Voice

Does Burma Still Have Nuclear Dreams?

The answer lies with the mysterious Dr. Ko Ko Oo.

President Obama is visiting Myanmar, better known as Burma. At the beginning of his term, Burma seemed set to take the place in the Axis of Evil left vacant by Iraq. In addition to brutally suppressing a pro-democracy movement, the regime's leaders had cultivated ties with North Korea and expressed an unhealthy interest in ballistic missiles and nuclear technology. Matters came to a head in 2009 and again in 2011 when a North Korean ship headed for Burma, carrying what the administration suspected might be ballistic missiles.

Then suddenly Burma came in from the cold. It released Aung San Suu Kyi, darling of the democracy movements, and told John McCain that it was done with all that nasty nuclear business. Case closed, right?

Well, not so fast. Although I welcome Burma's public rejection of nuclear weapons, experts had real reasons for concerns about Burma's past activities. I understand it is hard to imagine poor, backwards Burma in possession of nuclear weapons. But Burma's leaders are isolated and a bit paranoid. Which sounds like North Korea. We know how that worked out.

Administration officials are careful to make clear that they continue to be concerned about Burma's nuclear interests, as well as its relationship with North Korea. And it is worth stating at the outset that much of the information provided by dissident groups is of little value. It is often technically ignorant gossip gussied up as intelligence. Some of it appears to be outright fabrication, the sort of defector clap-trap made famous by Iraqis like Rafid Ahmed Alwan, better known as "Curveball."

But even if one strips away the near-hysterical claims of some dissident groups, some disquieting facts remain.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, let's look at a few.

The first one is a doozy. Hungry?

This is Senior General Shwe Mann in 2008 (seated, center left) -- then the head of Burma's military, now speaker of the lower house of parliament -- with Jon Byong Ho (standing).

Jon was North Korea's proliferator-in-chief, perhaps best known as the author of this letter released by business associate AQ Khan. For many years, Jon ran the Second Economic Committee in North Korea, along with his son-in-law, Yun Ho Jin. My colleague Josh Pollack dubbed them the "Dynamic Duo" of North Korean proliferation. Although Jon is now in his eighties and probably out to pasture, the sight of a senior Burmese general sitting down to dinner with him in North Korea is not encouraging.

The photo is one of nearly 200 images from a trip taken by a senior Burmese military delegation to North Korea in 2008. Another photo offers a rare glimpse inside North Korea's main missile factory.

Source: Democratic Voice of Burma

In addition to the pictures, there is a trip report, which makes clear that the Burmese window-shopped for ballistic missiles at North Korea's primary missile production facility. The list of foreign delegations to have visited this factory is not long -- it includes Egyptians, Syrians, and Iranians. Customers only. The trip report notes that "at an appropriate time, we should continue to produce these strategic weapons step by step." Shwe Mann also took time to sign a memorandum of understanding with the North Koreans on defense cooperation.

Gen. Shwe Man and KPA Chief of General Staff Gen. Kim Gyok Sik sign a memorandum of understanding on the 26th November 2008 (Source: Democratic Voice of Burma)

This helps explain why the United States turned back that North Korean ship headed to Burma. It is unclear whether American officials knew for certain whether the ship carried ballistic missiles, as they claimed, but one has to wonder after seeing pictures like this. The North Koreans were so pleased to see these pictures and the trip report online that they leaned on the Burmese to sentence to death two Burmese officials accused of having leaked it. I have no idea of knowing whether the sentence was carried out. But Burma's generals clearly have some sort of relationship with North Korea.

Obama officials have been clear that this is a continuing source of concern. According to Derek Mitchell, now the U.S. ambassador to Burma: "We have been quite consistent and direct in public and private about our continuing concerns about the lack of transparency in Burma's military relationship with North Korea and specifically that the government must adhere to its obligations under relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions and its other international nonproliferation obligations."

Let's look at some more pictures. Burma has openly sought to develop an ostensibly civilian nuclear program. For example, it has a Department of Atomic Energy. Until recently, DAE was run by this fellow in the green sarong: Dr. Ko Ko Oo.

Source: Regional Cooperation Agreement Oganization.

Dr. Ko Ko Oo now heads the Ministry of Science and Technology, which in 2007 concluded a memorandum of understanding with Russia to train 300-350 DAE personnel and to construct a nuclear research center in Burma, including a 10-megawatt research reactor fueled with low-enriched uranium. The deal eventually collapsed, but Burma has sent what Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell called "alarming numbers" of students to train in Russia. Here's a picture of a few trainees posing outside the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys.

Documents released by DictatorWatch, one of the more vociferous groups opposed to the Burmese regime, suggest that Burmese students are studying a range of missile and nuclear fuel-cycle activities in Russia, including the production of uranium, reactor operations, and spent nuclear fuel reprocessing. Burma has also carried out efforts to explore and exploit the country's uranium resources.

Let's pause before moving on to the more controversial material. There is no question that Burma went shopping in North Korea, toured the main missile factory, and signed an MOU on defense cooperation. Nor is there any question that Burma attempted to purchase a research reactor from Russia and sent large numbers of students to train in Russia. Once upon a time, if a country tried to purchase ballistic missiles and a research reactor, that made people nervous.

What really caught international attention, however, have been the claims of a defector named Sai Thein Win, a former major in the Burmese Army, who left Burma with a large number of photographs from a pair of technical workshops -- one in Myaing and one in Nuang Laing -- where he claims to have worked. These allegations are carefully summarized in a report prepared by Robert Kelley and Ali Fowle for the Democratic Voice of Burma, a group opposed to the Burmese regime. This is Sai, holding what appears to be a component of a rocket engine called an impeller.

Sai claimed the Myaing facility was associated with a nascent missile program, which would be consistent with his technical training. The Nuang Laing facility may be part of the same missile program, but it has also been rumored to be part of a nuclear program. After examining images of equipment manufactured using the tools at Myaing and Nuang Laing, Kelley and Fowle conclude that "this technology is only for nuclear weapons and not civilian use or nuclear power."

The workshops contain specialized machine tools from Germany and Switzerland. One of the suppliers had doubts about the end-user -- officially the Department of Vocational Training and Education (DVTE) -- and visited the facilities. According to Kelley and Fowle, foreign experts noted a number of discrepancies when visiting the site that caused them to wonder about the credibility of the declared end-use. For example, why did the staff contain only men of military age?

Here is a picture of a group of foreign experts visiting the facility near Nuang Laing. Notice a familiar face? Why, yes, that is our old friend Dr. Ko Ko Oo.

Source: Democratic Voice of Burma

In addition to being the head of the Department of Atomic Energy, Dr. Ko Ko Oo was deputy director of DTVE and reportedly signed the end-user certificate for the equipment. These are examples of what David Albright has described as "deep connections" between DAE and DTVE.

Sai explained the discrepancies by noting the workshops were for defense production. He provided a number of photographs from inside at least one of the workshops showing uniformed personnel posing with equipment.

Source: Democratic Voice of Burma

Besides the presence of uniformed personnel, there are other reasons to suspect the facilities have a military purpose. For example, in most other cases, Burmese officials have publicly announced the opening of machine tool workshops.

There is a debate about the accuracy of Kelley and Fowle's analysis. The authors say the sum total of all the equipment suggests a uranium-based weapons program. Others, however, have been more skeptical. Pro Publica, a non-profit investigative journalism organization, released a report critical of Kelley's analysis that relied largely on anonymous intelligence sources. U.S. officials are said to have gone through the report "line by line" and rejected its conclusions, but the experts are anonymous and the basis for their rejection is not stated. David Albright and Christina Walrond argue that much of the equipment documented by Sai could be for recovering rare earths -- the funny metals essential to your smartphone and other digital gizmos. (To be clear, Albright has called Burma a "nuclear wannabe" and advised companies to be cautious in any dealings with Burma.)

The debate has gotten a bit heated at times, which is tough for me because I like all of the parties tremendously. And, in this case, I think the situation is rather complicated.

The extraction of rare earths is a plausible use for the equipment. A textbook, Extractive Metallurgy of Rare Earths, lists uses for all the equipment identified by Kelley: bomb reduction vessels, fluidized bed reactors made from Inconel to handle fluorine, glove boxes, and so on. (If you are desperate for a detailed discussion on the use of Inconel in handling fluorinated gas, I have posted a long technical analysis on my blog, ArmsControlWonk.com.) I think it is too strong to say there are no civilian applications for the equipment that Burma was producing.

But, and this is a Sir Mix-a-Lot-sized but ...

The authors of the textbook are two scientists at the Bhabba Atomic Research Center (BARC) in India. The United States sanctioned BARC after India's 1998 nuclear tests, because it is the beating heart of the Indian nuclear weapons program. India has a gas centrifuge program for enriching uranium located near Mysore, which operates under the cover of being a "rare metals plant." (The United States also sanctioned Indian Rare Earths, which operates the plant.)

So, a Department of Atomic Energy might plausibly engage in rare earths extraction given the similar technologies. But it might also use rare earths extraction as a cover for a military uranium enrichment program. Damned inconvenient, eh?

Burma also appears to maintain a unit called the "Number 1 Science and Technology Battalion" in a jungle facility near Thabeikkyin. That unit apparently requested production of a bomb reduction vessel from the factory in Myaing. Documents posted by DictatorWatch, describing the layout of the facility, are consistent with overhead images of a site located at: 22° 57' 29.59" N, 96° 5' 51.02" E. In addition to the satellite images, there are a small number of photographs of a visit to a construction site that perfectly matches the topography and layout of the buildings. Here's one showing the VIP visitor:

Why, unless I am very much mistaken, it's our old friend Ko Ko Oo. The presence of the senior DAE official at the site on what would appear to be an inspection tour suggests a nuclear purpose for the facility.

If neither the Number 1 Science and Technology Regiment nor the workshop near Nuang Laing are related to some sort of nuclear program, I'd really like to understand what the director of the Department of Atomic Energy was doing at both locations. And why is another of the machine shops producing equipment for the Number 1 Science and Technology Regiment? And why are the personnel at the civilian workshop posing in olive drab? I can come up possible explanations, but why should I have to guess? Dr. Ko Ko Oo could perhaps provide some insight here.

So, let's recap. Burma's military went on a shopping expedition to North Korea that included a tour of a ballistic missile factory, signing of a defense MOU, and dinner with the proliferator-in-chief. Burma's Department of Atomic Energy also attempted to purchase a research reactor from Russia and sent students to train in subjects such as reprocessing. Dr. Ko Ko Oo also was involved in the procurement of machine tools from foreign suppliers to establish two workshops that supply a military facility carved out of the jungle.

Golly, a fellow could get real suspicious.

I hasten to add that I have not included the wilder rumors about covert nuclear reactors and so forth. There is a lot of garbage out there about Burma's nuclear program. (Poor David Albright has had his hands full shooting down a lot of this silliness including some nonsense relating to tunnels. What is it about tunneling that makes people crazy?) Cables from Wikileaks demonstrate the very, uh, uneven quality of reporting. Worst of all, the dissident groups have turned on one another claiming credit for this discovery or that.

But despite all this drama, there is no "smoking gun," as former IAEA safeguard head Olli Heinonen has cautioned, that proves Burma is, or was, seeking a nuclear weapon.

Burma's motives are unclear. Perhaps some members of the Burmese junta believe that nuclear weapons would shield the regime from foreign pressure. Perhaps the Ministry of Science and Technology sees the extraction of rare earths as a future source of hard currency. And perhaps the machine tools they produced were intended for another country. But the workshop near Nuang Laing reminds me of the workshop that AQ Khan attempted to establish in nearby Malaysia. Whatever it is, something is going on. I would bloody well like to know what it is.

The Obama administration claims it is serious about ensuring that nonproliferation is part of its policy of engaging Burma. On the other hand, the anonymous officials cited by Pro Publica leave me with the impression that they worry too much attention to Dr. Ko Ko Oo's activities might disturb the delicate transition to civilian rule. These officials may calculate that democratization in Burma will move much faster than programs to develop ballistic missiles or nuclear technology. In October, Glyn Davies, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, told reporters that although Burma's leaders "made a strategic decision to...ultimately end these relationships with North Korea...it's a work in process. It was a long relationship that the two countries had and so it does take some time to work through it." It will be interesting to see how patient Congress will be.

Still, if the administration is reluctant to press for a full accounting of Burma's nuclear activities in the near-term, there are some more modest steps that we might seek:

  • In late 2010, the IAEA director-general reportedly sent a letter to the Burmese government, requesting that the country "provide information about reports suggesting it was engaging in suspicious nuclear activities." Burma should oblige, providing access to facilities and associated personnel at Myaing, Nuang Laing, and Thabeikkyin.
  • Senior Burmese officials have indicated they would consider signing an Additional Protocol, a stronger nuclear safeguards agreement created in response to Iraq's efforts to evade safeguards in the 1980s. Just do it, already. It also wouldn't hurt if Burma reported its uranium mining and milling activities.
  • Russia and Burma should provide the IAEA details about the scope and size of training programs conducted for Burmese citizens. Who were these students? What did they study? Where are they today?
  • Burma, we are told, has made a strategic decision to suspend defense cooperation with North Korea, but it should report the extent of its past dealings to the United Nations, starting with the full text of the purported MOU.

These steps fall well short of a complete accounting of Burma's nuclear activities, but they would offer some assurance that Burma is not actively pursuing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons while it is seeking to end its international isolation.

National Security

Nightmare on Nuke Street

Twelve terrifying tales from the nuclear crypt.

October is a scary month. And it's not just Halloween. October also happens to be the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And if the ghosts and goblins don't make you wet your pants, the thought of Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Castro dancing on the edge of nuclear war should.

During the Cold War, the United States twice more raised the alert status of its nuclear forces -- in October 1969 and October 1973. And one of the worst reactor accidents at a military program -- the fire at Britain's Windscale reactor -- also happened in October.

You might start to think there is something particularly dangerous about October. But the reality is that there have been so many accidents, false alarms, and other mishaps involving nuclear weapons that you haven't heard about -- and every month contains at least one seriously scary incident. The Department of Defense has released narrative summaries for 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980, many of which involve aircraft bearing bombs. False alarms? Please. The Department of Defense admitted 1,152 "moderately serious" false alarms between 1977 and 1984 -- roughly three a week. (I love the phrase "moderately serious." I wonder how many "seriously serious" false alarms they had?) I kind of get the feeling that if NORAD went more than a week without a serious false alarm, they would start to wonder if the computers were ok.

The hard part was choosing the most frightening moments. There is no reason to believe the apocryphal story about the British Army choosing red uniforms because they do not show blood. But after 60-odd years of nuclear accidents, incidents, and whatnot, I can recommend that the STRATCOM commander consider brown pants.

So, here's my list of 12 seriously scary events, one for each month. This list is not comprehensive, nor is it intended to be the worst events. And yes, it's written with a dark sense of humor, but you'd have to be very jocose not to ask some serious questions.

How responsible are the people who make decisions about our nuclear weapons? Have they been good stewards both of the weapons themselves and our trust? Why don't we discuss these accidents and mishaps more? Is it because taking seriously the danger that nuclear weapons pose to humanity is uncomfortably akin to activism of the nuclear freeze? Are human beings, fallible as we are, just too imperfect to rely on something as destructive as nuclear weapons to keep the peace? (A lot depends on how you view what Scott Sagan, our foremost scholar of nuclear accidents, labels "close calls.") Are we to be comforted by the fact that, for all the hair-raising moments, we've somehow made it through intact? Or should we be frightened by how little stood between us and catastrophe?

These are scary questions, perhaps a bit too frightening for even Halloween. I know, I know, all you want is some candy or maybe to see one of your coworkers in a skimpy nurse outfit. So, without further ado:

November: This is a fun one to get us started: Two of my favorites are the training tape incident and the Belknap fire. The training tape incident occurred on November 9, 1979, when some genius at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) played a training tape showing a massive Soviet attack, lighting up the proverbial "Big Board" -- which, sadly, only exists in movies. NORAD issued warnings that went out to the entire intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force and put the president's airborne command post in the air (without the president). After the event hit the press, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev sent a note to Carter stating "I think you will agree with me that there should be no errors in such matters." Ah, Brezhnev, the voice of reason.) The USS Belknap incident was also pretty terrifying: a U.S. Navy cruiser in 1975 collided with an aircraft carrier and caught fire, nearly engulfing the stockpile of nuclear weapons on board.

But neither incident is as terrifying as Able Archer, a 1983 NATO command post exercise that the Soviet leadership believed might be cover for a U.S. sneak attack. Able Archer was the lowest point of the "War Scare of 1983" -- an incredibly tense period that including the Soviet shootdown of a civilian airliner, KAL 007. The scariest part? Washington had no idea how close the Russians were to doing something drastic until long afterward. When Reagan's advisers shared reports with the president detailing the depths of Soviet paranoia in early 1984, he reportedly said: "Do you suppose they really believe that?... I don't see how they could believe that -- but it's something to think about."

Reagan clearly took the lesson to heart. A few months later, in August 1984, he livened up a press conference with a little joke during sound check: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."

Yep. Something to think about.

December: I almost went with the 1965 incident, when an A-4E Skyhawk rolled off the USS Ticonderoga carrying a 1 megaton thermonuclear weapon, but aircraft accidents are going to be overrepresented here. (And besides, the Navy merely lost the nuclear weapon to Davy Jones's Locker. That's happened a couple of times.)

For my money, I like the Baneberry nuclear test. In December 1970, the United States conducted a 10 kiloton underground nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site, near Las Vegas. What happened underground didn't stay underground, though, venting a cloud of radioactive dust to an altitude of 10,000 feet. We still don't know what caused Baneberry to vent. I was flipping through a very dry report called The Containment of Underground Nuclear Explosions, when I came across this illustration in the front matter that offers one hypothesis.

January: This is "rain death from the sky" month. B-52s armed with nuclear weapons crashed in 1962 (Goldsboro, North Carolina), 1966 (Palomares, Spain), and 1968 (Thule, Greenland). After the third crash, the Air Force finally figured out that it's a terrible idea to keep nuclear armed bombers in the air at all times. Hey, once is an accident and twice is a coincidence, but three times? That's a trend! For good measure, in 1978, a Soviet military satellite probably powered by a significant quantity of highly enriched uranium, Cosmos 954, fell back to Earth, spreading the good stuff across Canada. When it rains, it pours ... fissile material.


Still, my pick has got to be the 1995 Norwegian rocket incident. In January 1995, the Russians mistook a Norwegian sounding rocket for a U.S. missile launch. Boris Yeltsin later claimed he had activated the Russian "football" that would allow him to order a nuclear retaliation. It's hard to figure out how dangerous the moment was, but I like the idea of a possibly inebriated Yeltsin staring at the Russian football and yelling, "All the blinking lights! My head is killing me!" Really, anytime you can hang the fate of the world on the decision-making of Boris Yeltsin after a couple of stiff ones, I say go for it.

February: So, we've lost more than a few nuclear weapons, but usually in the deep sea. But after a 1958 mid-air collision, we lost on in the shallow waters around Tybee Island, near Savannah, Georgia. The Tybee bomb is the gift that keeps on giving, with periodic efforts to find the nuclear weapon. The most recent search was in 2004. After detectors found a small amount of radioactivity, teams searched for 90 days. An Air Force official "said even if the 7,600-pound bomb were found, it is probably best left where it is -- entombed in an estimated 15 feet of muck." Way to get after it, boys.

March: I have high standards for aircraft-related mishaps, but the 1958 incident at Mars Bluff is a doozy. (What's with 1958, huh?) The B-47 crew had failed to secure the bomb in the bay and, while attempting to replace a "locking pin" in flight, accidentally tripped the bomb release. The bomb landed in a residential area in the unincorporated hamlet of Mars Bluff near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina -- and exploded. Fortunately, only the high explosives detonated. But the impact crater can still be seen today. "Not too many people can say they've had a nuclear bomb dropped on them," Walter Gregg, the man who lost his house to the accident, told a local newspaper. "Not too many would want to." Gee, you think?

A runner up is the Soviet submarine K-129, which sank in March 1968 with all hands aboard and a number of nuclear weapons. The United States contracted with Howard Hughes to build the Glomar Explorer deep-sea drill ship to clandestinely retrieve much of the wreckage from the ocean floor. But this doesn't win, as we've got another sunken Soviet submarine coming up later.

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.

August: Well, it's sort of hard to overlook the fact that we dropped two bombs in August 1945. And then there's the Berlin crisis that heated up with the construction of The Wall in 1961.

Still, I'm going to pick the 2007 munitions transfer incident -- a weapons crew at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota mistakenly loaded six nuclear-armed cruise missiles onto a B-52 bomber, which then flew the nuclear weapons across the country to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The nuclear weapons were unsecured for 36 hours. The explanation is simple: the event occurred immediately prior to a four-day weekend. Somehow, I imagine Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend" blaring in the bunker as the munitions team mistakenly grabs the real nuclear weapons to load on the B-52.

September: This is another month with several big scares. There's the 1980 event in Damascus, Arkansas, when a worker accidentally dropped a wrench into an ICBM silo, puncturing a Titan II missile. It eventually exploded, blasting a 750-ton silo door a quarter of a mile away and launching the nuclear warhead into the air. (No worries, it was recovered.)

But that's nothing compared to the 1957 accident near Kyshtym in the Soviet Union. The accident actually occurred at a closed city associated with the Soviet nuclear weapons program. A cooling system in a tank with 80 tons of liquid radioactive waste failed. The temperature rose suddenly and the tank exploded, sending a plume of radioactive nastiness like cesium and strontium over hundreds of kilometers. Until the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, this was the worst nuclear accident in history; it ranked a 6 on International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). Chernobyl and Fukushima were INES 7 events.

Scared yet?

I was surprised, in writing this list, how much I remembered correctly, as well as how much I did not remember at all. I've been careful to source the short accounts accurately, but perhaps an error has slipped in here or there. And, as I say, this is hardly a comprehensive list. So, I'll be encouraging readers at my blog, ArmsControlWonk.com to offer their favorite nuclear weapons mishap, comment on these or just wax philosophic about the epistemology of the "close call."

And Happy Halloween everyone.