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Command and Control | Article

Broken Arrows: How Many Nuclear Accidents Have We Had?

All-out nuclear war may be the greatest risk we face with modern weaponry, but it’s not the only one.

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Radioactive contamination. Seizure, theft, or loss of a nuclear weapon. Accidental or unauthorized launching, firing, or use of a nuclear-capable weapon system. Public hazard, actual or implied. These are the kinds of events the military calls ''broken arrows.''

The Pentagon maintains that the United States has experienced 32 broken arrow accidents, including the 1980 episode in Damascus, Arkansas — the subject of the American Experience documentary Command and Control. However, there are many other incidents involving nuclear arsenal that don’t make that list.

Below are two documents. One enumerates the 32 official broken arrows; the other, a declassified document from the Defense Atomic Support Agency obtained by journalist Eric Schlosser, includes hundreds more. These events range from the fairly minor — the unexplained activation of a sprinkler system in an aircraft carrier’s weapons storage compartment (Accidents and Incidents During the Period 1 December 1982 through 28 February 1963, Incident #4) — to the significantly more serious — a weapon burning for approximately four hours with two low order detonations (Accidents and Incidents During the Period 1 July 1957 through 31 March 1967, Incident #23).

Download the document that outlines the Icon 32 official broken arrows here. (1.4 MB)

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Download the previously classified Icon document from the Defense Atomic Support Agency here. (81.3 MB) .

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