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Broken Arrow, Part 1 (of 3): our perspective, the broad brush.

Broken Arrow is the US code for nuclear-weapon accidents which do not risk creating nuclear war.

Our commentary is based on historical records with a some personal input from our researches. We are dead set against nuclear whether it is weapons or power generation (nuclear generators have an unsavoury history) because both are unthinkably pernicious. What we offer is a mixture of questionable facts and conjecture. It is not possible to do more because public information is obfuscated by back covering, security cover-ups, misreporting and incompetent records. Our main focus is the infamous Palomares incident which occurred early in 1966 but we refer to others. The main reference which we used initially was MILNET, however this has since been discontinued. We have consulted other sources and added a comments, information and exclusive photographs of own.

Instrument inside fenced site near cemetery
Inside the Broken Arrow site, near the reservoirs, Palomares (click to enlarge)

Milnet listed 32 Broken Arrow accidents between 1950 and 1980 taken from the US Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Energy (DoE) sources together with versions from the Center for Defense Information (CDI). With what we think is a healthy scepticism, we suspect that there have been many more than 32 military incidents. Nuclear disasters are almost invariably covered up whether they are military or civilian and it is only where the suppressions have failed that we know about them. It seems reasonable to assume that some cover-ups were successful and therefore we may never know about them. Some, of course, were impossible to disguise because they were public catastrophes. Since 1980 there have been well over a hundred recorded accidents (excluding numerous naval accidents).
  The reported, weapons-related fatalities in themselves appear to be sanitised because, while some deaths are reported, normally they are 'conventional' deaths caused typically by crashes, fires or non-nuclear explosions. It seems very likely that fatal or life-threatening consequences would result from associated radiation and they are rarely, if ever, acknowledged. Civilian, power station accidents were prime examples of major efforts at concealment: Chernobyl is the most infamous, being shrouded in lies, with vast underestimates of the dead and infirmed and even our own disaster at Windscale (now known as Sellafield) was obscured by lies and misinformation promulgated by top politicians and, worst of all, scientists. Still this is a digression too far and we must get back to Broken Arrow.
The 'good news' is that never has there been an unintentional nuclear explosion resulting from a Broken Arrow. That we can believe, if there had been it could not have avoided detection. However that does not prove that it never will happen and it is acknowledged that the chance of a serious incident is increasing with the passage of time and the proliferation of newer weapons. The potential devastation of a nuclear explosion has expanded enormously over time. Statistics can be misleading and the damage caused by an explosion depends on many factors other than yield. However, some feel for the magnitudes can be obtained by comparing the size of the Hiroshima 'Little Boy' fission bomb which had a yield equivalent to less than 15 thousand tons of TNT with the thermonuclear ones carried in the bombers whose yields varied enormously but could be more than a thousand times larger than Little Boy. These magnitudes are beyond our comprehension. If such a bomb was accidentally detonated the consequences could be unthinkable and if it happened in a sensitive area the code Broken Arrow might become Nucflash. Don't ask, you don't want to know what this means but Armageddon springs to mind.
To be fair, security has improved in some ways. Many accidents were caused by movements of weapons in which aircraft were mostly involved, sometimes indirectly. Since about 1968 the strategy of maintaining a mobile force of bombers, constantly on the move, was replaced by inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) located in silos. This decision was probably triggered by the Palomares and Thule catastrophes (explained later) together with the cost of maintaining the airborne force and facilitated by the development of ICBMs. While weapons are still moved around (we're talking millions of miles by road) and silo accidents could still be ferocious, at least the geographical locations are limited and the weakest link, namely the aircraft, was largely removed.

[This commentary is continued in Parts 2 and 3 with specific references to Broken Arrow incidents number 7 (East Anglia, UK), number 30 (Thule, Greenland) but mainly number 29 (Palomares, SE Spain)
For further related information (but not about weapons) see our take on nuclear power generation]
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Go to Part 2 of Broken Arrow

Go to Part 3 of Broken Arrow
  By Gordon Shaw  

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Page originated: 10 October, 2008 .  Last amended: 28 October, 2013