April: Other countries get off relatively light in this review, largely because they don't report their nuclear weapons accidents or otherwise announce their paranoia.
Fortunately, we have the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In the midst of its 1994 nuclear crisis with the United States, announced that it would turn Seoul into a "sea of flames" -- an impressively medieval threat, even by the standards of DPRK propaganda. The United States was trying to prevent North Korea from separating and weaponizing its plutonium contained in 8,000 spent fuel rods. The Clinton administration managed to avoid both a war with North Korea and kept Pyongyang from adding to its plutonium stockpile by canning the spent fuel -- although Pyongyang would reprocess the spent fuel in 2002 during the George W. Bush administration. But in April 1994, a deal still seemed out of reach. Bob Gallucci, who would negotiate the Agreed Framework, would later say of those following months that "we seemed to be headed more on a road to war than we did on a road to a negotiated end to the conflict. That was a very tense time.
May: I was tempted to go with the "unexplained" 1969 loss of the USS Scorpion along with its two nuclear-armed torpedoes -- an event that has triggered endless conspiracy theories that I will not dignify with a link -- so I rather prefer the 1988 PEPCON disaster. PEPCON was a defense contractor in Henderson, Nevada, that made solid-rocket fuel. One day in May, some guys were using a welding torch ... in a rocket-fuel factory. What could possibly go wrong?
June: In 1980, less than eight months after the training tape incident, June gave us the infamous 46-cent computer chip that failed. When it did, it showed different Soviet attacks from one moment to the next. This false alarm is usually regarded as less serious that than the training tape incident, but what gets less attention is that this was one of three false alarms over June 3 to June 6 that demonstrated how fancy new computers had introduced surprising instabilities in the nuclear command-and-control system. Although the problem wasn't War Games-level bad, the false alarms freaked out many officials in the Carter administration.
And then there's Operation Desert Glow -- a 1989 FBI raid on the Rocky Flats plant where the United States made plutonium pits for nuclear weapons. The FBI raid followed what the Bureau describes as "illegal dumping, unsafe practices, and other dangers and crimes" occurring at Rocky Flats. These practices occurred for a long period of time, but the idea of the FBI raiding a U.S. nuclear weapons production facility still stuns many people.
July: This month has the usual spattering of accidents, but two stand out: The K-19 was an ill-starred Soviet submarine that suffered so many radiation-related accidents that it was nicknamed Hiroshima. The most severe accident occurred in July 1961, when the reactor nearly melted down on patrol, far from Mother Russia, forcing the crew to sail around with their little undersea Chernobyl for several days. Extra scary: The incident inspired a terrible film starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson called K-19: The Widowmaker.
Still worse is the 1956 bomber crash at Lakenheath Air Base in Britain. This what General Curtis LeMay, head of Strategic Air Command (SAC), cabled back home:
HAVE JUST COME FROM WRECKAGE OF B-47 WHICH PLOUGHED INTO AN IGLOO IN LAKENHEATH .... THE B-47 TORE APART THE IGLOO AND KNOCKED ABOUT 3 MARK SIXES. A/C THEN EXPLODED SHOWERING BURNING FUEL OVER ALL. CREW PERISHED. MOST OF A/C WRECKAGE PIVOTED ON IGLOO AND CAME TO REST WITH A/C NOSE JUST BEYOND IGLOO BANK WHICH KEPT MAIN FUEL FIRE OUTSIDE SMASHED IGLOO. PRELIMINARY EXAM BY BOMB DISPOSAL OFFICER SAYS A MIRACLE THAT ONE MARK SIX WITH EXPOSED DETONATORS DIDN'T GO.
A miracle, eh? Now I understand the SAC chapel.