January 24, 1961 (a Tuesday)

One of the Mk 39 nuclear weapons at Goldsboro, largely intact, with its parachute still attached.

One of the Mk 39 nuclear weapons at Goldsboro, largely intact, with its parachute still attached.

On this date shortly after midnight, a B-52 plane broke up in midair, accidentally dropping two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs over Goldsboro, North Carolina, according to a 1969 U.S. government report on the incident. The document says one of the bombs should have detonated — parachutes were deployed and triggers were armed — but one low-voltage switch failed to activate as it should have, preventing what would have been devastating and widespread damage. The report was only recently declassified by the U.S. and published by The Guardian on 20 September 2013.

The bomb carried a 4-megaton payload, equivalent to 4 million tons of TNT explosive and 260 times more powerful than the one that devastated Hiroshima in 1945. Fallout from the explosion could have spread to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and even New York City, affecting millions of people, the report said.

There had been speculation that the event more than 50 years ago was extraordinarily serious, but the US government has long denied its nuclear arsenal has put Americans at risk through safety flaws. The declassified report was the first conclusive evidence of how close the U.S. came to nuclear devastation that day.

“It would have been bad news in spades,” wrote the author of the report, U.S. government scientist Parker F. Jones. “One simple, dynamo-technology, low-voltage switch stood between the United States and major catastrophe,” wrote Jones. “The MK Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52.”

Jones titled his report “Goldsboro Revisited or: How I Learned to Mistrust the H-Bomb,” a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 nuclear satire, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

What the Goldsboro blast would have looked like.  This is the only time we tested this warhead at full yield, the detonation “Cherokee” at Operation Redwing, in 1958.

What the Goldsboro blast would have looked like. This is the only time we tested this warhead at full yield, the detonation “Cherokee” at Operation Redwing, in 1958.

The report was uncovered by the U.S. investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act while he was researching a book on the nuclear arms race, now published as Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Schlosser told The Guardian that he had found at least 700 noteworthy incidents involving nuclear weapons that took place between 1950 and 1968 — but the public largely doesn’t know about any of them.

“The U.S. government has consistently tried to withhold information from the American people in order to prevent questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy,” Schlosser said. “We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here’s one that very nearly did.”

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