The Truth About 20 Of The Most Bizarre Nuclear Mistakes In History

December 2, 1942, was the day when the world changed forever. A team of scientists at the University of Chicago had reached a breakthrough. They were looking at something they termed “the Pile,” which was essentially a heap of uranium, graphite and scientific apparatus. These people had created the first ever nuclear reactor, thus ushering in the age of nuclear weapons. Huge numbers of nukes have since been developed — and sometimes they’ve come close to being used in error. With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the craziest stories about these terrifying weapons.

20. Tracking Santa

One Christmas during the Cold War, Sears ran a newspaper ad encouraging kids to call Santa Claus. According to legend, though, the phone number provided mistakenly led callers to a Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) line. This particular unit was monitoring the possibility of a nuclear strike on America — serious business. Nevertheless, when children started to call in, CONAD staff informed them of where Santa was at that moment. And with that, a holiday tradition was born.

There is, however, a problem with this tale. Though CONAD did actually interact with children at Christmas, the tradition didn’t emerge accidentally. You see, the unit’s head — a colonel named Harry Shoup — was adept in communication. He realized that such a stunt could raise the profile of CONAD — so he told his public relations officer tell the wire services that the Command was tracking Santa’s sleigh. However, the notion that the tradition started with a phone number printed by mistake is, disappointingly, a myth.

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19. Troublesome swans

On November 5, 1956, in the midst of the Suez Crisis, the United States was faced with a harrowing situation. Intelligence had emerged that the Soviet Union was about to attack. Apparently, Soviet aircrafts were in the air above Turkey and Syria. A British jet was shot down over Syria. And on top of everything else, it seemed that the Soviet fleet was on the move. Catastrophe was on the cards.

Before a full-scale nuclear war could erupt, however, it emerged that a series of errors was behind this intelligence. In actual fact, the aircraft above Syria were an escort for the country’s president, and the British jet had actually landed because of run-of-the-mill mechanical issues. The Soviet fleet were undergoing normal exercises, and the aircraft above Turkey had actually been a load of swans in flight.

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18. A lost nuke in Georgia

Nuclear tests and training drills were a frequent occurrence back in the 1950s. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that accidents did sometimes happen. A particularly frightening episode took place in the skies above Georgia in 1958, after two jets collided in the air. One of these planes, you see, was carrying a nuke.

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Given the damage that had afflicted his plane, the pilot had to make a decision. He opted to release the bomb into the sea below so that he could land. He did so, and the bomb was buried by residue. Officials later searched for this unexploded munition, but nothing was ever found.

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17. Shoot for the Moon

It looked like the world was in big trouble on October 5, 1960. A radar system that was monitoring the area of Thule in Greenland had just picked up on something terrifying. According to the equipment, numerous missiles from the Soviet Union were on the way. America was being attacked.

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Thankfully, this supposed assault turned out to be a mistake. The Soviets had not, in fact, fired any missiles. Rather, the U.S. radar technology had made a grave error, confusing the moonlight for an enemy assault. This simple blunder could have led to a nuclear retaliation and all but doomed everyone on Earth.

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16. A close call in North Carolina

On a cold winter’s night in 1961 the unthinkable happened. An American jet flying over the state of North Carolina ran into trouble and broke apart. From the aircraft’s innards, some things fell towards the ground. A pair of nuclear bombs were on their way to crashing into American soil.

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Both of these bombs were equipped with parachutes — but only one of them opened. So, while one bomb landed softly, the other crashed down without any resistance. Thankfully, though, the landing was so harsh that a component of the bomb that should have allowed it to blow was damaged. It was the luckiest of escapes.

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15. Faulty equipment

The American radar system in Thule, Greenland, once again proved problematic in November 1961. Officials based in Omaha were unable to stay in touch with the system, so they made a call to NORAD headquarters in Colorado to figure out what was wrong. But then they found that they couldn’t reach HQ, either. This seemed unlikely to be a coincidence, so preparations for nuclear war were initiated.

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It’s fortunate, then, that an American jet flying over Thule managed to pick up signals from the radar system. With that, the state of alert could be wound down and disaster was averted. However, it was later found that the situation had arisen after a simple piece of equipment had malfunctioned. Such a basic defect had almost doomed the world.

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14. The bear that nearly ended the world

Things were tense in October 1962, as the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world right to the brink of full-scale nuclear war. Both the United States and the Soviet Union seemed ready to actually launch their nukes and condemn the world to annihilation. This was no time for mistakes or miscommunication.

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American forces had been warned that the Soviets might undertake sabotage missions against American bases in preparation for launching a nuclear attack. So, when a U.S. soldier noted a figure at the edge of his base one night in October 1962, he opened fire. These shots rang out and raised the alarm. With that, members of the Air Force at another base rushed to their jets, which carried nuclear-tipped rockets. But the thing was, the figure that the soldier shot was a bear, not a Soviet saboteur. Thankfully, the jets were halted before they took to the sky.

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13. A bit of sunshine

Sunspots are sections of the Sun’s surface where highly energized radiation can erupt into space. Such bursts of radiation are called solar flares, and they can actually interfere with things here on Earth. For example, radio and satellite signals might be subject to disruption as a result of a solar flare.

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But on May 23, 1967, a solar flare almost led to Armageddon. That day, American radar systems were disrupted. The U.S. Air Force presumed that the Soviet Union was to blame, and so they prepared for nuclear war. Fortunately, before it came to that, NORAD’s solar forecasters worked out that flares had interfered with the radar.

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12. A plane crash in Greenland

On January 21, 1968, an American aircraft was flying over Greenland when it ran into real trouble. A crew member had accidentally caused a fire to erupt and the jet was going down. Most of the crew managed to parachute out of the plane, just before it smashed into the ice below. The thing was, though, these crew members couldn’t remove the plane’s dangerous cargo. Alarmingly, the plane had been transporting four nukes.

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As a result of the crash, the nukes ended up being damaged. And they released radioactive elements into the icy environment. One of Greenland’s fjord was contaminated with radioactive material. But thankfully, none of the bombs had actually blown up. If they had, it obviously would have been an utterly disastrous outcome.

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11. The instructional tape that almost led to war

Towards the end of the 1970s the world, yet again, found itself perilously close to annihilation because of malfunctioning technology. On November 9, 1979, the U.S. noted what appeared to be a massive Soviet assault appearing on its computers. Immediately, the country prepared for nuclear war, with missiles and nuke-carrying jets ready for launch.

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Six minutes ticked by, though, and no attack materialized. In fact, information picked up by American satellites seemed to confirm that an assault was not going to happen. So, what had the computers been showing? Well, it turns out that a person had put an instructional tape depicting a huge nuclear assault into a computer. This innocent — if rather careless — act brought the world to the brink of destruction.

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10. War games gone too far

Made up of 56 different isles, the Kuril Islands is an archipelago that spans 750 miles between the south of eastern Russia and the north of Japan. The area has a fascinating history, but in March 1980 it almost became the site of a nuclear war. And disturbingly, this disastrous situation emerged as a result of a mere war game.

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According to a report by The Union of Concerned Scientists, the Soviet Union fired four missiles from a submarine in the vicinity of the Kuril Islands. This was part of a drill, rather than an actual act of war. The United States, however, believed that this was a genuine attack headed for American soil. This could potentially have led the U.S. to retaliate, but thankfully nothing came of it.

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9. Stanislav Petrov saves the world

It was September 26, 1983, and Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov had just spotted what seemed like an American missile on his radar. As he recalled to Russia Today in 2010, “When I first saw the alert message, I got up from my chair. All my subordinates were confused, so I started shouting orders at them to avoid panic. I knew my decision would have a lot of consequences.”

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Then, the radar system showed that more missiles were on the way. Petrov, however, doubted that this was really happening. Breaking protocol, the Soviet decided not to warn his superiors. He didn’t want to drag the world into nuclear war. “I felt like I couldn’t even stand up,” he later remembered. “That’s how nervous I was when I was taking this decision.” Thankfully, he was right. The U.S. had not fired their missiles and war was averted.

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8. Able Archer 83

If 1983 wasn’t fraught enough already, there was another precarious situation surrounding nuclear weapons that arose in November. That month, NATO ran a drill known as Able Archer 83. The military alliance had organized similar exercises in the past, but this one was significantly different in a couple of aspects. As such, the Soviets misinterpreted the excercise, believing that Western forces were preparing for war.

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The Soviets reacted strongly to this supposed act of war and they prepared for nuclear conflict. In fact, it’s believed that the world came perilously close to a nuclear engagement on this occasion. It’s been said that this was the closest call since the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis two decades earlier.

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7. Gorbachev is robbed of the nuclear suitcase

Towards the end of summer 1991 an attempt was made to overthrow the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The General Secretary was trapped in his house by a number of officials from the military, police and government. This coup, however, quickly fizzled out and failed after thousands of civilians protested.

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In the midst of the coup, however, Gorbachev’s nuclear briefcase was taken from him. This basically meant that for three days, it was the leaders of the attempted revolution that had control of the Soviet Union’s nukes. After the coup had been suppressed, however, the codes were returned back into Gorbachev’s control.

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6. A science experiment gone wrong

Even after the Cold War concluded, there have been a few nuclear near misses. In January 1995, for instance, scientists from the U.S. and Norway sent a rocket into the skies above the Norwegian coast. This wasn’t a threat to the recently established Russian Federation, however, as it was designed for investigating the aurora borealis.

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As a result of the rocket, the Russian military channels were alerted, with the warning even making it as far as President Boris Yeltsin. The leader was then faced with a decision. That is, he could retaliate and doom the Earth to nuclear annihilation, or he could choose not to. Thankfully, he decided not to and the world survived another disastrous misunderstanding.

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5. Lost codes

According to former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Hugh Shelton, the codes that are necessary for a nuclear launch were once “mislaid.” This is basic human error, but one that’s unnerving when we’re talking about something as serious nuclear weapons. And it’s not that the codes were missing for a few minutes. Apparently, they were lost for several months.

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General Shelton claims that this occurred “around the year 2000,” which places it under the Clinton administration. As Shelton explains in his 2010 book Without Hesitation, it was an official’s job to verify these codes with the President and members of his staff. When this official asked for the codes, however, they were told that Clinton himself had them and that he was busy. Another person requested the codes a month or so later — and didn’t receive them that time, either. It then supposedly emerged that they’d been missing the entire time.

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4. Mixed up cargo

Back in 2006 the United States made a big error. At the time, it was meant to be shipping batteries for use in helicopters to Taiwan. But what it actually sent over was something else entirely. The U.S. had accidentally sent four electrical fuses meant to be used in nuclear missiles.

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The United States has claimed that these fuses didn’t actually contain nuclear elements. Apparently, they were similar to any other fuse that could be used in conventional weaponry. Even so, the incident served to demonstrate that America still makes mistakes involving nuclear weapons, even long after the end of the Cold War.

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3. Nukes over America

In 2007 it emerged that another error had occurred involving American nuclear weaponry. You see, in breach of U.S. military protocol, six nuclear bombs were actually taken to the skies above the mainland United States. These weapons were flown from a facility in North Dakota over to another base in Louisiana.

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Officials in the American military sought to downplay the situation, claiming that it was an isolated incident. Critics, however, have suggested that the episode is indicative of faults in the wider system for monitoring nuclear weapons in America. As Steve Fetter from the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland put it to the Los Angeles Times, “It suggests nuclear weapons could be moved by mistake.”

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2. The simplest of codes

For some time now, there have been rumors about the code required to launch America’s nukes. These reports have centered on the notion that this sequence wasn’t actually as complicated as one would hope. But is it really possible that the U.S. opted for a code of “00000000” for something as critical as this?

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Bruce Blair was an expert on nuclear security who once served as a launch officer. In 2004 he published accusations that the Air Force refused to enforce more difficult sequences for launching nuclear weapons. Instead, he asserted, officials opted to keep the code very simple. Perilously so, it would seem.

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1. A terrifying alert in Hawaii

Back in 2018 the citizens of Hawaii got the fright of their lives when their cellphones and TV sets lit up with a terrifying message. It read, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Can you imagine receiving a more terrifying message?

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As it turned out, though, the alert had been a mistake, as Hawaii’s Governor David Ige explained to the press. He said, “An error was made in emergency management which allowed this false alarm to be sent. It was a procedure that occurs at the change of shift where they go through to make sure that the system is working and an employee pushed the wrong button.”

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