Tonight in 1980 at Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota, the number five engine on the right wing of a B-52 on ground alert caught fire during a drill. The aircraft was loaded with 8 Short-Range Attack Missiles (armed with 170-200-kt W69 warheads) and 4 B28 bombs (70 kt to 1.45 Mt).
That night, a southeast wind gusted up to 35 mph. The B-52 pointed in that direction. That alone kept the flames away from the fuselage. Had the nose been facing west, the fire would have incinerated all six crew members as they evacuated and burned the weapons in the bomb bay.
The fire burned for three hours. It was only extinguished when a civilian base fire inspector boarded the B-52 and shut off the fuel. Had the nukes caught fire and their conventional high explosives detonated, a radioactive plume would have drifted over Grand Forks and beyond.
In 1988, then-Livermore Laboratory director Roger Batzel told the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee that if that the fire had reached the bomb bay, the HE "would have detonated" and plutonium would have been scattered across 60 sq. miles of North Dakota and Minnesota.
"You are talking about something that in one respect could be probably worse than Chernobyl," Batzel testified during the closed hearing, 'because you have plutonium in the soil and on the soil, which you have to clean up. I wouldn't want either one.'" chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-19…
Worse still—and unmentioned by Batzel—a design flaw in the B28 bomb meant that if exposed to prolonged heat, two wires too close to the casing could short circuit, arm the bomb, trigger an accidental detonation of the HE surrounding the core, and set off a nuclear explosion.
That would have destroyed Grand Forks (home to ~60,000 people) and showered Duluth or Minneapolis-St. Paul with lethal fallout, depending on which way the wind was blowing. The USAF subsequently determined the engine fire was caused by a small missing nut on the fuel strainer.
In 1990, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney ordered SRAMs removed from all alert bombers after all three nuclear weapons laboratory directors warned its W69 warhead posed an unacceptable risk in case of fire, an extreme danger they had first warned the DOD about in 1974.
However, SRAMs were not actually removed from the nuclear stockpile until 1993. In 1999, the last W69 was dismantled at the Pantex Plant in Texas. But not until early 2016 were all of its thermonuclear secondary components finally disassembled at the Y-12 Plant in Tennessee.
After years of delays by the DOD—which put nuclear warfighting ahead of safety—B28 bombs finally began receiving a safety retrofit in 1984, although work stalled a year later when funds ran out (resuming only in 1988). In 1991, it was finally retired after 33 years of service.
POSTSCRIPT: A USAF veteran who was a police officer at Grand Forks at the time of the fire and suffers from PTSD as a result told the VA in 1994 and 2011 he was ordered to shoot KC-135 pilots who refused to move their tankers away from the burning B-52. va.gov/vetapp16/Files…
This unnamed veteran first sought treatment and benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs for service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder caused by this accident in 1994. His claim was denied multiple times until an appeals board finally granted it in August 2016.

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More from @AtomicAnalyst

19 Sep
Today in 1980 ~3:00am, a Titan II ICBM exploded in silo near Damascus, Arkansas, more than 8 hours after a worker dropped a large socket, puncturing a fuel tank. The explosion destroyed the missile and silo, killed one, and hurled its 9-Mt warhead through the 750-ton silo doors.
This was the second serious US nuclear accident at a Strategic Air Command base in five days:
Note also the unintentionally ironic below-the-fold headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that day, beneath the article about the catastrophic accident: “Would Use A-Bomb If Necessary To Defend U.S., Carter Warns.”
Read 4 tweets
14 Sep
Today in 1954, for its ninth nuclear test, the USSR staged a live-fire nuclear wargame near Totskoye, ~600 mi. SE of Moscow. At 9:33am local time, a 40-kt A-bomb was detonated 1,150 ft. in the air between two groups of soldiers, some just 2 mi. from blast.
The roughly 45,000 soldiers were then ordered into mock battle under highly radioactive conditions for the remainder of the day. Most had no protective equipment and were not warned about the dangers. Some who were issued gas masks removed them in the oppressive 115F (46C) heat.
Exposures were reportedly ten times the maximum allowable level for US soldiers for a year. The 1,000,000 people who lived within 100 miles of the blast were given no warning at all. For more about this "monstrous" exercise, see: washingtonpost.com/archive/politi…
Read 8 tweets
7 Sep
LBJ’s controversial “Daisy” ad—implying his (unnamed) Republican opponent Sen. Barry Goldwater would start a nuclear war—first aired 56 years ago tonight on NBC. Although broadcast only once as a paid political advertisement, TV news programs frequently replayed and discussed it.
Media consultant and sound designer Tony Schwartz (no relation) created the concept for the advertisement, which was then cast and filmed by the Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising agency.
For more on the creation, production, broadcast, and impact of this unprecedented campaign advertisement, see
@CONELRAD6401240‘s excellent and exhaustive history: conelrad.com/daisy/index.php
Read 7 tweets
29 Aug
Today in 2007 at Minot AFB, North Dakota, munitions crews accidentally loaded a B-52H bomber with six Advanced Cruise Missiles, each armed with a live W80-1 nuclear warhead with a variable yield of 5-150 kilotons. The plane sat on the tarmac overnight without any special guards.
Early the next morning, before takeoff, the B-52's radar navigator closely inspected only the 6 missiles on the right-wing pylon, all of which properly carried dummy warheads. The pilot signed the manifest listing 12 unarmed ACMs as cargo without conducting a final verification.
This was supposed to be a routine fight supporting the USAF's March 2007 decision to retire the ACM by ferrying the missiles stored at Minot to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, for disposal (by August 2007, more than 200 unarmed ACMs had been safely transported to Barksdale). It wasn't.
Read 6 tweets
21 Aug
75 years ago tonight at Los Alamos, 24-year-old graduate student and Manhattan Project physicist Harry Daghlian, Jr., was conducting a risky criticality experiment alone when he accidentally dropped a 4.4 kg (9.7 lb) tungsten carbide brick on a 6.2 kg (13.7 lb) plutonium core.
The brick increased neutron reflectivity back into the core, instantly causing it to go supercritical and flood the wooden shack with radiation. Although Daghlian quickly pushed the extra brick off the core with his right hand, he still received an estimated dose of 510 rem.
Daghlian was taken to the Los Alamos hospital and his symptoms were treated. As he slowly and painfully succumbed to acute radiation poisoning, he methodically described his condition to observing doctors. He died 25 days later, the Manhattan Project's first radiation fatality.
Read 7 tweets
17 Aug
A must-see report by Ted Koppel for @CBSSunday. Presidential Emergency Action Documents originated in the 1950s as a way to prepare for the aftermath of a nuclear war. They allow the president to effectively suspend the Constitution. They're being revised. cbsnews.com/news/rewriting…
As former Senator Gary Hart says of documents Congress has never seen, "This is a blueprint for dictatorship. ... Keep in mind, the current, incumbent president has declared seven national emergencies [and] stated repeatedly that he has more power than most people know about."
From 1982-84, Oliver North helped FEMA write a secret crisis contingency plan that called for suspending the Constitution, declaring martial law, putting FEMA in charge of the United States, and appointing military commanders to run state and local govt's. ratical.org/ratville/JFK/R…
Read 4 tweets

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