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The Case of the Missing H-Bomb: The Pentagon Has Lost the Mother of All Weapons

60 years have passed since a damaged jet dropped a hydrogen bomb near Savanah, Ga. -- and the Pentagon still can't find it.

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But the wizards of Armageddon saw it less as a security, safety or ecological problem, than a potential public relations disaster that could turn an already paranoid population against their ambitious nuclear project. The Pentagon and the AEC tried to squelch media interest in the issue by a doling out a morsel of candor and a lot of misdirection. In a joint statement to the press, the Defense Department and the AEC admitted that radioactivity could be "scattered" by the detonation of the high explosives in the H-bombs. But the letter downplayed possibility of that ever happening: "The likelihood that a particular accident would involve a nuclear weapon is extremely limited."

In fact, that scenario had already occurred and would occur again.

That's where the matter stood for more than 42 years until a deep sea salvage company, run by former Air Force personnel and a CIA agent, disclosed the existence of the bomb and offered to locate it for a million dollars. Along with recently declassified documents, the disclosure prompted fear and outrage among coastal residents and calls for a congressional investigation into the incident itself and why the Pentagon had stopped looking for the missing bomb. "We're horrified because some of that information has been covered up for years," said Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican.

The cover-up continues. The Air Force, however, has told local residents and the congressional delegation that there was nothing to worry about.

"We've looked into this particular issue from all angles and we're very comfortable," said Major Gen. Franklin J. "Judd" Blaisdell, deputy chief of staff for air and space operations at Air Force headquarters in Washington. "Our biggest concern is that of localized heavy metal contamination."

The Air Force even has suggested that the bomb itself was not armed with a plutonium trigger. But this contention is disputed by a number of factors. Howard Dixon, a former Air Force sergeant who specialized in loading nuclear weapons onto planes, said that in his 31 years of experience he never once remembered a bomb being put on a plane that wasn't fully armed. Moreover, a newly declassified 1966 congressional testimony of W.J. Howard, then assistant secretary of defense, describes the Tybee Island bomb as a "complete weapon, a bomb with a nuclear capsule." Howard said that the Tybee Island bomb was one of two weapons lost up to that time that contained a plutonium trigger.

Recently declassified documents show that the jettisoned bomb was an "Mk-15, Mod O" hydrogen bomb, weighing four tons and packing more than 100 times the explosive punch of the one that incinerated Hiroshima. This was the first thermonuclear weapon deployed by the Air Force and featured the relatively primitive design created by that evil genius Edward Teller. The only fail-safe for this weapon was the physical separation of the plutonium capsule (or pit) from the weapon.

In addition to the primary nuclear capsule, the bomb also harbored a secondary nuclear explosive, or sparkplug, designed to make it go thermo. This is a hollow plug about an inch in diameter made of either plutonium or highly enriched uranium (the Pentagon has never said which) that is filled with fusion fuel, most likely lithium-6 deuteride. Lithium is highly reactive in water. The plutonium in the bomb was manufactured at the Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington State and would be the oldest in the United States. That's bad news: Plutonium gets more dangerous as it ages. In addition, the bomb would contain other radioactive materials, such as uranium and beryllium.

The bomb is also charged with 400 pounds of TNT, designed to cause the plutonium trigger to implode and thus start the nuclear explosion. As the years go by, those high explosives are becoming flaky, brittle and sensitive. The bomb is most likely now buried in 5 to 15 feet of sand and slowly leaking radioactivity into the rich crabbing grounds of the Warsaw Sound. If the Pentagon can't find the Tybee Island bomb, others might. That's the conclusion of Bert Soleau, a former CIA officer who now works with ASSURE, the salvage company. Soleau, a chemical engineer, said that it wouldn't be hard for terrorists to locate the weapon and recover the lithium, beryllium and enriched uranium, "the essential building blocks of nuclear weapons." What to do? Coastal residents want the weapon located and removed. "Plutonium is a nightmare and their own people know it," said Pam O'Brien, an anti-nuke organizer from Douglassville, Georgia. "It can get in everything--your eyes, your bones, your gonads. You never get over it. They need to get that thing out of there."

 
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