Farewell to August, the Nuclear Month: A Brush With Death I Never Knew I Had

I’m a child of the Cold War, but I never realized just how true this was until I read an opinion piece in Al Jazeera America which argues that the real nuclear threat does not come from Iran or North Korea, but from the two original nuclear powers. Yup–Russia and good ol’ us. 

Despite radical cuts to our mutual arsenals, we superpowers still stand guard over a combined 14,600 nuclear warheads, signed, sealed, and ready to deliver. And even though those nukes are far from the headlines, they’re also far from rusting in peace. The article mentions one very close call that came as recently as 1995, well after the communist state had crumbled:

In January 1995, a global nuclear war almost started by mistake. Russian military officials mistook a Norwegian weather rocket for a U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missile. Boris Yeltsin’s senior military officials told him that Russia was under attack and that he had to launch hundreds of nuclear-tipped missiles at America. He became the first Russian president to ever have the “nuclear suitcase” opened in front of him. But Yeltsin trusted U.S. officials, and he was confident that there was no hidden crisis that might prompt a surprise attack by the U.S. With just a few minutes to decide, Yelstin concluded that his radars were in error. The suitcase was closed. 

But the close call that chilled me the most was an incident I had never even heard of, that struck–LITERALLY–very, very close to home:

In 1961, a B-52 carrying two armed weapons broke apart over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Two bombs dropped from the bomb bay. One bomb’s parachute deployed and carried it safely to the ground. The other fell all the way down. All of the weapon’s safety mechanisms failed, save one. A single low-voltage switch, the technical equivalent of a light switch, prevented a hydrogen bomb from destroying a good portion of North Carolina.

Goldsboro is 80 miles from the farm where I grew up. If that “light switch” had failed, even if a nuclear blast had not resulted, at the very least a lethal dose of nuclear contamination would have been released into the air and carried all over the state, including my parents’ farm. In 1961. The year I was born.

Courtesy Wikipedia

Courtesy Wikipedia

Here’s some more detail of the event, provided by Wikipedia:

The second bomb plunged into a muddy field at around 700 miles per hour (310 m/s) and disintegrated without detonation of its conventional explosives. The tail was discovered about 20 feet (6.1 m) below ground. Pieces of the bomb were recovered.[12][page needed] According to nuclear weapons historian Chuck Hansen, the bomb was partially armed when it left the aircraft though an unclosed high-voltage switch had prevented it from fully arming.[8] In 2013, ReVelle recalled the moment the second bomb’s switch was found. “Until my death I will never forget hearing my sergeant say, ‘Lieutenant, we found the arm/safe switch.’ And I said, ‘Great.’ He said, ‘Not great. It’s on arm.’”[13]

I know the Cold War, and the ongoing danger of nuclear proliferation, isn’t all about me. Except that it is. It is about me. And you. And you. All of us. Whether ground zero or “only” downwind, every human being is a potential victim of any kind of nuclear accident or misdeed.

So, as Congress prepares to debate the nuclear deal with Iran, my prayer will be more general. August 6 and August 9 still haunt me with images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear weapons still haunt us all. I pray that those in power continue to do everything in their power to keep those weapons safe, while finding ways to keep future farm girls, and everyone else, from being haunted.

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