"Air Force weapons officers assigned to secure nuclear warheads failed on five occasions to examine a bundle of cruise missiles headed to a B-52 bomber in North Dakota, leading the plane's crew to unknowingly fly six nuclear-armed missiles across the country.
That August flight, the first known incident in which the military lost track of its nuclear weapons since the dawn of the atomic age, lasted nearly three hours, until the bomber landed at Barksdale Air Force Base in northern Louisiana.
But according to an Air Force investigation presented to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Friday, the nuclear weapons sat on a plane on the runway at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota for nearly 24 hours without ground crews noticing the warheads had been moved out of a secured shelter.
"This was an unacceptable mistake," said Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne at a Pentagon news conference. "We would really like to ensure it never happens again."" Spiegel in the LA Times
Let's say that during the three hour flight from North Dakota to Louisiana there had occurred an in flight emergency, perhaps a loss of some number of engines. Let us say that the aircraft commander decided in such an emergency to lighten the load by jettisoning things that were not permanently attached to the airplane. Presumably the first to go would have been things that did not have rocket motors or explosives attached. After that.... Well ,in the midst of an emergency, losing power and altitude would the aircraft CO not have considered "dumping" these cruise missiles over what - Kansas, maybe? After all, he did not know that these were nuclear weapons..
The government will always assure the public in incidents like this that the weapon could not detonate. It is certainly unlikely, but the vagaries of impact of such a machine on the earth makes that less than totally reassuring. At the very least, the fissile material in the weapons could be spread around in a dangerous way, and then, there is the possibility of a less than full yield detonation in a variety of ways.
The USAF and Navy kept a tight grip on these instruments of the devil for all the period of the Cold War. This awful example of neglect of duty and inattention to detail is appalling in its illustration of the dangers of complacency. pl
This is the warhead involved.
The description of the warhead assures that the possibility of a nuclear detonation in an accident is "minimal."