The Guardian brought us some chilling news:
Its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.
In fact, two Mark 39 bombs could have detonated but only one of them came "really close" to the catastrophe. Each of them carried the equivalent of 4 megatons of TNT, 250 times more than 16 kilotons of TNT deposited by Hiroshima's Little Boy. In this comparison, the bomb in Japan would be a very little boy, indeed.
Needless to say, if the folks weren't this lucky, 30,000+ of the inhabitants of Goldsboro would be gone. But the actual impact would be far worse. The whole Northeast – with its tens of millions of people and some huge metro areas – could have been partially crippled and completely frightened by the fallout.
I forgot to tell you that the scary events took place on January 24th, 1961. Now your level of adrenaline has probably decreased a little bit.
America has avoided this catastrophe. Even if it hadn't avoided the catastrophe, it would survive as a country. But its psyche would be completely different. Just think about 9/11, the impact that the 3,000 casualties have had on the feelings and thinking of almost everyone – and on the policymaking. Or think about the tsunami-caused hassle in Fukushima with its 0.0 nuclear fatalities (and two workers with radiation burns) and the hysteria it has caused and it is still causing (whenever someone runs a new story on a few tons of radioactive water added to the nearly infinite ocean, for example).
Now imagine that the casualties would be counted in millions – approximately matching the casualties of the World War II. And all this would be due to a stupid accident. It's very likely that America would ban all nuclear technologies – and maybe many others. But maybe it wouldn't. On the contrary, it could have paradoxically lost the fear of them. Other countries wouldn't abandon the weapons, I guess.
It's hard to retroactively predict the events in the hypothetical alternative world (you're invented to speculate in any way you like) but I sort of feel that not just because of the (almost) direct casualties, the world would be a worse place than it is today. Thank God and Alessandro Volta et al. for the low-voltage switch.
The U.S. possesses about 4,650 nuclear warheads today, less than the peak value. I don't think that the detonation of all of them would be enough to break the Earth into two pieces, as we were taught (by teachers whom I can, using the current knowledge, clearly recognize as being totally ignorant about physics and lacking the sense of scale) 30 years ago ;-), but it would surely cause lots of mess on the surface. So I sincerely hope that NSA hasn't implanted some "loopholes" into the safety mechanisms of these weapons that allow the agents (and all other people behaving like agents) to detonate them without the proper passwords. ;-)