Stephen Schwartz Profile picture
Nonresident Senior Fellow @BulletinAtomic • Fellow @NSquareCollab • Editor/Co-author, Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of US Nuclear Weapons Since 1940
26 Nov
Today in 1958, a B-47 on ground alert at Chennault AFB, Louisiana, carrying a sealed-pit H-bomb containing no plutonium caught fire when the Jet-Assisted Take-Off (JATO) bottles accidentally discharged during the pilot’s acceptance check, pushing the plane into a towing vehicle.
The aircraft and most of the bomb were destroyed in the fire, but the secondary remained Intact and the tritium reservoir was subsequently recovered. Contamination was reportedly limited to the weapon residue “slag” within the aircraft wreckage.
At the time of this accident, the B-47 bomber could be armed with B15, B28, B36, or B39 thermonuclear bombs. It could also carry the B18, the highest-yield US uranium fission bomb ever built (500 kilotons). Of these weapons, the B28 definitely utilized a sealed-pit design.
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22 Nov
Tonight in 1975, the guided missile cruiser USS Belknap (CG-26) collided with the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) when the Belknap turned into the Kennedy's path in rough seas during night-flying exercises in the Mediterranean Sea about 70 miles east of Sicily.
The Kennedy's massive flight deck sliced into the Belknap's superstructure, severing a fuel line on the Kennedy and setting off multiple fires on the Belknap, which burned out of control for two-and-a-half hours and came within 40 feet of the Belknap's nuclear weapons magazine.
Inside that magazine were Terrier surface-to-air missiles armed with W45 nuclear warheads (with a yield of 1 or 5 kilotons). The Kennedy was also carrying nuclear weapons at the time of the accident: approximately 100 air-delivered gravity bombs.
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22 Nov
Tonight in 1963, the Presidential Emergency Satchel was caught on film at Andrews AFB after newly-sworn-in President Lyndon B. Johnson returned from Dallas, Texas, on Air Force One following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Johnson is in the crowd at center left).
Here's a short film clip:
Although Johnson was informed by White House military aide Gen. Chester Clifton about the existence and purpose of the “Football” for the first time sometime after he was sworn in, he was not actually briefed on the Single Integrated Operational Plan until August 20, 1964.
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21 Nov
One advantage of being older is that you have often actually lived through the history you're discussing, rather just hearing or reading about it long after the fact. During its first term, the Reagan admin absolutely planned to fight and prevail in a nuclear war. Some evidence:
Lastly, I never claimed “The Day After” was a masterpiece of filmmaking. From today's vantage point, it has some obvious weaknesses. But watching it _collectively_ (something we seldom get to experience anymore) _at that moment in time_ was an absolutely compelling experience.
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20 Nov
Tonight in 1983, more than 100 million Americans saw multiple thermonuclear weapons destroy Lawrence, Kansas, in “The Day After” on ABC. A.C. Nielsen Co. reported that 62% of television sets that night were tuned in the film. I watched in my college dorm lounge. Where were you?
Nothing can re-create the feeling of collectively watching that night—during rapidly escalating tensions with the Soviet Union while the Reagan administration openly advocated fighting and winning a nuclear war—but you can stream “The Day After” here:
Here is the parental advisory ABC ran before the film began regarding its depiction of a nuclear war: “The emotional impacts of these scenes may be unusually disturbing, and we are therefore recommending that very young children not be permitted to watch.”
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18 Nov
Writing for the Boston Globe today in 1952, science writer Michael Amrine shared the news that the hydrogen bomb—successfully tested for the first time on November 1 but not yet deployed—would allow the United States to conduct mass slaughter at the low low cost of $1 per person. Image
Amrine's column echoed comments made in a September 18, 1951, speech by Sen. Brien McMahon (D-Connecticut), chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, noting the “startling fact” that using atomic bombs to deter and fight wars would be “hundreds of times cheaper than TNT.” Image
This was because one atomic bomb could destroy more “enemy war plants” than a single TNT bomb. McMahon then declared: “If we mass-produce this weapon, as we can, I solemnly say to the Senate that the cost of a single atomic bomb will become less than the cost of a single tank.”
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9 Nov
At 8:50am today in 1979, data from a full-scale Soviet nuclear decapitation attack simulation running at NORAD were inexplicably sent to live warning displays there, at SAC, the NMCC, and the ANMCC at Site R, triggering a false alert and a ~6-minute threat assessment conference.
“… software simulating a Soviet missile attack [on] NORAD’s … computers ‘was inexplicably transferred into the regular warning display’ …. Indeed, NORAD's Commander-in-chief later acknowledged that the ‘precise mode of failure could not be replicated.’”…
During this false alarm, NORAD activated all air defense interceptors and at least 10 planes took off, as did the president’s “doomsday plane.” Some air traffic controllers were ordered to immediately ground all commercial aircraft. At no point were POTUS or the SecDef notified.
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8 Nov
Today in 1958, two miles south of Christmas Island (Kiritimati) in the Pacific Ocean, the UK conducted Round C (Operation Grapple X), its first successful H-bomb test. A Valiant bomber dropped an experimental device which exploded at ~7,382 feet with a yield of 1.8 Megatons.
Here is an excerpt from a documentary recounting the preparations for, execution, and aftermath of this test, including detailed recollections from some of the hundreds of servicemen who observed the explosion from the northern end of the island.
Here is some color footage of the early stages of the formation of Round C's mushroom cloud:
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6 Nov
50 years ago today, the United States conducted its largest-ever underground nuclear test. A Spartan antiballistic missile carrying a W71 warhead was lowered into a 7-foot-wide, 5,873-foot-deep shaft beneath Amchitka Island, Alaska, and detonated. The yield was about 5 Megatons.
The test went ahead only hours after the Supreme Court refused requests to delay it over the Nixon administration’s failure to issue a comprehensive environmental impact statement. Instead, the court agreed with the admin’s claim any delay would upset the “balance of deterrence.”
Here is some remarkable official footage of the preparations for and results of that huge test. I have watched a lot of nuclear test films over the years, and even though Cannikin was entirely underground, this one never fails to send chills down my spine.
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4 Nov
Today in 1962, the United States conducted Tightrope—its last fully atmospheric nuclear test—as part of Operation Fishbowl. A Nike Hercules SAM was fired 69,000 feet into the sky where its W31 warhead exploded with a reported yield of 10 kilotons 2 miles SSW of Johnston Island. ImageImageImageImage
Subsequent US tests that took place in the atmosphere included Operation Roller Coaster, four joint US-UK zero-yield plutonium dispersal safety tests (Double Tracks, Clean Slate I, Clean Slate II, and Clean Slate III) conducted at the Nevada Test Site from May 15 to June 9, 1963. ImageImageImageImage
There were also 4 Project Plowshare “peaceful nuclear explosion” excavation experiments in Nevada that deliberately breached the surface:
Palanquin—April 14, 1965; 4.3kt
Cabriolet—January 26, 1968; 2.3kt
Buggy—March 12, 1968; 5 simultaneous 1.08kt
Schooner—December 8, 1968; 30kt
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4 Nov
Today in 1958—Election Day—a B-47 bomber carrying one unspecified sealed-pit thermonuclear gravity bomb became engulfed in flames on takeoff and crashed from 1,500 feet on private land about 4.5 miles SW of Dyess AFB, near Abilene, Texas. Three crewmen ejected, one was killed. ImageImage
An explosion of one or more of the assisted-takeoff rockets attached to the fuselage caused the fire. The bomb's conventional high explosives detonated in the crash—the B-47 was "literally blown to bits" per a local reporter—leaving a crater 35 ft. in diameter and 6 ft. deep. ImageImageImageImage
The thermonuclear secondary was damaged but recovered intact, as was the tritium reservoir, which was leaking. The USAF publicly insisted there was "no harmful contamination," although that wasn't true. It only fully cleaned up residual uranium and lead contamination in 2011. ImageImage
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31 Oct
At this moment in 1952 (November 1, local time), the US conducted a test of the first true (albeit undeliverable, weighing 82 tons) H-bomb at Enewetak Atoll. The 10.4-Mt Mike blast vaporized Elugelab Is., leaving behind a 1.2-mi.-wide, 164-ft.-deep crater.
Mike's cloud rose to 57,000' in just 90 sec.; 60 sec. later, it reached 108,000', eventually topping out at 120,000'. It was 60 miles across 30 minutes after detonation. Mike was the fourth largest US nuclear test, with 77% of its yield derived from fission and 23% from fusion.
About 90 minutes after detonation, USAF Capt. Jimmy Robinson, 28, and three others flew F84-G fighters into the massive cloud to collect radioactive fallout samples. Robinson died during a water landing when he ran out of fuel just before reaching…
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30 Oct
Today in 2000, Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act, providing much-needed compensation and medical benefits to people who mined/milled/transported uranium for nuclear weapons or who built/tested/maintained them.
To date, EEOICPA has provided $20,364,169,497 to 131,783 current/former workers diagnosed w/a radiogenic cancer, chronic beryllium disease, beryllium sensitivity, or chronic silicosis resulting from exposure to radiation, beryllium, or silica while employed at covered facilities.
A related law, the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act—which expires in July 2022 unless Congress renews it—has provided $1,272,647,112 to 14,110 nuclear test site and uranium workers for radiation-related illnesses linked to their jobs. Another 8,419 have had claims denied.
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30 Oct
OTD 55 years ago, this small announcement of a new federal construction contract appeared in the Baltimore Sun. It probably didn't attract much attention, but the facility it referenced would go onto become an integral part of the US government's plans to survive a nuclear war.
Built and operated by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Virginia, and dedicated on December 10, 1969, the bunker inside Mount Pony, about 70 miles SW of Washington, DC, served as the central hub for all electronic funds transfers in America. But it also had a secret function.
From December 1969 until 1988, the Federal Reserve stored several billion dollars of shrink-wrapped currency—incl. for awhile a large number of $2 bills—in a 23,500 sq. ft. vault in this 139,800 sq. ft. radiation-hardened building. The money was in 9-foot high stacks on pallets.
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30 Oct
60 years ago today, the Soviet Union tested the largest-ever thermonuclear bomb—a 50-Mt RDS-220 (originally designed for 100 Mt). The device, later dubbed “Tsar Bomba,” was dropped by a Tu-95 Bear bomber and exploded ~13,123 feet above Novaya Zemlya inside the Arctic Circle.
The RDS-220—designed and built in only 4 months—was 26 ft. long, 6.9 ft. in diameter, and weighed 59,525 lbs., including an 1,800-lb. retardation parachute. It was released above 34,000 ft. and fell for 188 seconds, allowing the aircraft time to reach a safe distance (~30 miles).
The 50-Megaton blast was more than 3,300 times as powerful as the 15-kiloton atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. It was 10 times more powerful than _all_ of the conventional munitions used in World War II. Although skies were cloudy, the flash was visible 621 miles away.
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30 Oct
Today in 1958, the United States conducted its last four nuclear tests (all in Nevada) before entering into a mutual testing moratorium with the Soviet Union during negotiations on a nuclear test ban treaty:

Santa Fe—W54 below a tethered balloon 1,500 ft. above Yucca Flat, 1.3kt
Ganymede—zero yield safety experiment of a W45 variant in a containment structure on Yucca Flat
Blanca—alternate W47 primary in a tunnel 987 feet beneath Rainer Mesa, 22kt (slight venting)
Titania—one-point safety test of original W47 primary on a 25-ft tower, Yucca Flat, 0.2kt
The Soviet Union's last tests were on November 1 and 3, until it resumed testing 34 months later on September 1, 1961. The United States quickly followed on September 15, 1961. From then until the end of 1962, the US and the USSR conducted 108 and 138 tests, respectively.
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30 Oct
Today in 1958 at RAF Sculthorpe, ~3 miles west of Fakenham, England, USAF atomic bomb technician MSgt Leander Cunningham, 41, suffered a mental breakdown, locked himself in the bomb maintenance building, and threatened to detonate a Mark-5 bomb by shooting it with his .45 pistol.
Although the bomb likely did not contain a fissile plutonium capsule—meaning it could not achieve a nuclear detonation—shooting it could have set off the bomb's conventional high explosives, killing Cunningham, possibly igniting other bombs inside, and causing significant damage.
After an 8-hour standoff, during which Cunningham reportedly climbed into the building's rafters, he was talked down and surrendered peacefully. After some medical care and evaluation, the senior technician was sent home to the United States.
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28 Oct
Today in 1999, Amb. Paul Nitze—an early and longtime architect of Cold War policies and former director of State Dept. policy planning, sec'y of the navy, deputy sec'y of defense, and arms control negotiator—advocated for the US to “unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons.” Image
“I can think of no circumstances under which it would be wise for the United States to use nuclear weapons, even in retaliation for their prior use against us .... There is no good reason why [their complete elimination] should not be carried out now.” Image
Nitze was part of a then-growing chorus of former military leaders, diplomats, and politicians who had correctly identified nuclear weapons as militarily useless and counterproductive, and (in many cases) publicly called for their elimination. These included Gen. Lee Butler ...
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27 Oct
Fifty-nine years ago today—October 27, 1962—was arguably the most dangerous day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day when human error and sky-high tensions together nearly started World War III by accident at least three separate times. Here's what happened:
While flying a scheduled Strategic Air Command air-sampling mission out of Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, over the North Pole to collect debris from Soviet atmospheric nuclear tests, Capt. Charles Maultsby’s U-2 accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace for more than an hour …
starting at 8:00am Alaska time (Noon in Washington, DC) because he was blinded by the aurora borealis and unable to navigate accurately using the stars. MiG-19 fighters were scrambled from Pevek Airport on the Chukotka Peninsula at 11:56am EDT (and a little later from Anadyr) …
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25 Oct
Today in 1973, in response to CIA reports the USSR was shipping nuclear weapons and troops to Egypt to intervene in the Yom Kippur War, Strategic Air Command, Continental Air Defense Command, European Command, and the Sixth Fleet moved to DEFCON 3 for the first time since 1962. Image
A Soviet flotilla off Egypt dispersed hours after the alert began. SAC and CONAD reverted to DEFCON 4 the next day. EUCOM returned to DEFCON 4 on Oct. 31, as did the Sixth Fleet on Nov. 17. The merchant ship suspected of carrying nuclear weapons had reached Alexandria on Oct. 24.
Below, a declassified CIA memorandum on the possible shipment of Soviet nuclear weapons to Egypt. It concludes, “The evidence should not yet be regarded as though it creates a strong presumptive case that the Soviets dispatched nuclear weapons to Egypt.”… Image
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24 Oct
At 10am EDT today in 1962, the Strategic Air Command increased its alert posture to Defense Condition 2 for the first time in history. B-52 airborne alert missions also increased. All other US armed forces remained at DEFCON 3 (SAC only returned to DEFCON 4 on November 21).
SAC’s 24-hour airborne alert tempo increased rapidly, initially totaling 66 B-52s—28 on the northern route over Canada/Alaska, 36 on the southern route over the Mediterranean/Atlantic, and 2 monitoring the BMEWS radar at Thule, Greenland—supported by dozens of KC-135 tankers.
Each B-52 bomber generally carried either four B28 (maximum yield 1.45 Megatons each), two B15 thermonuclear bombs (yield 3.4 Megatons each), or two B39 thermonuclear bombs (yield 3.8 Megatons each).
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