Lost nuclear weapons are an unreported problem

Dozens of nuclear weapons went missing at sea over the decades because they were on ships, submarines, or aircraft that were lost but no public accountability exists.

Deploying nuclear weapons on ships and submarines created unique risks of accidents and incidents. Because warships sometimes collide, catch fire, or even sink, it was only a matter of time before the nuclear weapons they carried were threatened, damaged, or lost.

This happened repeatedly but most incidents are unknown to the public. The U.S. military in the 1980s did reveal 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons, but some of the locations were kept confidential. Pentagon officials have often said, “It is U.S. policy to neither confirm nor deny” the specific location of nuclear weapons.

On December 5, 1965,while underway from operations off Vietnam to Yokosuka in Japan, an A-4E aircraft loaded with one B43 nuclear weapon rolled overboard from the Number 2 Elevator. The aircraft sank with the pilot and the bomb in 2,700 fathoms (4,940 meters) of water. The bomb has never been recovered.

The Department of Defense reported the accident took place “more than 500 miles [805 kilometers] from land” when it revealed the accident in 1981.

However, Navy documents showed the accident occurred about 80 miles east of the Japanese Ryukyu Island chain, approximately 250 miles south of Kyushu Island, Japan, and about 200 miles east of Okinawa. Japan’s public policy and law prohibit nuclear weapons. (For a video if B43 aircraft carrier handling and A-4 loading, see this video.)

Three years later, on May 27, 1968, the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN-589) suffered an accident and sank with all 99 men on board in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 400 miles southwest of the Azores.

The Department of Defense in 1981 mentioned a nuclear weapons accident occurred in the Atlantic in the spring of 1968 but continues to classify the details. It is thought that two nuclear ASTOR torpedoes were on board the Scorpion when it sank.

Other incidents remain unreported due to security classifications.

 


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