On 23rd January 1961, a United States (U.S.) bomber broke apart mid-air above the town of Goldsboro, North Carolina, in the U.S. The aircraft plummeted to the ground, and so did the missiles which lay within. These missiles were armed to explode; however, one of the four dynamo switches on the missile stayed intact, preventing an explosion. These missiles were atomic bombs with the yield about two hundred and fifty times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
A later declassified report claimed that should the switch have failed, the face of eastern North Carolina would have been wiped off the map, further stating that: “one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe.”
Nuclear mishaps are not new to this world — since the dawn of nuclear weapons, humanity has been fumbling around with them, often misusing, mishandling, and misplacing them. According to a Business Insider article, there have been 32 nuclear mishaps or ‘Broken Arrow’ incidents since 1950, and these are just the official ones listed by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Today, there are over seventeen thousand nuclear warheads in the world. Most of these are currently in the ‘safe’ custody of countries like the US and Russia. In their visit to Bulgaria, a former Soviet bloc nation, Vice news uncovered something which left their founder, Shane Smith, saying, “holy shit”. One of their contacts in Bulgaria told them that he had bought a nuclear warhead on a French journalist’s request. He brought in the ex-vice director of the Soviet atomic bomb program, Fedor Patchenok, to check its authenticity. Patchenok confirmed its authenticity as an ex-Soviet warhead.
Nuclear missiles are not only in possession of countries across the world but also in circulation in the ex-Soviet country’s black markets. There is no way of ascertaining how many such missiles are circulating in the black markets of former Soviet bloc countries.
Now you might be thinking, well, at least they aren’t being used, and nobody’s getting hurt…well, not exactly. To date, countries are conducting nuclear missile tests. In the past decade, due to nuclear testing ban treaties, countries like the U.S. and Russia, which are responsible for most tests, have been restricted. However, President Donald Trump recently pulled the U.S. out of this agreement, essentially lifting most nuclear testing restrictions.This was a response to continuous Russian testing of nuclear weapons. Among these tests was the test of nuclear weapons conducted in the Barents Sea, located to the north of Russia. Following the failure of this testing, the nuclear missile remains unfound. This isn’t the only incident of a nuclear weapon being lost. In an article regarding missing nuclear weapons, the website MentalFloss found eight occasions where the U.S. military had lost nuclear weapons since 1950.
However, it’s not just when these weapons are being transported or tested that there is a grave threat. Something as banal as maintenance can lead to catastrophe. During routine maintenance in a silo in Arkansas in the U.S., a socket was dropped into the silo, storing the nuclear missile. The socket pierced the missile’s skin, causing a leak in the rocket, which eventually led to an explosion. This incident ended with one death, and twenty-one injured the destruction of the silo.
For all our obsession with nuclear weapons and their destructive power, they don’t play a significant role in international politics. A study by the Cato Institute found that despite large sums of money going towards the maintenance of nuclear arsenals in the U.S., they rarely factored into the political discourse abroad. The reason for this being that morally defensible use of these weapons following what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is practically impossible. No country can use a nuclear weapon in war and hope to retain any alliances. This means that having a few nuclear missiles as deterrence from a first strike (retaliation capabilities) is as good as having a humongous arsenal of nuclear weapons, thereby rendering having a large arsenal of these weapons moot.
Today, we as a species have the cumulative destructive capability to wipe ourselves and most of the species off the face of this planet. This is a relatively new capability in our history, and like a toddler’s new toy, for over half a decade, we have been giddy with excitement about this. However, as we grow older and recognise the pointless nature of the warheads, it may be time to get rid of a majority of them and keep a few as a souvenir of a more innocent time. Because, as you can see, it’s only a matter of time before we blow up a country because we dropped some bombs by mistake. So let’s not have humanity’s last words be, to quote the founder of Vice News:
Edited by Rhea