Re: [SystemSafety] USAF Nuclear Accidents prior to 1967

From: Les Chambers < >
Date: Tue, 24 Sep 2013 10:45:17 +1000

For your file on nuclear accidents (and incidents). Cheers

Time: Saturday, October 27, 1962
Place: The Sargasso Sea, 300 miles south of Bermuda Context: The Cuban missile crisis. The U.S. Navy is blockading Cuba to prevent further import of missiles that would put the Soviet Union in range of most American cities. Four U.S. Navy carrier groups are hunting the four Russian submarines known to be deployed in the area. Against the advice of secretary of defence McNamara, President Kennedy has authorised the U.S. Navy to use practice depth charges and hand grenades to signal Soviet submarines to come to the surface and identify themselves. Practice depth charges are designed to produce a loud bang beneath the water, but supposedly pose no material damage to the Soviet vessels. Due to this distinct lack of American hospitality, life abroad Russian submarine B-59 is becoming increasingly unpleasant. Capt Valentin Savitsky is near the end of his tether. The U.S. Navy has been chasing him for two days, his batteries are dangerously low. He has been unable to communicate with Moscow for more than 24 hours. For all he knows, World War III might have broken out while he has been submerged. His voyage has been plagued with mechanical problems. The ventilation system has broken down. The diesel coolers are blocked with salt and several electrical compressors are broken. Temperatures aboard ship range from 110 to 140 and carbon dioxide levels are becoming critical. His men are falling "like dominoes." The B-59 carries a nuclear torpedo with a 10 kiloton warhead. By the book Valentin requires a directive from Moscow to launch this weapon against an enemy, however there are no special locks on the weapon that block its unauthorised use. If the officer in charge of the torpedo and the captain of the submarine are in agreement, it is physically possible to launch it. Vadim Orlov, chief of the signals intelligence team continues the story:

The Americans hit us with something stronger than a grenade, apparently some kind of practice depth charge. We thought "that's it, that's the end." After this attack, a totally exhausted Savitsky became furious. In addition to everything else, he had been unable to establish communications with the General Staff. He summoned the officer who was in charge of the nuclear torpedo, and ordered him to make it combat ready. "Maybe the war has already started up there while we are doing somersaults down here," shouted Valentin Grigorievich emotionally, justifying his order. "We're going to blast them now! We will perish ourselves, but we will sink them all! We will not disgrace our Navy!"

Luckily for the U.S. Navy, Valentin's fellow officers persuaded him to calm down. The B-59 surfaced in the midst of four American destroyers, helicopters hovered overhead illuminating the sea with powerful searchlights, dozens of sonobuoys dropped by American aircraft to pinpoint the submarine's position bobbed up and down on the waves. Savitsky and his officers went up to the bridge and gulped down the cool night air, 30 cooler that was down below. They were dirty, dispirited and further humiliated by the sailors on the decks of the American warships looking down upon them in their neatly pressed uniforms. But nonetheless they were proud, they had undertaken a 5000 mile Odyssey to seas that no Soviet submariner had sailed before. They raised the crimson red flag of the Soviet state, with the hammer and sickle emblazoned in the corner. One of the American destroyers sent a message by flashing light asking if they needed assistance. "This ship belongs to the Union of Soviet Socialist republics," Savitsky replied. "Halt your provocative actions."

Source: Dobbs, Michael, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War.

-----Original Message-----
From: systemsafety-bounces_at_xxxxxx [mailto:systemsafety-bounces_at_xxxxxx Peter Bernard Ladkin
Sent: Sunday, September 22, 2013 3:37 AM To: systemsafety_at_xxxxxx Subject: [SystemSafety] USAF Nuclear Accidents prior to 1967

The Guardian today has an article on an accident to a US B-52 bomber in North Carolina in 1961. The
aircraft, suffering a mid-air break-up, released two nuclear weapons, which were armed. One of the
bombs was, according to a book by Ralph Lappe, "equipped with six interlocking safety mechanisms,
all of which had to be triggered in sequence to explode the bomb. ...Air Force experts....found that
five of the six interlocks had been set off by the fall! Only a single switch prevented the 24
megaton bomb from detonating..."

This quote is contained in a short memo by Parker F Jones, an analyst at Sandia Labs, written in
October 1969. He deprecates Lappe's general account but says that on this point he is correct;
emphasises the vulnerability embodied by the switch, its type and function
(it does not appear to

have been adequately assessed for reliability in an accident scenario) and concludes that this type
of bomb "did not provide adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52." and footnotes
that the "same conclusion should be drawn about present-day SAC bombs."

This is all contained in an article in The Guardian at -1961 Jones's memo is
presented at -declassified-document

This is due to Eric Schlosser, who is about to publish a book called Command and Control. Schlosser
has visited facilities, and so on, and gave an interview to The Guardian at Apparently, he made an FOIA request for all the incidents in the 10 years to 1967, and received 245
pages of them.

Scott Sagan made similar inquiries in his 1993 book The Limits of Safety, for which he is justly
famous. I didn't find the incident in Scott's book, so asked him if he knew about it. Scott's thesis
in that book was testing Charles Perrow's Normal Accidents theory against the
high-reliability-organisation theory of La Porte and colleagues.

The NA hypothesis is that tightly-coupled interactively-complex systems are unavoidably vulnerable
to accidents which occur while everything is operating "as designed". The HRO theory says that there
are certain characteristics of complex organisations which have proven to have had high reliability.
One example of such an organisation is USN peacetime carrier operations
(launching and retrieval of

aircraft); another is Pacific Gas and Electric's nuclear power plant operations (which was a bit of
a surprise to us who lived through part of the Diablo Canyon controversy).

USAF has obviously not had an accident in which a nuclear weapon has been accidently detonated. The
question therefore was whether USAF SAC exhibited the characteristics of a La Porte HRO. Sagan
argued that such accidents had been avoided through happenstance, and that the history rather
supported the NA theory. It seems from the advance commentary that Schlosser's book will make a
similar case.


Prof. Peter Bernard Ladkin, Faculty of Technology, University of Bielefeld,
33594 Bielefeld, Germany
Tel+msg +49 (0)521 880 7319

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Received on Tue Sep 24 2013 - 02:45:45 CEST

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