The term “nuclear close call” refers to an incident that could lead to (or could have led to) an unintended, accidental, or misguided nuclear explosion or detonation.
If a nuclear weapon explodes in a major city, the center of the blast would be much hotter than the sun’s surface. Winds with the strength of tornados would fan and spread the flames that extend even beyond the city limits. A million or so people would perish. If there were any survivors, they would have no access to clean water and electricity. Communication lines are disrupted. And hospitals and other medical institutions – if they were still standing – would be overwhelmed.
Just imagine how terrifying this kind of catastrophe would be.
Nuclear tensions have indeed scaled down, and the number of nuclear arms has reduced since after the end of the Cold War. However, there are still an estimated 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world today (including about 1,800 between the USA and Russia, the main participants of the Cold War). So the possibility of an accidental, mistaken, unintentional, or misguided full-blown nuclear launch is real.
Without any warning, an accidental nuclear explosion can wipe out an entire city (or several cities) and millions of people. Heck, it can even end human life on earth. It’s not just because of the explosion itself, but also because of the deadly radioactive effects coming after it.
The following nuclear near-hits show how close we have come to that point.
1) November 5, 1956
Towards the end of the Suez Crisis, a barrage of simultaneous events could have triggered ill-advised nuclear attacks against the Soviet Union.
On November 5, 1956, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) received several concurrent reports that a series of alarming events were going underway. These reports included an unidentified aircraft flying over Turkey, Soviet fighter planes soaring over Syria, a downed British bomber in Syria, and unanticipated Soviet maneuvers by a Soviet fleet through the Dardanelles in Turkey that seemed to indicate a Soviet offensive.
In the end, all these reports turned out to be erroneous. The perceived threats were caused by, respectively: a wedge of swans flying over Turkey, an escort aircraft for the president of Syria, a British bomber downed due to mechanical issues, and scheduled exercises for the Soviet fleet, according to several sources (including Nuclear Files).
2) October 5, 1960
NORAD, once again, went on high alert after receiving a report that radar equipment in Thule, Greenland, mistook a moonrise over Norway for an intercontinental missile attack against the U.S. by the Soviet Union.
However, doubts about the report’s credibility arose when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was in New York City at that time as head of the USSR’s United Nations delegation.
3) January 24, 1961
During a routine flight over Goldsboro, North Carolina, a B-52 bomber began to spin out of control, dropping two 3-4 megaton Mark 39 nuclear bombs in the process.
That dangerous incident could have ended with a large-scale nuclear disaster. But what prevented it from happening that day was that the bombs had a safety switch which had been known to malfunction, according to official documents. One bomb broke apart on impact, while another bomb sustained only minimal damage.
4) October 25, 1962
During the height of the Cold War tensions, a guard at the U.S. Air force spotted a figure trying to climb over the security fence. He then sounded an alarm to nearby bases. But due to a wiring fault, the alarm was mistakenly sounded to a national guard base in Wisconsin, which prompted the pilots to believe that World War III was in the offing.
The planes were already heading down the runway to hunt for nonexistent Soviet enemies when a vehicle was speeding towards them with flashing lights to warn them that it had been a false alarm.
5) October 27, 1962
After you read this section, you may want to remember the name Vasily Arkhipov. The late Soviet Navy officer was the man who saved the world when he prevented a Soviet nuclear strike (and what could have been an all-out nuclear war) during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
During a tense standoff during the United States and the Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy spotted the Soviet submarine B-59 that appeared to be lurking in the Caribbean. The Americans began encircling it with depth charges. What the U.S. Navy wasn’t aware of the submarine, though, is that it was armed with a ready-to-launch nuclear-tipped torpedo.
The Soviet crew aboard B-59 was unable to make contact with its headquarters in Moscow. They were uncertain of what the Americans were planning to do and feared that a war had begun. The captain of the submarine ordered the nuclear missile to be prepared for launch. His second-in-command gave the order approval.
But to make sure that they were ready to fire the nuclear missiles, first, they needed approval from all three senior officers. One of these senior officers included Arkhipov, who refused permission to launch. He argued that the United States was not attacking them but merely wanted to have a dialogue and meant no harm. Arkhipov convinced the captain to calm down and discontinue the missile launch.
The B-59 submarine rose to the surface, encountered a US destroyer, and returned to Russia.
6) November 9, 1979
Computers at NORAD alerted that a large-scale Soviet attack against the US was underway. As a result, nuclear bombers were in full preparation, and intercontinental ballistic missile crew went on high alert. Within six to seven minutes, satellite and radar systems confirmed that the “attack” turned out to be a false alarm.
It was later discovered that a technician had accidentally loaded an attack-scenario training tape into an operational computer.
7) September 26, 1983
Stanislav Petrov is another name you should remember. The late former lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces is credited with preventing what could have been a retaliatory nuclear strike against the US.
The Soviet satellite early-warning system detected the launch of a supposed incoming US attack which involved a handful of missile launches. One of Petrov’s responsibilities was to pass such alerts up the chain of command. But this time, he was convinced that the US missile launches were not enough to make a real American offensive, unless it would involve many more missiles. And so, he refused to acknowledge this threat as legitimate and convinced his superiors that it was a false alarm.
He later said in an interview: “Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”
8) January 25, 1995
Russian radar systems detected the launch of what they perceived as a U.S. ballistic missile launch off the coast of Norway. They feared that it was a large-scale U.S. attack and went on high alert. The president at that time, Boris Yeltsin, was readying for a retaliatory strike. But when the data came back from the Russian satellites, it indicated that no further missiles were launched. The incident was then dismissed as a false alarm.
It was later determined that a Norwegian Black Brant XII research rocket was launched to study the aurora borealis