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(Reader: Theodore Colon) 40 Years Ago, “We Almost Blew up Arkansas, a Broken Arrow”

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Reader Post | By Theodore Colon

40 Years Ago, “We Almost Blew Up Arkansas, A Broken Arrow”

It was a blast reminiscent of the Massive Beirut Explosion.

On the night of September 18, 1980, a Titan II missile carrying a thermonuclear warhead exploded in rural Arkansas.

The explosion blew the silo blast doors off and sent chunks of debris flying everywhere, including the nine-megaton nuclear warhead that sat atop the missile. (By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was around 15 kilotons, and the one dropped on Nagasaki was around 21 kilotons. There are 1,000 kilotons in a megaton).

“They don’t know where the warhead is”

Eventually, it was found—in a ditch about 200 yards away from the silo. Not that the Air Force was sharing that information.

The Air Force refused to confirm or deny if a nuclear weapon was involved in the explosion—even to Vice President Walter Mondale, who was in Arkansas that day for the state Democratic convention, trying to help the state’s young governor, Bill Clinton, in a re-election bid.

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Frustrated, Mondale had to call Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and pull rank, saying, “Goddammit, Harold, I’m the vice president of the United States,” to find out it was, in fact, carrying a nuclear warhead. Mondale and Jimmy Carter lost their bid for re-election in 1980.

The Damascus accident occurred when a U.S. Air Force Titan II ICBM, with a 9 megaton W-53 Nuclear Warhead, had a liquid fuel explosion inside its silo. A tech dropped a socket, before they could stop it, it slipped off the gantry and in fright they watched it crashing down the side of the missile, and punctured a fuel tank. Then a series of unfortunate events lead to an electrical exhaust fan switched on igniting the extremely volatile fuel vapor.  The explosion destroyed the silo and its 700 ton door, and threw the nuclear warhead hundreds of yards out of the silo. The warhead did not detonate and the US Air Force stated that there was no radiation released.

Lessons learned from the accident:

  • The organization skills and safety culture surrounding, nuclear weapons, has been challenging to maintain for the US government. It is alarming to think about other nuclear armed countries safety culture or lack thereof. The Damascus accident was caused by, a repairmen dropping a 9 pound socket down the silo, which hit the missile and caused it to leak fuel. A series of poor decisions resulted in the fuel exploding a dozen hours later.

When studied trivial events in nontrivial systems after the Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdown in 1979. After reviewing hundreds of incidents and accidents, he concluded that human error wasn’t responsible for the accidents. The real problem was embedded in the technology and was impossible to solve. “Our ability to organize does not match the inherent hazards of some of our organized activities.” One-in-a-million events should be expected. They are normal.

  • Dangerous systems require standardized procedures and centralized control to prevent mistakes during routine operations. But during an accident, it found that “the operators have to be able to take independent and sometimes quite creative action” to manage the uncertainty. Few bureaucracies can handle the paradox of needing routine centralized processes and creative flexibility during crises.
  • General Curtis LeMay, led the Strategic Air Command in its early days by implementing standardization with checklists and measures of effectiveness for every job and action. As he said “I can’t afford to differentiate between the incompetent and the unfortunate.”

It was determined that Nuclear War was futile, So MAD or [Mutual Assured Destruction] was the Defense policy of 70’s ~ 80’, with a No Cities clause.

  • [The end result was determined to be a Series of Unfortunate Event’s]

The United States has had 32 acknowledged Broken Arrow events. A Broken Arrow is a accidental event that involves nuclear weapons, warheads or components that does not create a risk of nuclear war. These include:

  • Accidental or unexplained nuclear explosion
  • Non-nuclear detonation or burning of a nuclear weapon
  • Radioactive contamination
  • Loss in transit of nuclear asset with or without its carrying vehicle
  • Jettisoning of a nuclear weapon or nuclear component

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