A nuclear close call is a set of circumstances that could have resulted in an unintended nuclear detonation. Incidents normally involve an expected imminent threat to a country with nuclear capabilities, which could result in retaliatory strikes. At their most severe, the potential damage of nuclear close calls would have likely resulted in Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which effectively means that both sides would have been annihilated.
Despite a general improvement in global nuclear tensions and major arms reductions after the prolonged nuclear threat of the Cold War, there remains no shortage of nuclear weapons in the world. Together, all of the nuclear weapons in the world have the combined power to kill a staggering three billion people or, in the event of nuclear winter, totally extinguish the whole human race.
Historically, nuclear bombs have been dropped accidentally, the big red button has nearly been pressed due to misinterpreted data and technical faults have triggered dangerous crisis response sequences: in all, there have been at least 22 very close misses since nuclear weapons were first invented.
Here are some of the most significant.
1. False alarm of a Soviet attack (5 November 1956)
During the Suez Crisis, British and French forces attacked Egypt to attempt to wrestle back control of the Suez canal. The Soviet government proposed to the US that they combine non-nuclear forces to stop the attack. While considering this, the US were alerted to apparent unidentified aircraft flying over Turkey, Soviet planes flying over Syria, a British bomber plane crashing to the ground and Soviet ships manoeuvring in a way that signalled an attack.
The US feared that this might trigger a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union by NATO. However, the threat was finally diffused when it was realised that all events were coincidental or misinterpreted: the unidentified aircraft over Turkey were swans, the Soviet plane was an escort for a Syrian President, the British bomber had experienced mechanical issues and the Soviet fleet were doing regular exercises.
2. Kirtland Air Force Base accident (22 May 1957)
On a fine spring day in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a bomb somehow fell through the bomb bay doors of a B-36 aircraft transporting a nuclear weapon from Texas to New Mexico. The bomb fell some 1,700 feet into a field south of Kirtland Air Force Base, exploding and creating a crater 12 feet deep and 25 feet across.
Luckily, the nuclear capsule had been separated from the conventional explosives during transport for safety during transit, meaning that the damage was far less than it could have been: the only casualty of the accident was a nearby grazing cow.
3. Goldsboro B-52 crash (24 January 1961)
A single safety switch was all that stood between a 20-megaton Mk39 hydrogen bomb from exploding in North Carolina in January 1961. When a B-52 plane carrying two of the bombs suffered a fuel leak in the wing, the plane exploded and dropped both bombs. The parachute of one deployed, while the other nearly exploded due to five of its six safety mechanisms failing.
If the bomb had exploded, a large part of North Carolina would have been totally obliterated. While the air force managed to recover the bomb’s plutonium, they spent months searching for but ultimately never found the uranium. As a result, they purchased the land in the area where they believed it was lost.
4. Volk Field bear incident (25 October 1962)
In the midst of the Cold War in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was in its most tense stage: President John F. Kennedy’s negotiations with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were resulting in little resolution, and the US military’s nuclear stockpile had the combined power of some 42,000 bombs equivalent to the one dropped on Hiroshima. It seemed that both sides were willing to strike at any time.
At around midnight on 25 October 1962, a shadowy figure climbed a fence near Volk Field Air National Guard Base in Duluth, Minnesota. An air force guard identified it as the Russian ‘spetznaz’ – Soviet special forces – preparing to sabotage US command facilities.
After a number of shots were fired, the alarm system malfunctioned and a Klaxon rang out over the air base, resulting in two squadrons of F-106A fighter jets containing 800-pound nuclear rockets rushing to their launch sites under the assumption that World War Three had begun.
However, at the last moment, it was realised that the shadowy figure was actually a black bear climbing a fence, and the strike was called off. In short, World War Three had nearly been caused by a bear.
5. Palomares B-52 crash (17 January 1966)
During a routine refuelling operation over Spain, an American B-52 plane was struck by the fuel plane’s boom, instantly destroying both planes and killing 7 of the 11 crew members. Two bombs from the B-52 rocketed towards the ground and exploded on impact near the village of Palomares, contaminating a square mile with radioactive plutonium. Another bomb was found unexploded in a riverbed, while another fell into the Mediterranean Sea.
The incident was featured on the front page of the New York Times in January 1966, and Spanish fishermen went to court to claim salvage rights for the bomb in the sea which would have entitled them to around $20 million. The matter was settled out of court.
6. Cuban Missile Crisis submarine incident (27 October 1962)
In late October 1962, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets sent four submarines to patrol the waters off Cuba. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the submarines were carrying torpedoes tipped with Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons, which the captains were authorised to fire. To make the situation more critical, the submarines were out of contact with Moscow and so could only estimate what was happening above sea level.
On 27 October, the US fleet discovered and surrounded one of the submarines. The Moscow officer decided to fire his ‘special weapon’ at the US ships. This decision required a second officer to agree on the submarine, which he did. However, the head of the submarine fleet, Vasilli Arkhipov, overruled the order, meaning that the nuclear weapons weren’t fired. Arkhipov became known as ‘The Man Who Saved the World’, a nickname also afforded other individuals, such as Stanislav Petrov, who prevented nuclear war.
The knowledge of and intention to use the nuclear weapons was at least partially in place during the incident, meaning it certainly ranks as one of the closest near misses in nuclear history.
7. False US missile attack (26 September 1983)
In the autumn of 1983, tensions between the US and the Soviet Union were especially pronounced due to the Soviet Union having shot down a plane travelling from New York. On 26 September 1983, a Soviet satellite reported that five US missiles were heading towards the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union prepared to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack on the US and its NATO allies that could have resulted in a nuclear war that could have killed half the population of both countries involved.
The officer in charge, Stanislav Petrov, had a feeling that if the US were to attack, they would do it with far more than five missiles, so disobeyed Soviet military protocol and dismissed the warning. He was correct: the satellite had interpreted the sun’s reflection off the clouds as a missile attack. Though his efforts didn’t come to light until much later, Stanislav Petrov was eventually recognised as having possibly saved more lives than anyone in history, and has also been described as ‘The Man Who Saved the World’.
8. False US airstrike (25 January 1995)
On 25 January 1995, Russian warning radars suggested that an American airstrike was incoming. President Boris Yeltsin was alerted and given a suitcase that contained instructions about how to launch a strike in retaliation, and instructed Russian nuclear forces to be on alert.
Eventually, Yeltsin decided not to launch a counterstrike. It later emerged that the Russian warning systems had actually picked up a Norwegian-US research rocket that had been launched by scientists studying the northern lights.