by | Jan 30, 2019 | KJ Howe | 7 comments

Do you ever feel embarrassed when you can’t find your keys or glasses, especially when you know you just had them a moment ago?  Well it seems like the largest, most well-funded and powerful militaries in the world have a similar problem—only with nuclear weapons.
While researching my most recent novel SKYJACK, I became familiar with a unique term in American military parlance: Broken Arrow.  The official meaning of this term is “an unexpected event involving nuclear weapons that results in the accidental launching, firing, detonating, theft, or loss of the weapon.”
That’s right, the governments of the United States, Soviet Union, Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China have lost nuclear weapons and materials.  While it is impossible to confirm the number of nukes that have gone missing, the United States has officially reported over thirty Broken Arrow incidents. And the end result: the permanent loss of at least eight nuclear weapons, with the combined explosive potential of conservatively 2000 times that of the weapon detonated at Hiroshima.  Securing accurate numbers of loss rates from other nuclear armed nations is more challenging, but there’s no reason to believe that the Russians or the Chinese are particularly better at handling their nukes than the United States.
“Lost” is a relative term.  Some nuclear weapons and the craft carrying them have flat out disappeared without a trace.  This was the situation in 1956 when a B-47 carrying significant nuclear weapons material failed to arrive for an in-air refueling, just vanishing into the ether. No debris. No distress call. No sign of the aircraft or its crew was ever found. The disappearance remains an absolute mystery.

In other cases, the location of the lost nuclear weapon is known, but it is particularly difficult for the authorities to recover the weapon. In 1958, another B-47 was damaged during exercises near Savannah, Georgia and was forced to eject a Type 15 nuclear weapon to reduce weight and eliminate the risk of the weapon detonating during an emergency landing.  

The weapon entered the water in Wassaw Sound at the mouth of the Wilmington River about 13 miles from Savannah.  Based on a hydrologic survey, the weapon still rests at the bottom of Wassaw Sound under about 15 feet of silt, but its precise location remains unknown despite the extensive searches that have been conducted.  Unfortunately, the search had to be cut short when a month after the incident, a B-47 accidentally dropped a nuclear weapon near Florence, South Carolina and the authorities had to deal with its aftermath.  The missing weapon is likely about 2 megatons in potential, or about 100 times more powerful than the weapon used at Hiroshima.

These incidents aren’t limited to US territory, as nuclear weapons have been lost or unrecoverable in and around Greenland, Spain, Japan, and Portugal. The Japan incident was particularly embarrassing, as the location of the weapon violated a Japanese ban on transporting nuclear weapons within their territory. Whoops!
Not to be outdone by their Western rivals, the Soviet Union and then Russia have had their own incidents which have left nuclear weapons scattered.  In the mid 1980’s, the Soviet Union designed a new super-sub capable of going deeper and faster than any other attack sub in the world.  The Komsomolets was fully commissioned in 1988, but rather than changing the balance of power, instead it sank in Norwegian waters in 1989, leaving its nuclear reactor and nuclear-tipped torpedoes under 5000 feet of cold water, remaining unrecoverable.  In the years since, the Russian Federation has launched seven missions to check on the site and seal the reactor and torpedo tubes.  Based on observations made during those missions, the Russian government has concluded that the wreck site had been visited by “unauthorized foreign agents.”
The Russian military’s technical problems with nuclear materials continue.  Vladimir Putin recently boasted about new missiles called Burevestniks that were powered by nuclear engines. He claimed they could strike anywhere in the world.  During four different tests, these new missiles failed, with no range greater than 30 miles achieved. And, once again, the Russians left their nuclear waste in Norwegian waters, and they are currently endeavoring to contain the disaster created by this crashed nuclear propulsion system.

Perhaps the most staggering loss of nuclear weapons occurred with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.  The Soviet Union had some 40,000 nuclear weapons spread across its territory in addition to massive stockpiles of nuclear materials. The nuclear components and materials were unprotected in underfunded and disorganized facilities, and foreign powers and organized crime tried to take advantage of the “loose nukes” scattered across the country. 

Harvard experts determined there were at least six unsolved thefts of weapons-grade nuclear materials during this period, and over one thousand thefts of lower grade, but still deadly materials.  About a third of the Soviet nuclear arsenal was located in the Ukraine, but these warehouses were well handled. In 1994, Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum, agreeing to destroy those nuclear weapons and join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  The ironic component of this agreement was Russia’s commitment to respect Ukraine’s borders as part of the deal.   

So, the next time you misplace your glasses or the TV remote, be kind to yourself.  Your little slip might cause you to miss your favorite program, but it’s highly unlikely to cost thousands of lives!
Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Gayle Lynds

    How easy it is to forget all of this, KJ. As you chronicle the missteps and malfeasance and accidents over the past 70 years, one feels as if we're sitting on a ticking nuclear bomb. And in a way, we are.

  2. Lisa Black

    WOW that’s scary!!

  3. Karna Bodman

    What a great summary of "Nuclear mishaps!" – and reminder of how vigilant we all must be to protect these stockpiles. As for the disintegration of the Soviet Union and your reference to that Budapest Agreement – yes, Russia violated their commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty big time. However, during the early 90's our government put together a terrific bipartisan Plan (called the "Nunn-Lugar" agreement) to go over there and negotiate for the removal and destruction of many of those nukes from various formerly Soviet territories. As for future "accidents" — it makes for a good argument for an extended missile defense system, that's for sure. Thanks for a great post!

  4. Robin Burcell

    Yikes! The whole nuclear weapon thing scares the bejeezus out of me. Years ago there was a TV movie (or limited series) on the U.S. being bombed and the aftermath. My husband watched it. I refused to. Too scary. And yet, here I am, years later, reading books with world-wide implications that often involve nuclear weapons or (a whole other subject) theft and weaponization of deadly viruses!

  5. Chris Goff

    There was a great movie (well, I liked it) called BROKEN ARROW, staring John Travolta, Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis that dealt with the loss of two nukes. Scary stuff!! When we were in Ukraine, we had a chance to visit Chernobyl, but–despite what they say–I'm not convinced it's safe. They make a really big deal about staying on the boardwalks and not walking on the ground.

  6. Jamie Freveletti

    Jettisoning a bomb and having it land in South Carolina. Amazing! I had no idea so much could go "missing." The more you know…. Thanks for a great post.

  7. Elisabeth Elo

    Wow. This is really amazing, K.J. I'm especially interested in the 1,000 thefts of lower-grade materials. Who is doing those thefts? Military people? Terrorists? Ordinary citizens? Fascinating and scary stuff!