Most of us would agree that a nuclear weapon is a dangerous thing; one that needs to be handled with extreme care. However, many of you will find it surprising to discover exactly how often incidents with nuclear weapons occur that don’t actually lead to them detonating. In fact, this occurrence happens so often that the U.S. Military actually has a special term for it – Broken Arrow.
So far, the Department of Defense recognizes 32 “Broken Arrows” and most of them occurred on American soil. These incidents are obviously dangerous, but nowhere near as disastrous as they could have been since they involved nuclear weapons. However, that is not to say that they don’t cause a lot of damage, leave behind radioactive waste and, unfortunately, even cause fatalities.
The event we are looking at today is one of the most famous “Broken Arrow” incidents that took place on May 22, 1957 near the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. A B-36 Bomber was making a transport run from Texas to the Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. The cargo? A humongous Mark 17 hydrogen bomb. This bomb is almost 25 feet long (7.5 m) and has an explosive yield of over 10 megatons or 10,000 kilotons. By comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of “only” 16 kilotons.
So what happened? Well, the bomber was nearing the air force base. It was roughly 4 and a half miles away when an error caused the bomb to dislodge from whatever was keeping it in place, fall through the bay doors and plummet 1,700 feet (520 m) to the ground. The exact reason for the failure was never discovered (or never disclosed). Luckily, for safety reasons, the nuclear capsule was disconnected from the conventional explosives during transport and it never detonated. However, that is not to say that the bomb didn’t go off. It might not have gone nuclear, but there were still plenty of explosives in it. It created a 25-foot wide (75. M) crater 12 feet (3.5 m) deep and spread radioactive contaminants over a 1-mile area.
The good news is that the bomb detonated in the middle of a (relatively) empty field so nobody was injured and no serious damage was caused. There was one casualty, though – an unlucky cow that was grazing near the point of impact.