Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew

Larry Holzwarth - October 13, 2018

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
Numerous accidents involving nuclear weapons, including the crash and loss of a B-47 bomber like those seen here, have resulted in loss of life but no nuclear detonations. US Air Force

8. Accidents involving nuclear weapons have been more frequent than is well known

During the development of the first atomic weapons there were accidents, both in the United States and in Germany, and probably in the Soviet Union. Two technicians were killed as a result of separate criticality accidents in Los Alamos following the atomic bombings of Japan, as further development of the weapon continued. Since deployment, there have numerous accidents involving nuclear weapons, but to date, none resulted in an accidental nuclear detonation, largely because of the design of the weapon which prevents inadvertent detonation. However, in several aviation accidents, the high explosive material which is used to trigger the implosion event has detonated. Nuclear detonation was avoided for differing reasons, including the nuclear core not being installed in the weapon (Albuquerque, 1950); the weapons were lost (Mediterranean Sea, 1956); or radioactive materials were released without detonation (Rocky Flats, 1957).

These are but a very few of the several incidents involving the loss or destruction of nuclear weapons due to accident. Nuclear weapons have been lost in the sinking of American and Soviet submarines, the loss of aircraft, and fires. There have been numerous incidents of accidental venting of irradiated water and steam in shipboard accidents, most of which were the result of nuclear power incidents, rather than accidents involving nuclear weapons. The United States quickly developed fail-safe procedures for the handling of nuclear weapons at all stages of their manufacture and maintenance, storage, and deployment while in military hands; these procedures and extensive training have been a major reason that there have been no accidental nuclear detonations over the more than decades of nuclear weapon deployment, but nonetheless, accidents which resulted in the release of radioactivity, or the complete loss of the weapon, have occurred.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The US Navy has never confirmed whether USS Scorpion, lost with all hands in 1968, was carrying nuclear weapons. US Navy

9. Thirty-two accidents which qualify as a “Broken Arrow”.

A Broken Arrow is an accident involving a nuclear weapon, including an incident involving a delivery vehicle such as an airplane, missile, ship, submarine, or other methods of launching the weapon. There have been 32 known incidents which qualify as a Broken Arrow, and possibly others which occurred during classified military operations which have yet to be released to the public (the number includes accidents which occurred to Soviet and Russian operations). There have been at least six American nuclear warheads or bombs which have been lost, and not known to have been recovered. Some of them remain irrecoverable, such as any nuclear torpedoes or submarine-launched missiles on USS Scorpion when it was lost. The US Navy did not and does not confirm the presence or absence of nuclear weapons aboard its ships during deployment, and does not comment on submarines operations at all.

The US Navy has funded operations to monitor the wreckage of its two lost nuclear submarines, Thresher and Scorpion, in part to ensure no radioactive leakage from their reactors, leading to speculation that the Navy wanted to determine with certainty that the nuclear weapons carried remain with the wreckage. Several Soviet submarines were lost at sea during the Cold War which carried nuclear weapons. One of them, a Golf class submarine lost about 750 miles from Oahu, was partially raised by a secret CIA operation using the purpose-built vessel Glomar Explorer. The Soviets had previously confirmed that the submarine carried three nuclear missiles and several nuclear torpedoes, and while the United States recovered the remains of Soviet sailors, which they buried with military honors in a recorded ceremony, later giving the recording to the Soviets, the Navy and CIA never confirmed whether any of the nuclear warheads were recovered.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The damaged Soviet submarine K-219, photographed by the US Navy three days before sinking in 18,000 feet of water. US Navy

10. The Soviets lost about three dozen nuclear warheads in one incident

In October 1986, a Soviet Yankee I class nuclear submarine, powered by two nuclear reactors, was ripped by an explosion in one of the vessel’s 16 missile tubes. The explosion and resulting fire forced the submarine to surface, approximately 500 miles from the island of Bermuda. The Soviet submarine was being shadowed (as were all Soviet missile submarines while at sea) by an American fast attack submarine, USS Augusta. Rumors of a collision between the two submarines, which caused the leak which resulted in the explosion and fire, were denied by the commanders of both the Soviet vessel, K-219, and the American submarine. The Soviets successfully fought the casualty to the point that the vessel was able to surface, and rejecting help from the Americans standing by, was taken under tow by another Soviet vessel.

The tow was unsuccessful and the Soviets, in violation of their orders from Moscow, abandoned the submarine, though the Captain remained aboard in a last-ditch attempt to save his ship. Moscow ordered the crew back aboard, under the command of the Political Officer, but before the orders were carried out the submarine flooded beyond the point of no return, sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic in the Hatteras Abyssal Plain, settling at a depth of about 18,000 feet, more than three miles beneath the surface. It took with it to the bottom two nuclear reactors, which had been put in a safe condition, and more than three dozen nuclear weapons. Because the submarine was flooding internally in all of its compartments it was not crushed by the enormous pressure of the depths. In 1988 a Soviet hydrographic expedition examined the wreck, which was broken in two, with some missile silo hatches open, and the missiles and their nuclear warheads gone.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The first test detonation of a thermonuclear bomb, which came to be known as the H-bomb in the public mind, October 31, 1952. Department of Energy

11. The hydrogen bomb was developed by the United States in the early 1950s

After the Soviet Union demonstrated to the world that they possessed an atomic bomb the United States redoubled its efforts to develop ever more powerful weapons to counter the new Soviet threat. Both new means of delivering the weapon and more powerful weapons themselves were designed, engineered, and those with promise deployed. In 1952 the United States detonated a new type of bomb, in which a primary stage fission bomb releases radiation which bombards a secondary fusion stage, creating a fusion reaction. Later designs added a third stage. The hydrogen bomb, as it came to be called for its use of hydrogen isotopes in its fusion stage, was a far more powerful device than the plutonium implosion bomb, and allowed for smaller weapons which delivered a far greater yield.

The five major nuclear powers all developed hydrogen bombs of their own throughout the ensuing decade (the five powers were the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and the People’s Republic of China). They have since been joined by India, Pakistan, South Africa, Israel, and following the dissolution of the Soviet Union several former Soviet Socialist Republics. North Korea has recently developed nuclear weapons, and several other states are suspected of either possessing or being in the process of acquiring them. Delivery devices are another matter. Throughout the 1950s the United States developed a means of delivering strategic nuclear weapons to their targets relying on three major legs of what came to be known as the nuclear triad; land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, and land-based strategic bombers.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The first submerged launch of a Polaris ballistic missile from USS George Washington changed the strategic balance during the Cold War. US Navy

12. Polaris and the undetectable nuclear missile launch platform

After several years of development, the United States Navy first deployed the Polaris Missile System aboard USS George Washington in 1960. The Polaris program demanded the design of a new type of nuclear-powered submarine, capable of carrying 16 newly designed two-stage ballistic missiles, and able to launch them towards their targets while the vessel remained submerged at sea. With the success of George Washington, the United States was capable of deploying missiles from undetected launch positions, ensuring greater odds of survival of retaliatory weapons in the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Forty-one Polaris submarines were planned and built, each carrying sixteen missiles, and additional Polaris weapons systems were sold to the United Kingdom and Italy, though the Italian program was canceled in the mid-1960s. Forward bases to service the submarines were established in Scotland, Spain, and Guam.

Each Polaris submarine was assigned two crews, designated Blue and Gold, allowing the ships to spend more time at sea while avoiding crew fatigue. Later developments included a multi-warhead (3) version of the missile, giving it greater destructive power, with the three warheads designed to triangulate over a target. In the early 1970s a more accurate missile, Poseidon, which delivered multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRV) replaced all but the original ten Polaris submarines, which remained deployed using the older system, and by the early 1980s the Trident One system was replacing the Poseidons. The Navy’s strategic missile program became a reliable and increasingly accurate leg of the nuclear triad, and the leg which ensured the United States possessed the ability to retaliate with devastating effect in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union. Polaris and its descendants were also the chief cause of the undeclared submarine war which was conducted by the US and USSR throughout the Cold War.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
Test launch of an Atlas ICBM, the same booster which with some modification carried John Glenn and subsequent Mercury astronauts into orbit in the early 1960s. US Air Force

13. Land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)

The concept of the ICBM was first demonstrated by the German V-2 program during the Second World War, and many of the scientists which supported that program were appropriated by the United States following the war to work in America’s many missile programs, including for defense and space exploration. The early American ICBMs, as with their V-2 progenitor, were severely limited regarding accuracy, making them suitable for use against large area targets, such as cities or widespread industrial areas. Since it wasn’t long before the Soviets had them too, the means of eliminating the Soviet launch sites fell to what was at the time the most accurate means of delivering weapons to their targets, manned long-range strategic bombers. Later ICBMS offered improved accuracy and weapons load, making them a suitable first-strike weapon, and relegating the bombers to a mop-up role.

It was the Soviets who demonstrated a workable ICBM first, using the same design of missile which had launched Sputnik and the space race. The first flight of an armed American ICBM took place from Vandenburg Air Force Base in July 1959. America’s early ICBM launch vehicles doubled as the boosters for the fledgling space program, and missile development, though plagued with failures, moved ahead in the 1960s. Underground missile solos, mobile launchers, and other means of deception were developed to protect the ICBMs and an anti-missile defense system, the ABMS, developed in the 1960s and early 1970s. The existence of the weapons led to the negotiation of several treaties between the US and the USSR which limited their number, the defense systems which protected them, and the number of warheads they deployed. Eventually, the ICBM system became the leg of the Triad which would have delivered the main thrust of an American first strike.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The venerable B-52 Stratofortress has been in service for more than six decades, and is expected serve at least into the 2050s. US Air Force

14. Land based strategic bombers carrying nuclear weapons.

Two of the three legs of the American nuclear defense Triad were under the control of the United States Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, which was first activated in 1947 (SAC controlled the ICBMs and the manned bombers). Several US bombers, beginning with the B-29, were designated as aircraft to be used to deliver the atomic, and later the thermonuclear bomb, to targets within the Soviet Union and their allies. Among them were the B-36, B-47, and beginning in 1955, the B-52 Stratofortress, an iconic symbol of American military might both as a nuclear delivery vehicle and as a strategic bomber during the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm, The Gulf War, and the War on Terror. The B-52, of which 755 were built, is expected to be continually upgraded and modernized as it has throughout its career, and remain operational within the United States Air Force through the first half of the twenty-first century.

Other bombers and fighter bombers have been designed to carry nuclear bombs as part of their mission, including the FB-111, the B-1, the B-2, and others. The purpose of the manned bomber leg of the triad evolved to become one of removing those launch sites which could not be successfully targeted by the unmanned missiles of the ICBMs and the SLBMs. As those two legs increased in both firepower and accuracy throughout the Cold War and beyond, the manned bombers became less of a first-strike weapon and more of a retaliatory weapon, intended to eliminate targets which survived the first strike and to deploy if necessary against military concentrations and targets of opportunity. All three legs of the nuclear triad remain in place, and all three continue to upgrade and modernize their weapons and their mission in response to changes regarding the perceived threats to the United States and its allies.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The cooperation and coordination between the United States and Canada has existed for decades, extending to tracking Santa’s flight each Christmas Eve. Wikimedia

15. North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)

From the beginning of the Manhattan Project, British and Canadian scientists, engineers, technicians, and military personnel were involved with the effort to develop, produce, and deploy the atomic bomb and its subsequent iterations. Since the route Soviet missiles and bombers would take during an all-out nuclear attack against the United States would in large part be over the Arctic, the early warning system required the United States to detect a Soviet incursion over Canadian air space and to respond to one in time. NORAD divided North America into three distinct regions, the Alaskan Region, under the auspices of the US Eleventh Air Force; the Canadian Region, the defense of which comes under the command of the First Canadian Air Division; and the Continental US region, under 1st Air Force. There are smaller divisions within the major commands, including Canada being divided into eastern and western regions.

NORAD was born in 1957, and the following year the Americans and Canadians agreed that command of NORAD would always be held by an American officer, with the Vice-Commander being a Canadian. The nations agreed that NORAD’s primary responsibility would be the defense of the North American continent by providing early warning and defense for the retaliatory forces of the Strategic Air Command. For the first decade of its existence, Canada and the United States worked closely together to create seamless communications. NORAD has been reorganized several times, but for six decades Canadian-American cooperation and shared responsibilities and expense have maintained a vigilant protective curtain over the North American continent. As a whimsical note, every year since its inception NORAD has continued the tradition of its predecessor by tracking and reporting the progress of Santa Claus as he makes his rounds on Christmas Eve.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
Components of a Medium Atomic Demolition Munition (MADM) a “portable” nuclear device developed by the United States. The assembled unit weighed under 400 pounds. Wikimedia

16. Atomic demolition munitions and suitcase bombs

Beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1960s, and in some cases beyond, the United States and the Soviet Union developed miniature nuclear weapons for use as mines and demolition charges. The weapons were intended to be used on the battlefield as a means of destroying advancing troop formations, forcing them to use routes which were advantageous to defending troops or changing the extant landscape in a manner which was beneficial to the defenders. The W54 warhead developed for the Davy Crockett weapons system was the basis for the design of many of these weapons, but other, even smaller nuclear weapons were adapted from it for specialized use. The Tactical Atomic Demolition Device (TADM) was a portable nuclear weapon, resembled a section of culvert pipe, and about 850 pounds. The weapon was in production from 1961 – 66, when it was withdrawn from deployment in Europe.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with the knowledge that Soviet nuclear weapons were scattered throughout several of the former Soviet Socialist Republics, the United States and former Soviet military leaders created the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, to ensure that all of the miniaturized Soviet nuclear weapons were located and destroyed. Euphemistically called “suitcase” bombs, these weapons posed a special concern should they fall into the hands of groups such as Chechen rebels (to the Russians) or rogue nations and terror groups (to the west). Despite persistent rumors of the existence of such weapons, no weapon or components of size compatible with the suitcase description has ever been found, or at least such a finding has never been made public. The potential existence of such weapons is a special concern of security specialists dealing with the global war on terror.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
Though conventional bombing raids created greater casualties in both Europe and Japan, the Hiroshima bombing changed the world forever. Wikimedia

17. The impact of nuclear weapons on the global scene

As of 2018, though several nations deploy nuclear weapons as part of their national security posture, only the United States has ever used them as part of an armed conflict, which remains the source of debate and rancor. Many argue that the use of the atomic bombs against Japan in 1945 was unnecessary, supported by the belief that the Japanese were ready to surrender and thus the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes. Others argue that the bomb could have been demonstrated rather than used on civilian population centers as a means of hastening the end of the war. These arguments ignore the facts of the situation in 1945, when the Japanese population had been trained in suicide bombing and fighting techniques, more than ten thousand kamikaze planes had been prepared for use against the invading Americans, and there was little demand for surrender within the Japanese population or military.

The atomic bombing of Nagasaki was made necessary by the Japanese refusing to respond to demands for immediate unconditional surrender following the bombing of Hiroshima, which while a horror in itself did not result in as many Japanese deaths as had the firebombing of Tokyo using conventional bombs. Even after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the Japanese did not offer unconditional surrender, instead of demanding that they be allowed to retain their Emperor on the throne in the postwar world, a condition which was granted by the Allies, despite having one remaining atomic bomb ready to be dropped at the time. The dropping of the two atomic bombs hastened the end of the Pacific War, along with the Soviet invasion of Japanese held territory. In doing so they saved countless thousands of lives, Americans, British, Australians, Russians, and Japanese.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
Godzilla – and the Atomic Ray – are just two of the creations of fiction and culture which resulted from the release of the atomic age. Wikimedia

18. The atomic bomb and culture

In the 1950s the atomic bomb changed world culture, political discourse, literature, comic books, films, television, music, and even fashion. The new two-piece women’s swimwear was given the name bikini by its designer, after the atoll which was by then too hot to occupy. Nuclear fission created nuclear fiction. Nuclear explosions and radiation became plot devices in all sorts of entertainment. Nuclear weapons were used to battle and create monsters of all types, from Godzilla to the Blob. They were deployed against invading aliens, and the creation of a doomsday machine, which would destroy the world of its own accord, appeared in several novels and films, including the black comedy Dr. Strangelove. It was an irradiated spider which was responsible for the birth of Spiderman, and atomic bombs were featured in the creation stories for a new religion, Scientology.

The Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation brought about literature based on espionage, sabotage, and the capture of nuclear weapons and facilities by both sides of the socio-political divide. It became a major debating point during national elections; in 1960 John Kennedy warned of the growing “missile gap” between the United States and the USSR, at a time when US nuclear weapons outnumbered those of the Soviets by a factor of more than 8 to 1. Throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the Soviets and the United States engaged in an arms race which centered around nuclear superiority, as well as the means to protect their respective nuclear arsenals, including submarines and anti-submarine warfare capability, missiles and tracking satellites, better and faster bombers, and massive espionage programs. The atomic weapons programs of several nations have dominated international diplomacy since 1945, and no doubt will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age”. Stephanie Cooke. 2009

“Operation Crossroads: Operation Crossroads, Nuclear Weapons Test at Bikini Atoll, 1946”. Naval History and Heritage Command.

“Crossroads at Bikini”. Thomas N. Daly, US Naval Institute Proceedings. July 1986

“No Place to Hide”. David Bradley. 1948

“Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons”. Hans M. Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists Special Report No. 3. May, 2012. Online

“M65 Atomic Cannon ‘Atomic Annie'”.

“US discloses accidents involving nuclear weapons”. Richard Halloran, The New York Times. May 26, 1981

“Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage”. Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew, Annette Lawrence Drew. 1998

“Newly Exposed Documents Reveal a Hidden Chapter on the Sunken Russian Submarine K-219”. Michael Peck, The National Interest. October 29, 2016

“US nuclear weapons: The secret history”. Chuck Hansen. 1988

“Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, Special Weapons Primer”. John Pike, Federation of American Scientists. October 25, 1998. Online

“Do We Still Need a Nuclear Triad?” John Barry, News Week Magazine. December 12, 2009

“Where Does NORAD’s Santa Tracker Really Come From?” Yoni Applebaum, The Atlantic. December 24, 2015

“FBI focusing on portable nuke threat”. Nicholas Horrock, United Press International. December 20, 2001

“The Political Effects of Nuclear Weapons”. Robert Jervis, International Security. Fall, 1988. Online

“How the Bomb Changed Everything”. Samira Ahmed, BBC Culture. July 2, 2015. Online