow proven it is not exactly insightful. However, it is a very reasonable and successful way to prevent "ALL" nukes from detonating aka full out total nuclear strategic warfare WWIII.

Re:Ignorant conclusion at end of article (4, Insightful)

couchslug (175151) | about 4 years ago | (#31733384)

Of course it was. Recitation of ancient news is merely a "bitch piece".

"Oh, lookee da bad nukes!" Oh. lookee the clueless fuck who didn't live through the Cold War...

The nuclear deterrent worked, and instead of large conventional wars of the "massive bloodbath" (WWI, WWII) variety the Cold War had few casualties (by comparison) and was fought by proxy in expendable countries.

Re:Ignorant conclusion at end of article (1)

WrongSizeGlass (838941) | about 4 years ago | (#31733458)

GP's point was M.A.D. won't prevent a rouge element from detonating a single weapon. It was meant to prevent a nuclear war between countries that had collections of nuclear armaments.

Re:Ignorant conclusion at end of article (1)

Angst Badger (8636) | about 4 years ago | (#31733618)

However, it is a very reasonable and successful way to prevent "ALL" nukes from detonating aka full out total nuclear strategic warfare WWIII.

Well, it's been successful so far. And I'm not sure that having two polities build enough weapons to destroy civilization several times over and trigger a mass extinction in the space of thirty minutes as part of a dispute over property distribution counts as reasonable by any stretch of the imagination.

ICBMs don't have retro rockets. (4, Interesting)

LWATCDR (28044) | about 4 years ago | (#31733338)

" the accidental firing of a retrorocket on an ICBM;" You use retro rockets to de orbit. ICBMs don't go into orbit they use a ballistic trajectory.
I would like to know more details about that little comment.
Frankly this is a big so what. None of the listed accidents are new and I think they are all in the Wikipedia and have been listed for years.
They left out the Titan II explosion in the 80s that blew a multi mega warhead a good distance from the silo and caused the Air Force to retire the Titan II.
Hey on the bright side in the 50s and 60s every major US city was ringed with Nike SAM sites and some of them had nuclear warheads on them. They have all been retired for a good long while.

This is so not news it is at best a badly written history lesson. Actually it is nothing but political diatribe on how evil nuclear weapons are. Frankly this should be pushed to the politics page or just not on Slashdot since it tells us nothing new. Heck the freaking learning channel covered this a few years ago.

Re:ICBMs don't have retro rockets. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733582)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiple_independently_targetable_reentry_vehicle

Re:ICBMs don't have retro rockets. (1)

gandhi_2 (1108023) | about 4 years ago | (#31733630)

You can still find old Nike sites around Oahu. They are overgrown with vegetation and you hardly know you are in one until you notice a bunker door or a series of berms.

Re:ICBMs don't have retro rockets. (1)

steelfood (895457) | about 4 years ago | (#31733668)

If SAM meant surface-to-air missile, then I suspect the sites may have been reactivated after 9/11. It's just speculation, but that would be the logical knee-jerk reaction. Then again, common sense is anything but common, so maybe not.

Re:ICBMs don't have retro rockets. (2, Informative)

Nadaka (224565) | about 4 years ago | (#31733704)

Retrorockets are not necessarily for de-orbiting. They simply fire forwards, slowing to vehicle. There are conventional aircraft and even land vehicles with retro rockets.

Re:ICBMs don't have retro rockets. (5, Informative)

Sanat (702) | about 4 years ago | (#31733872)

I had worked with the guy that did that back in 1964. I had TDY duty there in 1963 to assist in posturing the missiles initially.

What actually happened was that a modification to the communications panels required shutting down the comm gear. He use a screwdriver (instead of a fuse puller) to pop out the fuse and inadvertently shorted the V++ to chassis ground. This in itself did not do anything really bad, however there was a malfunction in the on-board computer that caused a branch in the software to blow the retro-rockets.

When the missile dropped off "strategic alert" the launch crew (located 20 miles away in an underground capsule) asked them to check on the guidance package. They illuminated the launch tube via the collimator port and saw that the warhead and the guidance package was gone... having fallen to the bottom of the launch tube.

Now about the retro-rockets... The range of a minute man is probably still classified but say that it is (as an example only) 5000 nautical miles... but say that the particular target you want to hit is only 4000 miles from the launch facility so as the final stage ( 3rd stage of the three rockets) passes over the proper location then the retro-rockets fire cause the warhead and the on-board computer to detach from the third stage and free fall ( actually it is more of a large parabolic curve from near space to either detonate as an air burst as it approaches nearer the Earth (most damaging) or to continue its flight and detonate at the ground level on impact(most contamination).

The accuracy in which the warhead can contact the target is astounding... even though my description of it sounds like it is trying to hit a basket in center field with a baseball being thrown... more likely is you can determine whether you want to hit the near side of the basket or the far side!

This is based on my working knowledge from the 60's... of course, a great deal has changed in the last 50 years with the merves (multiple entry - reentry vehicle)- means numerous warheads, and the "penetration aids" dropped to confuse the enemy as to which is the real warhead and which are radar look-a-like reflections.

"Nuclear Accidents" (3, Interesting)

markass530 (870112) | about 4 years ago | (#31733372)

Not really nuclear accidents. Nuke Weapons have a ridiculous amount of safeguards and settings needed to happen to actually go off. So it is impossible for a true nuclear weapon accidents. Maybe call em' accidents that involved nuclear weapons. any other phrase is alarmism

Re:"Nuclear Accidents" (5, Informative)

sampas (256178) | about 4 years ago | (#31733492)

Ridiculous amount of safeguards? While permissive action links (requiring codes for launch) were created and deployed at the urging of Defense Secretary McNamara after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Air Force kept the codes set to all zeros until President Carter found out about it. That was over ten years later. The Air Force kept the codes at all zeros so they could launch without presidential authority. Source: http://www.cdi.org/blair/permissive-action-links.cfm [cdi.org] . To quote, "And so the “secret unlock code” during the height of the nuclear crises of the Cold War remained constant at OOOOOOOO." So, when you say ridiculous amount of safeguards, I'm not buying it without verification.

Re:"Nuclear Accidents" (4, Informative)

DerekLyons (302214) | about 4 years ago | (#31733896)

Ridiculous amount of safeguards?

The safeguards the OP refers to are the ones that prevent detonation, not the ones that prevent launch. Different safeguards for different purposes.
 

The Air Force kept the codes at all zeros so they could launch without presidential authority.

PALs are not intended to prevent launch without Presidential authority, PALs are intended to prevent weapons that fall into unauthorized hands from being used. Which is why the USAF kept PALs active on gravity bombs and disabled them on the silos and why the Army used them on their AFAPs - and why USN SSBN's never had them in the first place.

Re:"Nuclear Accidents" (1)

markass530 (870112) | about 4 years ago | (#31734036)

I was speaking of a weapon accidentally going off... you are speaking of someone (illegally or what have you) purposefully setting off a weapon. Two TOTALLY different things

Re:"Nuclear Accidents" (5, Informative)

thomasdz (178114) | about 4 years ago | (#31733522)

Not really nuclear accidents. Nuke Weapons have a ridiculous amount of safeguards and settings needed to happen to actually go off. So it is impossible for a true nuclear weapon accidents. Maybe call em' accidents that involved nuclear weapons. any other phrase is alarmism

Yeah, British nukes were protected with "Bike Locks"
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/7097101.stm [bbc.co.uk]

Re:"Nuclear Accidents" (1)

markass530 (870112) | about 4 years ago | (#31734086)

I was speaking of a weapon accidentally going off... you are speaking of someone (illegally or what have you) purposefully setting off a weapon. Two TOTALLY different things...

Re:"Nuclear Accidents" (1)

confused one (671304) | about 4 years ago | (#31733620)

That is true now of our weapons. There was a time when an accident leading to detonation was all too easy. Which is why the pits were stored separately from the weapons until it was time to launch them. (for example: one early missile design detonated when the fuel ran out... Which guaranteed a detonation in the event the electronic fuse failed. So, a fire could easily lead to a detonation, if the missile had previously been armed).

I wouldn't be so certain that nuclear weapons designed by other countries would have as many safeguards.

WOPR (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733424)

Mr. McKittrick, after very careful consideration, sir, I've come to the conclusion that your new defense system sucks.

Biggest Accident (3, Funny)

MrTripps (1306469) | about 4 years ago | (#31733496)

The biggest nuclear disaster was the movie with John Travolta, Christian Slater, and that hot chick. Man, that movie stunk. Howie Long saying "You da man!" could wipe out an entire town.

Re:Biggest Accident (1)

JWSmythe (446288) | about 4 years ago | (#31733796)

    Would Samantha Mathis be the hot chick that you were thinking of?

    I'd actually forgotten about that movie. Why did you have to bring it up?

Why so serious? (0)

hargrand (1301911) | about 4 years ago | (#31733560)

You guys... you're always so negative. When are we going to see a headline on /. that says another day comes to a close where the world didn't end?

Didn't mention the one in Greenland either.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31733594)

Plane burned up on an ice runway, releasing the Nuke, that promptly detonated the conventional explosives, which scattered the nuclear material all over the place. Supposedly, part of the core melted through the ice, and dropped into the sea, but there was still thousands of barrels of radioactive ice/snow being stored there.

To paraphrase Robert McNamara (1)

GodfatherofSoul (174979) | about 4 years ago | (#31733662)

...from the documentary The Fog of War, the combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons means there WILL be an accidental discharge eventually. And, he should know. His entire life was a mistake.

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