Author Eric Schlosser: Hydrogen bomb almost detonated in North Carolina in 1961

A hydrogen bomb explodes on Eniwetok Atoll, Marshall Islands, Nov. 1, 1952.
AP GraphicsBank

(CBS News) A newly disclosed document reveals a U.S. hydrogen bomb almost detonated near Goldsboro, N.C., back in 1961.

According to a new book by the author Eric Schlosser - "Command and Control" - that near-miss is not an isolated event. In fact, far from it.

"The Pentagon has issued an official list of broken arrows - of serious weapon accidents that could threaten the public - and there are 32 accidents on that list," said Schlosser. "I found that 32 is actually a small fraction of the number of accidents that occurred. One document that I obtained from the Sandia National Laboratory, which is one of our big weapons laboratories, listed 1,200 nuclear weapons involved in accidents or incidents that threatened the safety between 1950 and 1968."

Schlosser described some of those incidents as "relatively trivial," others more serious.


"There were nuclear accidents that weren't as dramatic as a plane crash or a missile exploding that were actually very dangerous," he said.

(Watch at left the full interview with Eric Schlosser)

The closest the nation has come in the last 60 years to a major disaster was in January 1961, Schlosser said.

"There was a B-52 bomber that started leaking fuel," he said. "While it was preparing emergency landing, there was a weight imbalance, and the plane started to break apart mid-air. There were two hydrogen bombs on the plane, and as the plane was breaking apart mid-air there were so many wires that if one of those wires had crossed with the arming wire of the bomb, there would have been a full-scale detonation of this hydrogen bomb in North Carolina. There would have been huge firestorms, and the lethal radioactive fallout could have extended as far north as Washington, D.C."

In his book, Schlosser doesn't just document close calls in the past, but he says that this is a problem that continues to confront the country now.

"The Defense Science Board issued a report just this year saying that our nuclear command-and-control system might be vulnerable to being hacked," he said.

Even if the United States gets its act together in terms of command and control, there's a world out there that does not adhere to the same standards.

"The greatest threat that we face in a short-term sense in the world is the use of a nuclear weapon," said Schlosser. "Our controls and our systems are superior to that of any other nation, but when you look at the long list of accidents and near-misses that we've had, despite our expertise, it gives you enormous pause about other countries like Pakistan, India, North Korea having nuclear weapons."

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," the "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and other CBS News broadcasts.