Environment  
comments_image Comments

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.

Continued from previous page

 
 
Share
 
 
 

The situation is reminiscent of the Palomares incident. On January 16, 1966, a B-52 bomber, carrying four hydrogen bombs, crashed while attempting to refuel in mid-air above the Spanish coast. Three of the H-bombs landed near the coastal farming village of Palomares. One of the bombs landed in a dry creek bed and was recovered, battered but relatively intact. But the TNT in two of the bombs exploded, gouging 10-foot holes in the ground and showering uranium and plutonium over a vast area. Over the next three months, more than 1,400 tons of radioactive soil and vegetation was scooped up, placed in barrels and, ironically enough, shipped back to the Savannah River Nuclear Weapons Lab, where it remains. The tomato fields near the craters were burned and buried. But there's no question that due to strong winds and other factors much of the contaminated soil was simply left in the area. "The total extent of the spread will never be known," concluded a 1975 report by the Defense Nuclear Agency.

The cleanup was a joint operation between Air Force personnel and members of the Spanish civil guard. The U.S. workers wore protective clothing and were monitored for radiation exposure, but similar precautions weren't taken for their Spanish counterparts. "The Air Force was unprepared to provide adequate detection and monitoring for personnel when an aircraft accident occurred involving plutonium weapons in a remote area of a foreign country," the Air Force commander in charge of the cleanup later testified to Congress.

The fourth bomb landed eight miles offshore and was missing for several months. It was eventually located by a mini-submarine in 2,850 feet of water, where it rests to this day.

Two years later, on January 21, 1968, a similar accident occurred when a B-52 caught fire in flight above Greenland and crashed in ice-covered North Star Bay near the Thule Air Base. The impact detonated the explosives in all four of the plane's H-bombs, which scattered uranium, tritium and plutonium over a 2,000-foot radius. The intense fire melted a hole in the ice, which then refroze, encapsulating much of the debris, including the thermonuclear assembly from one of the bombs. The recovery operation, conducted in near total darkness at temperatures that plunged to minus-70 degrees, was known as Project Crested Ice. But the work crews called it "Dr. Freezelove."

More than 10,000 tons of snow and ice were cut away, put into barrels and transported to Savannah River and Oak Ridge for disposal. Other radioactive debris was simply left on site, to melt into the bay after the spring thaws. More than 3,000 workers helped in the Thule recovery effort, many of them Danish soldiers. As at Palomares, most of the American workers were offered some protective gear, but not the Danes, who did much of the most dangerous work, including filling the barrels with the debris, often by hand. The decontamination procedures were primitive to say the least. An Air Force report noted that they were cleansed "by simply brushing the snow from garments and vehicles."

Even though more than 38 Navy ships were called to assist in the recovery operation, and it was an open secret that the bombs had been lost, the Pentagon continued to lie about the situation. In one contentious exchange with the press, a Pentagon spokesman uttered this classic bit of military doublespeak: "I don't know of any missing bomb, but we have not positively identified what I think you are looking for."

When Danish workers at Thule began to get sick from a slate of illnesses, ranging from rare cancers to blood disorders, the Pentagon refused to help. Even after a 1987 epidemiological study by a Danish medical institute showed that Thule workers were 50 percent more likely to develop cancers than other members of the Danish military, the Pentagon still refused to cooperate. Later that year, 200 of the workers sued the United States under the Foreign Military Claims Act. The lawsuit was dismissed, but the discovery process revealed thousands of pages of secret documents about the incident, including the fact that Air Force workers at the site, unlike the Danes, have not been subject to long-term health monitoring. Even so, the Pentagon continues to keep most of the material on the Thule incident secret, including any information on the extent of the radioactive (and other toxic) contamination.

 
See more stories tagged with: