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In 1961, the US almost detonated two nuclear bombs over North Carolina by accident

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Fat Man atom bomb used in Hiroshima (Wikimedia Commons)
Fat Man atom bomb used in Hiroshima (Wikimedia Commons)

On January 23rd, 1961, the United States almost nuked itself by accident. On that day, according to a recently unclassified document obtained by The Guardian, the US Air Force mistakenly dropped a pair of hydrogen bombs over Goldsboro, North Carolina. The bombs each carried a 4-megaton payload and were about 260 times more powerful than the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 during World War II, The Guardian says in a report.

In North Carolina, the two atomic bombs were released after a B-52 airplane carrying the payload went into a tailspin during a routine test flight — one of the bombs eventually landed"It would have been bad news — in spades." in a tree, and the other in a meadow, The Guardian says. The document says the bombs should have detonated — parachutes were deployed and triggers were armed, but one low-voltage switch failed to activate as it should have, preventing what would have been devastating and widespread damage.

The document was shared with The Guardian by journalist Eric Schlosser, who is currently researching the nuclear arms race for an upcoming book, Command and Control. Schlosser tells the newspaper that he has found at least 700 noteworthy incidents involving nuclear weapons that took place between 1950 and 1968 — but the public largely doesn't know about any of them. "The US government has consistently tried to withhold information from the American people in order to prevent questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy," he says in the report. "We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here's one that very nearly did."

If the bombs had gone off, the carnage would have reached into Baltimore, Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York city. "Yeah, it would have been bad news — in spades," Parker F. Jones, then supervisor of nuclear weapons safety at the Sandia National Laboratories, writes in the formerly-secret document. "One simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe!"