The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We’re on high nuclear alert. Here’s a history of near-deadly false alarms.

South Korean and U.S. missiles are displayed at Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul, on Jan. 18, 2022. North Korea has escalated its missile tests, with apparent advances in its nuclear and ballistic capabilities. (Ahn Young-Joon/AP)
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This month on Capitol Hill, congressional staffers can don a VR headset and take part in the start of an atomic holocaust. Nuclear Biscuit simulates an intercontinental ballistic missile strike on the United States and gives users 15 minutes to make a presidential choice: Will they push the button for a retaliatory strike and kill tens of millions of people?

We’re on high nuclear alert this month. North Korea has escalated its missile tests, with apparent advances in its nuclear and ballistic capabilities. Heightened tensions around Ukraine have raised the prospect that Russia could place nuclear weapons close to the U.S. coastline, while the struggle over Taiwan has increased the chances of nuclear conflict with China. Meanwhile, Swedish authorities scrambled after drones circled three of the country’s nuclear power plants.

These threats pose a risk not only of a deliberate nuclear attack, but of a hair-trigger response to a false alarm that generates a bloodbath no one wanted. In the past, the world has experienced a number of very high-profile (and sometimes dangerous) false alarms. Here are some of the most ludicrous, terrifying and near-deadly.

A game of chicken

At 4:19 p.m. on March 11, 1958, children Helen and Frances Greggs were playing with their cousin in the yard of their South Carolina home when a U.S. Air Force B-47E bomber accidentally dropped its payload — a 7,600-pound nuclear weapon — onto the girls’ playhouse.

The device had been “safed,” meaning the radioactive part was on a different plane. Nevertheless, the devices high-explosive trigger leveled the Greggs’ home. The release occurred when the plane’s bombardier was trying to secure the payload: Crouched next to the bomb, he stood up and accidentally used the overhead emergency release lever as a handrail to steady himself. No one was killed, bar the chickens vaporized in the farmyard. The accident led to a swift revision of regulations for locking pins when weaponry was being transported.

Blood moon

On Oct. 5, 1960, NORAD, the U.S. nuclear command center, indicated that its early warning radar in Thule, Greenland, had detected a Soviet atomic attack on the West. It was reporting a 99.9 percent chance that a salvo of ICBMs was crossing the Atlantic.

Land-based U.S. missiles are kept ready to launch a quick counterattack against the aggressor. But in this case, the culprit was not the Russians or the Chinese.

It was the moon. Innocently rising in the Norwegian sky, it had reflected radar waves back at the monitoring station in Thule. Scientists have since modified detection equipment to distinguish between missiles and natural satellites.

Nuclear roar

The flash point of 1962’s Cuban missile crisis very nearly came at midnight on Oct. 25 at the Duluth Section Direction Center in Minnesota, when the intruder alarm was triggered by a lone invader climbing the base fence.

A sentry responded by firing shots. Personnel at Volk Field Air National Guard Base in Wisconsin panicked and accidentally sounded the incoming attack alarm. Pilots ran for their planes.

The sentry then realized it wasn’t a Soviet commando climbing the fence but a black bear. When the base commander at Volk became aware, he quickly ordered a member of his staff to drive a truck onto the runway and prevent the scrambled jets from taking off.

Very magnetic north

May 23, 1967, saw a geomagnetic storm in parts of the Northern Hemisphere as the sun released a powerful flare. Although not as severe as the telegraph-crashing solar storm of 1921, it nonetheless jammed radars at three U.S. Ballistic Missile Early Warning Systems sites.

With Cold War tensions between East and West still running high, military commanders ordered an alert on the possibility that the U.S.S.R. had attacked the radars. Fortunately, a group of astronomers — specifically, space weather experts — was able to diagnose the true cause of the jamming, and the situation was de-escalated.

An intemperate response

On being notified on April 15, 1969, that North Korea had shot down a spy plane over the Sea of Japan (resulting in the death of all 31 Americans on board), President Richard M. Nixon was furious. According to a Secret Service source quoted in the 2000 book “The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon,” he also was drunk.

Nixon phoned the Joint Chiefs of Staff and ordered U.S. forces stationed in Kunsan, South Korea, to initiate a nuclear strike on the North. Air Force pilot Bruce Charles disclosed in 2010 that he had been placed on alert to begin the Single Integrated Operational Plan and drop a 330-kiloton nuclear bomb on North Korea. It took a follow-up call from Henry Kissinger to the Joint Chiefs to countermand the order and affirm that the president would clarify his instruction once refreshed in the morning.

Eject disk after operation

While performing equipment checks on the morning of Nov. 9, 1979, duty officers at the Pentagon and three other U.S. command centers believed the U.S.S.R. had fired 1,400 nuclear missiles. The officers duly prepared for retaliation, launching Air Force planes and “Looking Glass,” the code name for the president’s National Emergency Airborne Command Post.

But there was no Soviet attack. A training cassette had been left in the command computer system, as NORAD recognized six minutes into the alert; it then shut down the counterattack. An off-site facility was later constructed to ensure that simulation tapes were no longer run on systems connected to military hardware.

The glitching hour

Typically, threat detection displays at U.S. command centers read a reassuring “0000 ICBMs detected/0000 SLBMs detected.” However, at 3 a.m. on June 3, 1980, they registered a total of 2,000.

As per procedure, national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was woken up and asked to inform the president that a nuclear attack was underway. Fortunately, operators comparing signal sources determined that the 2,000 figure was a glitch. Technicians later found the cause to be a faulty 46-cent computer chip. It was replaced as a matter of urgency.

Trust your gut

It wasn’t just U.S. defense systems that succumbed to gremlins. On Dec. 26, 1983, Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was on duty at a Serpukhov-15, a Soviet early-warning base outside Moscow.

He found himself staring at a red screen reading “START” as an alert siren wailed. The computer deemed that a single missile was incoming, followed by a salvo of five. Petrov duly phoned his commanders … and reported an error. He attributed his assessment to a “feeling in my gut,” combined with skepticism that a nuclear attack would consist of so few missiles.

The false alarm had been caused by sunlight reflecting off high-altitude clouds. Petrov died in May 2017; his potentially history-altering decision was chronicled in the 2013 documentary “The Man Who Saved the World.”

Climate strike

On Jan. 25, 1995, almost six years after the end of the Cold War, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was handed the “cheget” nuclear briefcase in response to reports of an inbound ballistic missile fired from Norway.

The “attack” was in fact a four-stage scientific rocket (complete with NASA-tested military-grade boosters) designed to study the aurora borealis over the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Scientists had earlier sent notification to Russian authorities of the launch, but the message was not passed on. As the rocket headed away from their airspace, Russian authorities indicated that the threat had passed and stood down.

Islands in the storm

At 8:07 a.m. on Jan. 13, 2018, smartphones across Hawaii suddenly displayed the message: “Emergency alert. Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

Thirty-eight minutes later, the alert was canceled and attributed to a miscommunication by an employee of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

Think a similar event wouldn’t happen on the mainland? Don’t be so sure: Last year, a child accessed the Strategic Command Twitter account and posted a garbled message that sparked international fears that the agency in charge of safeguarding U.S. nuclear weapons had been hacked.