In the chaotic early days of nuclear weapons, it’s a miracle that more people weren’t killed by stray bombs, writes Rudolph Herzog in his new book A Short History of Nuclear Folly (Melville House). Here is Herzog’s pick of four worrying nuclear misadventures.
1. An own goal in Carolina
On March 11 1958, a B-47 bomber took off from a US airforce base in Savannah, Georgia, on a mission called Operation Snow Flurry. It was on its way to England on a mock bombing run when the pilot accidentally released a nuclear bomb over a wooded area near the small South Carolina town of Florence. The bomb fell just 100 yards away from the home of Walter Bill Gregg, causing a crater 75ft wide and 25ft deep. Thankfully the bomb was dropped without its deadly warhead, which could have laid waste to Florence and its 30,000 inhabitants. Gregg and his family suffered only minor injuries but their home was destroyed. “I always wanted a swimming pool and now I’ve got the hole for one at no cost,” he told reporters.
2. Mediterranean miscalculation
In the 1970s, German engineer Friedrich Bassler planned to use 200 hydrogen bombs to blast open a canal for bringing water from the Mediterranean Sea inland to the Qattara Depression to generate hydroelectricity. Each of the bombs would have been more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Bassler’s “peaceful” atomic bomb project was cancelled after it was discovered that the explosions would have affected the tectonically unstable Red Sea Rift.
3. Soviet satellite turns lethal
Soviet spacecraft Cosmos 1402 was launched on August 20 1982 carrying a nuclear reactor to power a radar system for tracking ships. On board was 100lb of enriched uranium (it takes 35lb to make a nuclear bomb). Once the mission was complete, the plan was to boost the nuclear reactor into higher orbit, where it would linger at a safe distance from Earth for hundreds of years. But that failed and the reactor plummeted to Earth in 1983 – thankfully it fell into the Indian Ocean, causing no harm.
4. Sold to the ‘axis of evil’
Austrian-German engineer Gernot Zippe was kidnapped soon after the second world war and held prisoner in the Soviet Union, where he was ordered to find an easy way of producing uranium’s rare U-235 isotope. He developed a centrifuge that enabled cheap production of nuclear bombs. His plans were stolen years later by the Pakistani government, which sold its secrets on to North Korea and Iran. “With a kitchen knife you can peel a potato or kill your neighbour,” said Zippe. “It’s up to governments to use the centrifuge for the benefit of mankind.”