Michael Lewis, writing for Vanity Fair on the Department of Energy and the massive risks it confronts and manages every day, has this jaw-dropping anecdote about a hydrogen bomb that fell off a B-52 bomber over North Carolina:
Right away we have a problem. At the very top of his list is an accident with nuclear weapons, and it is difficult to discuss that topic with someone who doesn’t have security clearance. But the Trump people didn’t have it, either, I point out, so he’ll just need to work around it. “I have to be careful here,” he says. He wants to make a big point: the D.O.E. has the job of ensuring that nuclear weapons are not lost or stolen, or at the slightest risk of exploding when they should not. “It’s a thing Rick Perry should worry about every day,” he says.
“Are you telling me that there have been scares?”
He thinks a moment. “They’ve never had a weapon that has been lost,” he says carefully. “Weapons have fallen off planes.” He pauses again. “I would encourage you to spend an hour reading about Broken Arrows.”
“Broken Arrow” is a military term of art for a nuclear accident that doesn’t lead to a nuclear war. MacWilliams has had to learn all about these. Now he tells me about an incident that occurred back in 1961, and was largely declassified in 2013, just as he began his stint at D.O.E. A pair of four-mega-ton hydrogen bombs, each more than 250 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, broke off a damaged B-52 over North Carolina. One of the bombs disintegrated upon impact, but the other floated down beneath its parachute and armed itself. It was later found in a field outside Goldsboro, North Carolina, with three of its four safety mechanisms tripped or rendered ineffective by the plane’s breakup. Had the fourth switch flipped, a vast section of eastern North Carolina would have been destroyed, and nuclear fallout might have descended on Washington, D.C., and New York City.