A Loose Nuke From the Chrome Dome

From a rather unsettling recent BBC article:

Mystery of lost US nuclear bomb

By Gordon Corera, BBC News security correspondent, northern Greenland

The United States abandoned a nuclear weapon beneath the ice in northern Greenland following a crash in 1968, a BBC investigation has found.

Its unique vantage point – perched at the top of the world – has meant that Thule Air Base has been of immense strategic importance to the US since it was built in the early 1950s, allowing a radar to scan the skies for missiles coming over the North Pole.

The Pentagon believed the Soviet Union would take out the base as a prelude to a nuclear strike against the US and so in 1960 began flying “Chrome Dome” missions. Nuclear-armed B52 bombers continuously circled over Thule – and could head straight to Moscow if they witnessed its destruction. …

But on 21 January 1968, one of those missions went wrong.

We reunited two of the pilots, John Haug and Joe D’Amario, 40 years on to tell the story of how their plane ended up crashing on the ice a few miles out from the base. …

The high explosives surrounding the four nuclear weapons had detonated but without setting off the actual nuclear devices, which had not been armed by the crew.

The Pentagon maintained that all four weapons had been “destroyed”.

This may be technically true, since the bombs were no longer complete, but declassified documents obtained by the BBC under the US Freedom of Information Act, parts of which remain classified, reveal a much darker story, which has been confirmed by individuals involved in the clear-up and those who have had access to details since.

The documents make clear that within weeks of the incident, investigators piecing together the fragments realised that only three of the weapons could be accounted for.

Even by the end of January, one document talks of a blackened section of ice which had re-frozen with shroud lines from a weapon parachute. “Speculate something melted through ice such as burning primary or secondary,” the document reads, the primary or secondary referring to parts of the weapon.

By April, a decision had been taken to send a Star III submarine to the base to look for the lost bomb, which had the serial number 78252. (A similar submarine search off the coast of Spain two years earlier had led to another weapon being recovered.) …

But the underwater search was beset by technical problems and, as winter encroached and the ice began to freeze over, the documents recount something approaching panic setting in.

As well as the fact they contained uranium and plutonium, the abandoned weapons parts were highly sensitive because of the way in which the design, shape and amount of uranium revealed classified elements of nuclear warhead design.

But eventually, the search was abandoned. Diagrams and notes included in the declassified documents make clear it was not possible to search the entire area where debris from the crash had spread.

The government seems to have given up; this is יאוש:

מצא דבר שנתייאשו הבעלים ממנו כגון שאמרו וי לחסרון כיס אפילו יש בו סימן הוא של מוצאו1

[For the purpose of this post, we shall pretend that the goverment is Jewish, and we shall not discuss the differences in the Halachos of Aveidah between Jews and non-Jews.]

The article continues:

We tracked down a number of officials who were involved in dealing with the aftermath of the incident.

One was William H Chambers, a former nuclear weapons designer at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory who once ran a team dealing with accidents, including the Thule crash.

“There was disappointment in what you might call a failure to return all of the components,” he told the BBC, explaining the logic behind the decision to abandon the search.

“It would be very difficult for anyone else to recover classified pieces if we couldn’t find them.” …

Other officials who have seen classified files on the accident confirmed the abandonment of a weapon.

This might qualify as זוטו של ים:

המציל מהארי והדוב וזוטו של ים ושלוליתו של נהר הרי אלו שלו אפילו עומד וצווח2

Indeed, the fact that “it would be very difficult for anyone else to recover” the fragments is exactly the criterion that appears in the Gemara:

[אמר] רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי מניין לאבידה ששטפה נהר שהיא מותרת שנאמר כן תעשה לכל אבדת אחיך אשר תאבד ממנו ומצאתה מי שאבודה הימנו ומצויה אצל כל אדם יצתה זו שאבודה הימנו ואינה מצויה אצל כל אדם3

So it would seem that there are grounds for the application of that venerable legal principle, “finders keepers”.

Before flying out to northern Greenland with metal detectors and Geiger counters, however, consider that there are two possible reasons that might obligate one to turn in any discoveries to the government.

לפנים משורת הדין

In cases of יאוש and זוטו של ים, although the finder is permitted to keep the object, he is still adjured to return it לפנים משורת הדין:

אף על פי שמן הדין במקום שרוב גוים מצויים אפילו נתן ישראל בה סימן אינו חייב להחזיר טוב וישר לעשות לפנים משורת הדין להחזיר לישראל שנתן בה סימן4

המציל מהארי והדוב … מכל מקום טוב וישר להחזיר כמו שמבואר סעיף ה’5

The Law

I am not a lawyer, but I strongly suspect that there are legal objections to keeping the military’s lost nuclear weapons for oneself, and Rema rules that דינא דמלכותא is binding here:

ואף על גב דמדינא אין חייבין להחזיר באבידות אלו [שהזכרנו לעיל] אם גזר המלך או בית דין חייב להחזיר מכח דינא דמלכותא או הפקר בית דין הפקר ולכן פסקו ז”ל בספינה שטבעה בים שגזר המושל גם הקהלות שכל מי שקונה מן הגוים שהצילו מן האבידה ההוא שיחזיר לבעליו שצריכין להשיב ואין לו מן הבעלים אלא מה שנתן6

Even Shach, who generally has a much weaker conception of דינא דמלכותא דינא than Rema and seems to imply that the law does not supersede the Torah’s rules governing אבידה unless we Jews have established a Minhag in accordance with the law7, might still agree that we are obligated to follow laws requiring the turning in of found nuclear weapons to the government, since these laws would certainly be considered to be for the benefit of the government, which even Shach recognizes as a valid basis for 8דינא דמלכותא. [A thorough discussion of דינא דמלכותא is unfortunately beyond the scope of this post.]

  1. שולחן ערוך חו”מ סימן רס”ב סעיף ה []
  2. שולחן ערוך שם סימן רנ”ט סעיף ז []
  3. בבא מציעא דף כ”ז ע”א []
  4. שולחן ערוך שם סימן רנ”ט סעיף ה []
  5. הגהת רמ”א שם סימן רנ”ט סעיף ה []
  6. רמ”א שם []
  7. עיין סימן שנ”ו ס”ק י []
  8. עיין סימן ע”ג ס”ק ל”ט באורך []
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