Summary of Nuclear Weapon Accidents

Angie Zelter, August 1999


I have been aware of the possibilities of nuclear war by accident and of nuclear contamination by accident for many years.

About ten years ago I read a Bradford Research Paper entitled Nuclear Weapons Accidents [Ref.1] in which it was explained that probably only about 20% of the accidents come into the public domain as the military try to keep their accidents covered up. It took 37 years for the Lakenheath crash of 1961 to get into the public domain and 14 years to reveal that HMS Sheffield, sunk in the Falklands war, had nuclear weapons on board [Ref.2].

The record on cover-ups and secrecy is so bad that it is reasonable to conclude that quite a few more serious accidents are waiting to be revealed. Whereas the Ministry of Defence in 1996 admitted to 7 accidents since 1966, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the MoD reported a record of some 20 incidents since 1960, adding that he had no way of knowing whether he had all the information. [Ref.2 & 3 & 4]. The Bradford Research Paper [Ref.1] catalogues over 20 incidents ranging from the malfunction of early warning systems at the height of the Cold War when both sides were poised to annihilate each other with launch on warning systems to the actual radioactive contamination of sea and land and the loss of life. One secret document from the US Government, stated that up to 1973 a total of 1,250 nuclear weapons had been involved in accidents during handling, storage and transportation, some of which resulted in, or had high potential for, plutonium dispersal [Ref.4].

I would like to give you a few examples to illustrate the kinds of accidents that we know have already happened and to show that I have a reasonable belief founded on actual knowledge that we are at risk from such accidents all the time. This is imperative for me to be able to prove that I am in imminent danger.

On 5/10/60 the NORAD early warning system falsely warned of a ’massive’ Soviet missile strike approaching the USA; on 3/6/80 100 nuclear-armed B-52s were alerted for take-off after another malfunction in the NORAD computer system. [Ref.1].

In May ’68 the USS Scorpion collided with a barge in Naples Harbour and was lost at sea on 27th May. The

99 people on board were killed and the nuclear reactor and nuclear weapons were ’lost’ and are gradually

releasing their radioactive poisons into the oceans. [Ref.1].

On 4/10/86 the USSR Yankee class submarine sunk with all its crew and its nuclear missiles off the Eastern US coast after a fire. By the time this report was written there had already been at least 2 US and 3 Soviet submarines ’lost’ at sea [Ref.1]. I have no idea how many are lost now in 1999.

In many other accidents, radioactive material has also been lost. At Palomares in Spain where a B-52 crashed in 1966 and at Thule, Greenland where another B-52 crashed, plutonium was widely dispersed as a consequence of conventional explosives. Huge amounts of contaminated soil and ice had to be excavated and removed and yet the legacy still remains. In 1986, of around 800 Danish people who worked to clear the contaminated ice at Thule, 500 were sick and more than 90 had cancer [Ref.1 & 5].

At a US base on 27/7/56 near my home, at Lakenheath in East Anglia, fuel from a B-47 bomber caught fire and engulfed the nuclear weapons store. 4 crewmen were killed and officials described the outcome as a ’miracle’ because ’the sheared and exposed bomb detonators somehow failed to explode’. A senior US officer was quoted as saying ’It is possible that apart of eastern England would have become a desert’. [Ref.1]. That is my home.

In 1958 military nuclear waste overheated causing a chemical explosion and spewing radioactive dust for hundreds of miles in the Urals of the USSR. An unknown number of people died of radiation sickness and a huge area has been permanently evacuated [Ref.5].

On 9/8/65 53 died when a Titan II ICBM exploded in a missile silo [Ref.1].

To bring it closer to home. In 1978 high levels of Cobalt-60 were discovered in Holy Loch. Cancer clusters have been found in many of the towns near nuclear bases like Greenham, Lakenheath, and Wittering [Ref.2]. The Greenham cancer cluster is very likely to have been caused by the fire in a B-47 bomber which caused a nuclear bomb on board to release its plutonium and uranium oxides over an area of several miles around the base [Ref.4]. In November of 1980 a Nimrod crashed at RAF Kinloss with nuclear depth bombs on board. On 20/6/85 two lorries carrying Polaris warheads collided at Helensburgh. Living in the area you are probably aware of the high incidence of fires and mishaps at both Coulport and Faslane and the frequent use of fire engines and other emergency vehicles. There are known leaks of radiation from working submarines (for instance from a Polaris submarine on patrol in June 1994) and there are the known accidents, leaks and routine venting of radioactive materials that occurs in the nuclear reactors that provide materials for the subs, for instance the tritium discharges at Chapelcross.

Accidents happen all the time and the effect on the ecosystem as all the hundreds of ’lost’ nuclear weapons and the sunken submarines slowly release their radioactivity into the oceans is already damaging our genetic viability. I will not go into the problems and dangers of the decommissioning of old nuclear submarines except to remind you that the problems associated with safe and permanent disposal of radioactive materials have still not been solved and there are 11 old nuclear submarines sitting in Rosyth and Devonport waiting for a solution and meanwhile posing leakage problems [Ref.6].

There are quite a few incidents of bombs being dropped whilst being hoisted into position. To take just one, in 1981 at the Holy Loch, a Poseidon missile containing 10 warheads was being winched into the submarine USS Holland when the winch ran free and the missile fell 17 feet and smashed into the side of the USS Los Angeles. Detonation of the warhead trigger system, which very luckily did not occur this time, could have dispersed plutonium dust as far as the centre of Glasgow [Ref.1]. These accidents are impossible to predict but can happen at any time. We are all in danger all the time. Up to 1993 there were 12 known accidents involving the nuclear convoy including crashes, overturns and breakdowns. On 31/10/97 a Harrier crash at RAF Wittering (a base near me) took place only a couple of hundreds of yards from a fully loaded Trident convoy parked in the regular base compound [Ref.7].

More recently, in January 1998 the nuclear submarine HMS Torbay was abandoned by an over-tired tugmaster in the River Tamar where it risked going aground which might have caused a failure in the reactor cooling system. And finally, just a couple of months ago, in July 1998 there was a power failure on the Trident HMS Vanguard carrying 96 nuclear warheads and 135 crew members. It went into an uncontrolled dive and a major human and nuclear catastrophe was avoided by only minutes [Ref.8].

One of the latest examples of a near miss of nuclear war by accident that has occurred since the ending of the Cold War, at a time when many people thought the dangers were over, occurred on 25th January 1995. The Russian early warning radars detected an unexpected missile launch near Spitzbergen – only 5 minutes from Moscow. The early warning, control and command systems were switched to combat mode and the Russian President was given his nuclear command suitcase. Only just in time it was determined that the missiles impact point would be outside the Russian borders. In fact the missile was Norwegian and had been launched to investigate the Northern Lights. The notification to 35 different countries had apparently reached the Russian Defence Ministry but they had not notified the on-duty personnel of the early warning system [Ref.9]. And do you remember the reports of how a Russian teenage sailor hijacked a submarine, killed nine crewmen and threatened to blow it up – that was only last year. With Russia’s early warning and nuclear command systems deteriorating for economic and political reasons, the probability of a weapon launch by accident, miscalculation or design is growing.

The probability of actual progression to nuclear war on any one of the occasions listed may have been small, due to planned “failsafe” features in the warning and launch systems, or to responsible action by those in the chain of command when the failsafe features had failed. However, the accumulation of small probabilities of disaster from a long sequence of risks adds up to serious danger. There is no way of telling what was the actual level of risk in these accidents, but mathematically, if the probability of disaster is 1% (odds of 99 to 1against) in each of 20 independent events, the chance of survival is reduced to 82%. It requires 69 such events to reduce the chance of survival to exactly 50:50. If the odds are 10 to 1 against disaster for each event, then only 20 events result in odds of 8 to 1 against survival.

This knowledge and a very rational fear of catastrophe is not only mine but is shared with many, including a top US General called General Lee Butler, who was Commander in Chief of the US Strategic Command from 1992-94, in charge of all strategic US nuclear forces. In December 1996 he explained at the National Press Club why he had made the long and arduous journey from staunch advocate of nuclear deterrence to public proponent of nuclear abolition. He warned,

Options are being lost as urgent questions are unasked, or unanswered, as outmoded routines perpetuate Cold War patterns and thinking, and as a new generation of nuclear actors and aspirants lurch backward toward a chilling world where the principal antagonists could find no better solution to their entangled security fears than Mutual Assured Destruction’.

He was speaking at the launch of a statement by over 60 Admirals and Generals from 17 different countries calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons [Ref.10]. A couple of years later, on February 2nd 1998 he launched a similar statement by 117 civilian leaders and stated, ’The theory of nuclear deterrence, the bedrock principle of US national security during the Cold War, is costly, wrongheaded and dangerous’. This is a nuclear weapons commander saying that nuclear deterrence is dangerous, not me.


On 11th March 1999 General Lee Butler made another speech in Ottawa from which I would like to read a very small excerpt:-

’Let me……. give you some sense of what it means to be the Commander of Strategic Nuclear Forces, the land and sea-based missiles and aircraft that would deliver nuclear warheads over great distances. First, I had the responsibility for the day-to-day operation, discipline, training, of tens of thousands of crew members, the systems that they operated and the warheads those systems were designed to deliver. Some ten thousand strategic nuclear warheads. I came to appreciate in a way that I had never thought, even when I commanded individual units like B52 bombers, the enormity of the day-to-day risks that comes from multiple manipulations, maintenance and operational movement of those weapons. I read deeply into the history of the incidents and the accidents of the nuclear age as they had been recorded in the United States. I am only beginning to understand that history in the former Soviet Union, and it is more chilling than anything you can imagine. Much of that is not publicly known, although it is now publicly available.

Missiles that blew up in their silos and ejected their nuclear warheads outside of the confines of the silo. B52 aircraft that collided with tankers and scattered nuclear weapons across the coast and into the offshore seas of Spain. A B52 bomber with nuclear weapons aboard that crashed in North Carolina, and on investigation it was discovered that on one of those weapons, 6 of the 7 safety devices that prevent a nuclear explosion had failed as a result of the crash. There are dozens of such incidents. Nuclear missile-laden submarines that experienced catastrophic accidents and now lie at the bottom of the ocean.

I was also a principal nuclear advisor to the President of the United States. What that required of me was to be prepared on a moment’s notice, day or night, 7 days a week, 365 days a year to be within three rings of my telephone and to respond to this question from the President: “General, the nation is under nuclear attack. I must decide in minutes how to respond. What is your recommendation with regard to the nature of our reply? “


I therefore believe that it is reasonable for me, knowing of the enormity of the risks involved, to believe that I am in immediate danger and that I should take reasonable steps to protect myself and others by disarming the nuclear systems.


1. Nuclear Weapons Accidents, Bradford Research Paper, Bradford University, 1988.

2. Revealed: Secret UK Nuclear Bomb Accidents, E. Goncalves, Center for Nuclear Information, June 1998.

3. Broken Arrow, E. Goncalves, CND, July 1996.

4. Defense Monitor – 1991, Center for Defense Information.

5. Inventory of Radioactive Material Entering the Marine Environment IAEA, 1991.

6. The Safety of Trident – an assessment of the radiation risks associated with the UK Trident programme – John Ainslee, Scottish CND, February 1994.

7. Nukewatch.

8. Seconds from the Ocean Tomb, Sunday Mail, Scotland. July 16th 1998.

9. Twenty Mishaps that might have Started Accidental Nuclear War, Dr. Alan Phillips FRCPC.

10. Statement to the National Press Club, Washington, December 1996.

11. 1989: The year of the Accident (Neptune Papers IV), Greenpeace, 1990.