Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

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Learning from (Near) Disaster

Weapons designers look to past nuclear accidents to develop safer modern-day explosives.
March 22, 2016
Learning from (Near) Disaster

In the Palomares incident, three nuclear bombs crashed into the ground and a fourth vanished into the sea. Sailors recovered the fourth weapon two months later in the most expensive U.S. Navy salvage operation in history. The casing is currently displayed at the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Photo: Open Source)

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If the high explosives inside these weapons could be rendered incapable of accidentally detonating, many lives could be saved, property protected, and expensive environmental cleanups prevented.

Just short of high noon on May 22, 1957, an Air Force B-36 bomber was powering down on its final approach to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, completing what should have been a routine flight ferrying a nuclear weapon from a base in Texas.

A few miles south of the control tower and 1,700 feet off the deck, the bomb bay doors of the huge plane sprang open. In a blink the nuclear bomb plunged earthward, smashing into the ground seconds later with an impact that detonated the high-explosive charges designed to trigger the weapon’s nu­clear material.

The ensuing explosion destroyed the weapon and blasted a crater 12 feet deep and 25 feet wide, hurling debris and bomb fragments a mile away. 

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