Not long ago, Eric Schlosser held in his hand the switch that saved a large part of Eastern North Carolina from nuclear annihilation.
After his book about the U.S. nuclear weapons programs, “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” was published last year, Schlosser visited the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. There he examined the recovered switch to a hydrogen bomb that was accidentally dropped onto a field about 60 miles southeast of Raleigh, near Goldsboro, on Jan. 23, 1961, in what was one of the scariest moments of the Cold War.
“It was quite remarkable because words can’t describe really how simple and rudimentary that switch was,” said Schlosser, who will be in Raleigh on Tuesday to promote the book, which is now out in paperback. “You’d never be allowed today to have the safety of a nuclear weapon depend on a switch like that. That very type of switch was later found to be defective in a number of cases.”
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The Goldsboro hydrogen bomb is one of numerous incidents involving nuclear weapons that Schlosser, an investigative journalist, writes about in “Command and Control.” The book, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, centers on a 1980 incident in Damascus, Ark., where servicemen struggled to prevent a ballistic missile from exploding.
The incident in Goldsboro has long been known and written about, of course, but Schlosser has dug out new details.
The crew of the B-52 bailed out after the plane’s fuel tank sprung a leak, went into an uncontrolled spin and broke up. Three crew members were killed.
As the aircraft spun downward, centrifugal forces pulled a lanyard in the cockpit, causing the bomb to be released with a parachute. The 4 megaton hydrogen bomb – more than 250 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – hit the ground, but the weapon didn’t detonate. (A second bomb disappeared into a swamp.)
“Every safety mechanism had failed, except one: the ready/safety switch in the cockpit,” Schlosser writes. “The switch was in the SAFE position when the bomb dropped. Had the switch been set to GROUND or AIR, the X-unit would’ve charged, the detonators would’ve triggered, and a thermonuclear weapon would have exploded in a field near Faro, North Carolina.”
Fallout as far as NYC
As Parker F. Jones, a safety engineer at Sandia, wrote in a memo about the accident: “One simple dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe.”
How bad would it have been? Schlosser said with strong northerly winds, the ground burst around the site could have deposited lethal fallout over Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City.
Schlosser said there is no reliable way to estimate casualties.
Science historian Alex Wellerstein has created a website (bit.ly/1wcLbZF) that simulates the damage done by a nuclear blast.
Under that scenario, the Goldsboro bomb would have created a fireball incinerating everything in a radius of 1.05 miles from ground zero, demolishing concrete buildings within 2.78 miles, collapsing most ordinary buildings 6.86 miles from the blast zone and causing enough thermal radiation to start fires and cause third-degree burns 15.2 miles from the blast site. The Wellerstein model also suggests the radiation plume would have reached northward from Goldsboro through northeastern North Carolina, southeastern Virginia, up the eastern shore of Maryland, past Delaware and almost to South Jersey. (These figures were first reported by Michael Peck at Forbes.com.)
Wellerstein puts the likely death toll at 60,000, but he may be optimistic. He assumes the bomb would detonate in the air and not after it hits the ground – which would have been much more deadly, because it would result in more radioactive material being circulated.
If the bomb had detonated, Schlosser said, it would have changed American history. The accident occurred just three days after the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. The nuclear catastrophe would have overshadowed the entire era.