Broken Arrows and Bent Spears:
The frightening world of nuclear accidents
Collisions, malfunctions and just plain bad luck. Our interactive map tracks the history of nuclear military accidents from the dawn of the Atomic Age.
By Bruce Kennedy
The concept itself is terrifying, even hypothetically. A nuclear weapon, lost, stolen or accidentally destroyed -- endangering thousands, perhaps millions of lives.
"Broken Arrows," as the U.S. military calls such worst-case scenarios, have been plot devices in action movies and spy novels. But the reality, as reflected in today's headlines, sometimes makes such fiction pale in comparison.
Scores of accidents involving nuclear reactors and weapons have occurred worldwide since the Nuclear Age began in 1945. And an estimated 50 nuclear warheads still lie on the bottom of the world's oceans, according to Joshua Handler, a former research coordinator for the environmental activist organization Greenpeace.
Officially, the governments of the nuclear powers are not very forthcoming with information regarding nuclear accidents. The United States last published such a list in 1980, which revealed 32 nuclear accidents or incidents, while Russia has divulged few if any details on such incidents.
But, says Handler, the Russians -- as a people -- have shrugged off decades of official suspicion and secrecy and are now talking about some of the nuclear near-disasters that took place in their armed forces.
"They can be surprisingly open in details," he says, "either officially or with people publishing their personal recollections in the press."
Handler, now a researcher at Princeton, co-authored Greenpeace's "Neptune Papers" series, which chronicled naval accidents around the world from 1945 to 1989. And he has continued to document such accidents, especially in the former Soviet Union, using recently published information as well as interviews he conducted with low- and high-ranking Russian naval officers.
"They're more adjusted to post-Cold War openness than our guys," he says. "On a human level you would have a more detailed discussion on nuclear weapons and naval nuclear issues with a Russian officer than with a U.S. officer."
The U.S. Department of Defense has standard answers to any questions regarding its nuclear weapons. Regarding storage of nuclear weapons: "It is U.S. policy neither to confirm nor deny the presence or absence of nuclear weapons at any specific location."
If asked whether nuclear weapons are aboard a specific naval vessel or aircraft, the DOD tells its personnel to respond: "It is general U.S. policy not to deploy nuclear weapons aboard surface ships, attack submarines and naval aircraft. However, we do not discuss the presence or absence of nuclear weapons aboard specific ships, submarines or aircraft."
All of the U.S. military incidents listed in our interactive map involve the Navy and Air Force. CNN Interactive contacted the Defense Department for comment on the incidents mentioned in this section. Defense officials referred CNN Interactive to the two branches of the service involved.
The Navy, following repeated requests for comment, issued the following statement by Cmdr. Frank Thorp shortly before publication:
"It is disingenuous and perhaps misleading to describe these events as 'nuclear incidents.' The list appears to be partially researched, incomplete and alarmist in nature. I have nothing to add to the Department of Defense's narrative summaries of accidents involving U.S. nuclear weapons from 1950-1980."
The Air Force, in a statement sent to CNN, said it had "no updates to the Department of Defense's narrative summaries of accidents involving U.S. nuclear weapons from 1950-1980."
The following terms are taken verbatim from U.S. Defense Department Directive 5230.16, "Nuclear Accident and Incident Public Affairs (PA) Guidance," issued December 20, 1993:
- BROKEN ARROW
- A Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff term to identify and report an accident involving a nuclear weapon or warhead or nuclear component.
- NUCLEAR WEAPON ACCIDENT
- An unexpected event involving nuclear weapons or nuclear components that results in any of the following:
- Accidental or unauthorized launching, firing, or use by U.S. forces or U.S supported Allied forces of a nuclear-capable weapons system.
- An accidental, unauthorized or unexplained nuclear detonation.
- Non-nuclear detonation or burning of a nuclear weapon or nuclear component.
- Radioactive contamination.
- Jettisoning of a nuclear weapon or nuclear component.
- Public hazard, actual or perceived.
- BENT SPEAR
- A Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff term used in the Department of Defense to identify and report a nuclear weapon significant incident involving a nuclear weapon or warhead, nuclear components, or vehicle when nuclear loaded.
- EMPTY QUIVER
- A reporting term to identify and report the seizure, theft, or loss of a U.S. nuclear weapon.
- FADED GIANT
- A reporting term to identify an event involving a nuclear reactor or radiological accident.