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The United States has lost at least three nuclear bombs that have never been found – they are still out there. What caused this to happen? Where could they possibly be? Will we ever be able to locate them?

At the height of the Cold War, it was a mild winter morning.

A Spanish shrimp fisherman saw a misshapen white parcel fall from the sky on January 17, 1966, around 10:30 a.m. and glide silently towards the Alboran Sea. It had something hanging beneath it that he couldn’t make out. It then sank beneath the waves.

At the same time, residents of the nearby fishing village of Palomares looked up at the same sky and saw a very different scene – two massive fireballs hurtling towards them. The peaceful rural idyll was shattered in an instant. Buildings trembled. Shrapnel slashed into the ground. Body parts were found on the ground.

A few weeks later, Philip Meyers received a teleprinter message – a device capable of sending and receiving primitive emails. He was working as a bomb disposal officer at the Naval Air Facility Sigonella in eastern Sicily at the time. He was told that there was a top-secret emergency in Spain and that he needed to report there in a matter of days. 

The mission, however, was not as covert as the military had hoped. “It was not surprising to be called,” Meyers says. Even the general public was aware of what was going on. When he attended a dinner party that evening and revealed his mysterious trip, the intended secrecy became a bit of a joke. “It was a little embarrassing,” Meyers admits. “It was supposed to be a surprise, but my friends knew why I was going.”

For weeks, newspapers all over the world had been reporting rumours of a terrible accident involving two US military planes colliding in mid-air and scattering four B28 thermonuclear bombs across Palomares. Three were found quickly on land, but one had vanished into the sparkling blue expanse to the south east. lost at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. The hunt for it had begun, along with its 1.1 megatonne warhead, which had the explosive power of 1,100,000 tonnes of TNT.

An unknown number

In fact, the Palomares incident is not the first instance of a nuclear weapon being misplaced. Since 1950, there have been at least 32 “broken arrow” accidents involving these catastrophically destructive, earth-flattening devices. In many cases, the weapons were dropped by accident or jettisoned during an emergency, only to be recovered later. However, three US bombs have gone missing entirely; they are still out there, lurking in swamps, fields, and oceans around the world.

“We mostly know about American cases,” says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-proliferation Program at California’s James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies. He explains that the complete list was only made public after a summary prepared by the US Department of Defense was declassified in the 1980s. Many occurred during the Cold War, when the country was on the verge of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) with the Soviet Union – and thus kept nuclear-armed planes in the sky at all times from 1960 to 1968, in an operation known as Chrome Dome.

“We don’t know as much about other countries as we should. We don’t know much about the United Kingdom, France, Russia, or China “Lewis explains. “So I don’t believe we have anything resembling a full accounting.”

The Soviet Union’s nuclear past is particularly hazy; as of 1986, it had amassed a stockpile of 45,000 nuclear weapons. There are known cases in which the country lost nuclear bombs that were never recovered; however, unlike the US incidents, they all occurred on submarines and their locations are known, if inaccessible.

On 8 April 1970, a fire broke out in the air conditioning system of a Soviet K-8 nuclear-powered submarine while it was diving in the Bay of Biscay -a dangerous stretch of water in the northeast Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of Spain and France that is notorious for violent storms and has claimed the lives of many ships. It was armed with four nuclear torpedoes, and when it sank, it took its radioactive cargo with it.

These lost vessels, however, did not always remain where they were. A Soviet K-129, along with three nuclear missiles, mysteriously sank in the Pacific Ocean northwest of Hawaii in 1968. The US soon discovered this and decided to launch a covert operation to recover the nuclear prize, “which was really a pretty crazy story in and of itself,” according to Lewis.–Tips-To-Pass/wiki

Howard Hughes, the eccentric American billionaire known for his wide range of activities, including piloting and film directing, pretended to be interested in deep sea mining. “But it wasn’t deep sea mining at all; it was an effort to build this massive claw that could go all the way down to the sea floor, grab the submarine, and bring it back up,” Lewis explains. This was Project Azorian, and it failed miserably. The submarine disintegrated as it was being lifted.

“As a result, those nuclear weapons would have fallen back to the sea floor,” Lewis explains. Some believe the weapons are still there, trapped in their rusting tomb, while others believe they were eventually recovered.

There are occasional reports that some of the United States’ lost nuclear weapons have been discovered.

In 1998, a retired military officer and his partner became obsessed with finding a bomb dropped near Tybee Island, Georgia, in 1958. They interviewed the original pilot, as well as those who had searched for the bomb decades before, and narrowed the search to Wassaw Sound, a nearby bay of the Atlantic Ocean. For many years, The unconventional duo scoured the area by boat, trailing a Geiger counter behind them to detect any tell-tale radiation spikes.

And then, one day, there it was, in the exact location the pilot had described – a patch with radiation levels ten times higher than elsewhere. The government immediately dispatched an investigation team. Unfortunately, it was not the nuclear weapon. The anomaly was caused by naturally occurring radiation from seabed minerals.

So, for the time being, the United States’ three lost hydrogen bombs – and, at the very least, a number of Soviet torpedoes – belong in the ocean, preserved as memorials to the dangers of nuclear war, though they have largely been forgotten. Why haven’t we discovered all of these rogue weapons by now? Is there a chance they’ll blow up? Will we ever see them again?

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