How are we Back Here…? Reflecting on the History of Nuclear Close Calls as Putin’s Threat Reignites Cold War Fears of Nuclear War

“Sadly, we are treading back through old historical patterns that we said that we would never permit to happen again,”

Fiona Hill, Former Senior Director for Europe and Russia at the United States National Security Council, in an interview with POLITICO, today, February 28, 2022: ‘Yes, He Would’: Fiona Hill on Putin and Nukes


A nuclear “close call” is usually defined as an incident that could have led to at least one unintended, mistaken, or unauthorized nuclear detonation or missile launch.

There is a long list of past such incidents where accidents and errors have increased the risk of a nuclear explosion, including circumstances ranging from a flock of geese being detected as a Soviet bomber attack by the U.S. early-warning system, to a faulty computer chip causing random numbers of missiles to be displayed in U.S. command posts as an incoming attack (Global Zero). Add in the significant factors of technical glitches and human errors, and the likelihood of a nuclear war or a nuclear weapons accident occurring feels extreme. These accidents are, in fact, far more common than most people realize, and the laws of probability tell us, without question, that the risk of global nuclear catastrophe becomes stronger and greater the more of these close calls that occur.
“It is the paradox of the close call. Probability wise, near misses aren’t successes. They are indicators of near failure. And if the flaw is systemic, it requires only a small twist of fate for the next incident to result in disaster. Rather than celebrating then ignoring close calls, we should be learning from them and doing our very best to prevent their recurrence. But we often don’t.”
Two of the most well-known nuclear close calls are the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the false alarm of a North Korean missile attack that sounded in Hawaii on Jan. 13, 2018. View the non-exhaustive list below for summary information of other terrifying incidents of nuclear explosive “oopsies” committed by the U.S. military against mostly U.S. citizens:
  • On March 11, 1958, the Gregg family was going about their business when a malfunction in a B-47 flying overhead caused the atomic bomb on board to drop on to their South Carolina backyard. The Daily Beast

When the US Air Force Accidentally Dropped an Atomic Bomb on South Carolina

The following list of events is republished from an article by JOHN RABY for the Concord Monitor – “My Turn: A long history of nuclear near misses”:

  • In 1961, a B-52 bomber crashed in Goldsboro, North Carolina. It was carrying a load of live nuclear bombs, each with a one megaton yield, eighty times as powerful as the atomic bombs that dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On one of those bombs, five of its six safety catches failed to hold. If the sixth had failed, a large part of North Carolina would have been obliterated. A similar B-52 crash occurred in Palomares, Spain, in 1966, with some of its bombs lost and still not found.
  • On Nov. 9, 1979, U.S. early warning computers mistook an erroneously installed training tape for an actual Soviet missile attack. By dint of sheer luck, our radar stations reported no such incident, and so we narrowly avoided the worst.
  • On June 3, 1980, a failed computer chip led to another false alarm. Our early warning systems showed no further evidence of a Soviet missile attack, but as far as nuclear war goes, it was another near miss. Another such false alarm occurred three days later, and its underlying cause was the same – a failed computer chip.
  • On Sept. 26, 1983, a Soviet early warning satellite reported five U.S. missiles coming at the Soviet Union. Stanislav Petrov, the warning officer in charge, played his hunch that the U.S. would never attack with only five missiles and dismissed the satellite report as a false alarm. It turns out that the satellite had mistaken the sun’s reflection off clouds as a missile attack. Once again, the world had been within minutes of a nuclear war.
  • On Jan. 25, 1995, Russian early warning radar mistook a Norwegian scientific research rocket for an American missile attack. Russian forces went on full alert, but when Russian satellites showed no further signs of an attack, the crisis passed. It was yet another near miss resulting from a false alarm.
  • On Aug. 29, 2007, a B-52 mistakenly loaded with live nuclear bombs flew from Minot Air Force Base in Minot, N.D., to a base in Louisiana, where it sat unguarded for nine hours. Thirty-six hours passed before a maintenance crew discovered that the weapons were live.
  • On Oct. 23, 2010, a launch control center at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming lost contact with 50 live, nuclear-armed ICBMs under its control. Nearly an hour passed before contact was re-established.

I was likely not alone in being surprised to recently learn, as a result of the news of Putin’s order to put Russian nuclear forces on the highest level of alert, that both the US and Russia always keep a portion of their nuclear weapons at a “heightened state of readiness.” Both the United States and Russia keep nuclear-armed missiles on high alert, primed for launch, to allow them to be launched within minutes on warning of an incoming attack. The US and Russia have never taken their intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) off high alert, which means essentially that both nations have their missiles that could reach virtually any part of the planet on a hair-trigger. This posture vastly increases the risk of an accidental, erroneous, or unauthorized launch.
In general industry, a close call is “an opportunity to improve safety practices in a situation or incident that has a potential for more serious consequences.” ( The consequences of a nuclear “close call” are, literally, deathly serious. So, what can be done to improve nuclear posture safety practices? Former military leaders from both countries have called for taking ICBMs off a hair-trigger alert. There will never be enough confidence in safety features or amount of luck in the world to change the reality that ACCIDENTS DO HAPPEN. What should be clear is that a nuclear war or the detonation of a nuclear weapon should never be able to be caused by accident. Taking missiles off hair-trigger alert would at least greatly reduce this chance.


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