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The Terrors of Science


K-19 Soviet Nuclear Submarine. Photo taken by the U.S. Navy.

K-19 was a first-generation nuclear submarine equipped with nuclear ballistic missiles. On July 4, 1961, K-19 was conducting exercises in the North Atlantic close to Southern Greenland when it developed a major leak in its reactor coolant system, causing the water pressure in the aft reactor to drop to zero and the coolant pumps to fail. A separate accident had isabled the long-range radio system, so the crew could not communicate with their home base. The reactor temperature rose uncontrollably, reaching 800 °C (1,470 °F)—almost the melting point of the fuel rods—and set off chain reactions. A team of seven engineering officers and crew worked for extended periods in high-radiation areas to implement a new coolant. Since the ship carried chemical suits instead of radiation suits, the repair team was certain to be lethally contaminated. In fact, the incident contaminated the crew, parts of the ship, and some of the ballistic missiles carried on board. The entire crew received substantial doses of radiation; all seven men in the repair crew died of radiation exposure within a week, and twenty other members of the crew within the next few years.

Tsar Bomba

Comparative Fireball radii for a Selection of Nuclear weapons, including Tsar Bomba. Full blast effects extend many times beyond the radii of the fireballs themselves. Image by Fastfission, posted on Wkimedia Commons.

Tsar Bomba (“King Bomb” in Russian) is the nickname for the AN602 hydrogen bomb, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated. Developed by the Soviet Union, the bomb was originally designed to have a yield of about 100 megatons of TNT. However, the bomb yield was reduced to 50 megatons to reduce nuclear fallout. This attempt was successful, as it was one of the cleanest nuclear bombs ever detonated. Only one bomb of this type was ever built and it was tested on October 30, 1961, in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. Weighing 27 tons, the bomb was so large (26 ft long and 6.6 ft in diameter) that the bomber that carried it had to have its bomb bay doors and fuselage fuel tanks removed. The bomb was attached to a 1,760 lb. fall-retardation parachute, which gave the release and observer planes time to fly about 28 miles from ground zero. The fireball, about 5 miles in diameter, was prevented from touching the ground by the shockwave, but nearly reached the 6.5 mile altitude of the deploying bomber


SL-1 Burial Ground, Capped with Riprap. The image was part of the EPA 2003 Annual Inspection Summary, Attachment 2.

The SL-1 was a United States Army experimental nuclear power reactor that underwent a steam explosion and meltdown on January 3, 1961, killing all three of its military operators. The event is the only known fatal reactor accident in the United States. The accident caused its design to be abandoned and future reactors to be redesigned. Tests had shown that nuclear power was likely to have lower total costs, which appealed to the Army (under financial pressure brought on by the Vietnam “conflict”). As a result of SL-1, however, it halted development for its reactor program in 1965, while allowing existing reactors to continue operating. The remains of the SL-1 reactor are now buried near the original site.

The Goldsboro Nuclear Bomb Accident

MK 39 nuclear bomb retrieved after the 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash. This weapon’s parachute deployed, resulting in a soft landing and straightforward recovery. This was not the case for the other nuclear bomb on board. The U. S. Air Force took this image on January 24, 1961.

On January 24, 1961 a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two nuclear bombs was re-fueling in mid-air, when pilots noticed a leak in its port wing fuel cell. Pilots were immediately directed to land the aircraft. During their approach to the airfield, they lost control and ejected at 9,000 ft. Three crew members perished in the crash. The two nuclear weapons separated from the gyrating aircraft as it broke up. One of the two bombs parachuted to earth, imbedding its nose 18 in. into the ground, which presented no difficulties for recovery crews. The other bomb hit the ground at high speed with no parachute deployment, disappearing in a farmer’s field and leaving an eight-foot-wide, six-foot-deep crater. Recovery crews were never able to retrieve all of the free-falling bomb’s components. The deeper they excavated, the more problematic soil conditions became. Rather than continue a losing battle to recover the entire bomb, the Air Force decided to fill in the great hole it had dug, and purchased the land to prevent access to the bio-hazard. They have never excavated the bomb.