Article Derived From Transcript of YouTube Video: How Close We've Come to Nuclear War

Transcript of YouTube Video: How Close We've Come to Nuclear War

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Transcript Summary

The video details multiple instances where humanity narrowly avoided accidental nuclear catastrophe since the advent of nuclear weapons. A key incident discussed is the 1966 Palomares B-52 crash, where a U.S. bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs, each 75 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, collided with a refueling tanker over Spain during Operation Chrome Dome—a Cold War strategy to maintain airborne bombers near Soviet borders for rapid retaliation. The collision resulted in an explosion, loss of life, and the bombs being dropped, contaminating the region with radioactive materials. One bomb remains missing for nearly three months. The text also mentions that such accidents, termed 'Broken Arrows,' occurred 32 times between 1950 and 1980, highlighting the persistent danger of accidental nuclear disaster. Despite a reduction in global nuclear stockpiles from over 70,000 in 1986 to 12,705 in 2022, the existence of any nuclear weapons still poses a significant risk. The narrative underscores that while deliberate use is often considered the primary threat, the history of near misses demonstrates that accidental incidents pose a substantial risk to global safety.

Detailed Transcript of YouTube Videos

Introduction to Nuclear Near Misses

Ever since the invention of nuclear weapons, humanity has almost accidentally destroyed itself many times over. This is a video about just some of those times. It's about nuclear bombs and missiles accidentally detonating. It's about hydrogen bombs being lost. And it's about false alarms that could have led to the end of the world.

The Palomares Incident

On the 17th of January, 1966, a B-52 bomber was flying over the coast of Spain. It was carrying four hydrogen bombs, each one 75 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. This was part of a military operation known as Chrome Dome where bombers flew around the United States and skirted the borders of the Soviet Union with hydrogen bombs on board. The flight took off from North Carolina and crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the plan to fly by the border of the Soviet Union and return home. The plane would be in the air for more than 24 hours. The flight was so long, it required two mid-air refuelings. But long flights and mid-air refuelings were commonplace. Flights like this happened every day.

The Collision and Fallout

The first refuelling went smoothly. After flying by the Soviet Union and turning around, the plane needed to be refuelled again. So at 10:30 a.m., over the coast of Spain, above the small fishing village of Palomares, the refuelling tanker pulled up in front of the B-52. Larry Messinger, the pilot of the bomber, recalled the collision and the subsequent explosion that led to the death of all four men on the refuelling tanker and three of the seven on the B-52. The four bombs fell to earth, and two of them detonated their conventional explosives on impact, contaminating a 2.6-square-kilometer area of the Spanish coastline with radioactive material, which remains contaminated to this day.

The Search for the Missing Bomb

The third bomb was found intact in a nearby riverbed. But the fourth bomb was missing. It took 29 US Army ships and 81 days for the bomb to finally be located and recovered. This incident is not an isolated one. The US military has a term for accidents involving nuclear weapons: Broken Arrows. The Pentagon officially lists 32 such accidents between 1950 and 1980.

Other Broken Arrow Incidents

In 1961, the first year of operation Chrome Dome, a B-52 had a fuel leak and it crashed over North Carolina. Three members of the crew died in the accident. It was carrying two 4-megaton bombs. Both bombs fell to earth. One had its parachute deploy and it landed on the ground mostly intact. The other slammed into a field and broke into pieces. The good news is that the conventional explosives did not explode, so radioactive plutonium was not strewn all over North Carolina. The bad news is that the conventional explosives didn't explode, and so there was a chance that the hydrogen bombs could be armed and ready to detonate with full force.

The Arkansas Missile Silo Incident

In September 1980, inside a silo in rural Arkansas, a team was conducting routine checks on the Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile. The missile was fueled, ready to launch at a moment's notice. In its nose cone sat a 9-megaton hydrogen bomb. As one of the repairmen was walking around the silo, the socket from his ratchet wrench fell off. It fell 24 metres, hitting the fuel tank of the missile and puncturing a hole. The highly flammable rocket fuel began to leak into the silo. The missile complex and surrounding area were evacuated, but a number of military personnel remained on site to try to diffuse the situation. At 3:00 a.m., about 8 1/2 hours after the puncture of the fuel tank, the leaking fuel vapours ignited, resulting in an explosion. This explosion led to one death and 21 injuries. The 740-ton door keeping the silo sealed flew more than 60 metres into the air. It was recovered 200 metres away. The warhead containing the hydrogen bomb was also blown out of the silo, landing some 30 metres away. Luckily, it did not detonate.

The Risk of Nuclear Misunderstanding

Of the 32 Broken Arrow events listed by the Pentagon, one which occurred in the spring of 1968 remains classified. And there are likely many dozens more nuclear mistakes and near misses the public knows nothing about from every nation that has a nuclear arsenal. The worry of a nuclear mishap is not just the immediate damage done by a hydrogen bomb explosion. It's also the misunderstanding and retaliatory strikes that could arise.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

The closest we've likely ever come was in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The US Navy began dropping signalling charges into the water to bring a Soviet submarine to the surface. Tensions were high and the submarine had not been in radio contact with Moscow for days. The captain of the submarine decided that war had broken out and he was about to launch a nuclear torpedo. But the launch required the authorization of three men. Two out of the three authorised the launch, but Vasili Arkhipov did not. A full-blown nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union was avoided by the rational decision of one person.

The Role of Luck in Averting Nuclear War

On the 26th of September, 1983, the Soviet satellite-based early warning system detected the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, and their policy dictated that if any inbound missiles were detected, there was to be an immediate counter attack against the United States. This would've likely led to all-out war. But the Soviet officer on duty at the time of the detection, Stanislav Petrov, was sceptical of the reading. He reasoned that if there was a genuine first strike, the US would launch hundreds of ICBMs simultaneously, not just one. The detection system then warned Petrov of another four missiles headed towards the USSR, but these two, he dismissed as a glitch. Petrov was right. He made the right decision and his clear thinking likely saved millions of lives. The warning system malfunctioned, it confused sunlight reflecting off high-altitude clouds for ballistic missiles.

The Ongoing Threat of Nuclear Weapons

Another close call happened on January 25th, 1995, when scientists launched a rocket off the coast of Norway. Their rocket was there to study the Northern Lights but Russian radar picked up this launch as it had a similar flight pattern and speed as the submarine-launched Trident ICBM. The incident was serious enough that a briefcase containing the nuclear launch codes was taken to the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin. Most people believe the biggest threat posed by nuclear weapons is their deliberate use. There is this idea that as long as nations only have them and don't use them, they could act as a deterrent keeping us safer. But all of these incidents demonstrate that the real risk of nuclear weapons is some freak accident. So far, humanity has been lucky, but how long until our luck runs out?

The Reduction of Nuclear Weapons

But there is hope. In 1986, there were more than 70,000 nuclear weapons. In 2022, that number had dropped to 12,705, and more are being dismantled. But as long as there are any nuclear weapons remaining, the future of humanity is not safe.

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