The City of Tybee Island has officially asked the federal government to find a nuclear bomb it has allowed to linger for years in nearby waters and determine once and for all if it poses any danger, including the risk of radiation leakage.
The request--in the form of a resolution--came at the culmination of a special session on Feb. 15 during which experts from numerous fields stressed the need to find and dispose of the bomb which was jettisoned over Wassaw Sound in 1958 after two Air Force planes were involved in a midair collision.
A large crowd of concerned citizens and academic and military experts on nuclear weaponry and materials were joined by a bevy of television news crews and print media for the special hearing called by Mayor Walter Parker, who said earlier it was high time the rumors about the danger of the long-lost nuclear weapon--now known as "The Tybee Bomb"--are put to rest.
Council urged the Department of Energy and the Air Force to locate the bomb and give the city a "realistic assessment of potential dangers" to assuage concerns "about the safety, health and peace of mind and economic livelihood of residents of the city and its visitors."
The weapon was intentionally dropped by an Air Force B-47 Stratojet bomber after it collided with an F-86 Saberjet fighter during a night training mission at an altitude of 35,000 feet.
Maj. Howard Richardson, pilot of the bomber which lost a wing tip fuel tank and wound up with a precariously dangling outboard engine after the collision, was directed not to land with the nuclear bomb aboard and ultimately jettisoned the weapon over the shallow waters of the sound where he thought it could be quickly recovered.
Richardson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving his crippled aircraft, while the fighter pilot, Col. Clearance Stewart, abandoned his plane and bailed out, suffering frost bite in his descent from the high altitude.
Government authorities sealed off most of Wassaw Sound, stationing troops on land surrounding it, and spent six weeks searching for the bomb. They abandoned their efforts when media and official attention turned to the accidental dropping--and explosion--of another nuclear bomb near Florence, S.C., just 28 days after the Tybee Bomb accident.
The Navy Commander in charge of that search called for another one utilizing the modern equipment available today at the Tybee session.
He said his search was intense and included ships, underwater divers and even a blimp, but it was rudimentary by today's standards and consisted mostly of searching for a hole the bomb might have made. The search included hundreds of troops stomping through the marsh in search of such a hole, he said.
Developments in sophisticated underwater search equipment and techniques during the 43 years since that search should make finding the bomb a relatively simple task now, he and other experts said.
Thus far, however, Air Force officials have declined to conduct another search, claiming the nuclear weapon was not armed when it was dropped, poses no danger, and should be left alone.
Officials of the American Sea shore Recovery Expedition (ASSURE), which is pushing an effort to locate and dispose of the bomb, say evidence indicates the weapon was fully armed and is a real threat, not only to Tybee, but the entire East Coast.
Among other evidence, they have cited a 1966 letter from the Department of Defense which clearly lists the lost weapon as a fully armed nuclear bomb.
Howard H. Dixon, a former sergeant who spent 31 years in the Air Force as a specialist in loading nuclear weapons, told those attending the Tybee meeting he supervised the loading of hundreds of such bombs on planes before he retired and that every one of them was fully armed.
Some speculate the government considers the bomb a Pandora's Box which, once opened, might result in widespread panic; could wreak havoc with the area's fishing industry, and might require a massive evacuation of the coastal area.
Others have said government officials may believe the bomb is safely encapsulated far below the ocean floor and prefer to leave it there, whether or not it is armed.
Documentation identifies the lost bomb as an M-15 nuclear weapon with a hundred times the explosive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II, and the government has admitted that even if it was not armed with a "capsule", or triggering mechanism, it contains a substantial amount of nuclear material.
ASSURE President Derek Duke of Statesboro, Ga., said the government tried to scuttle his group's push for a bomb search by leaking portions of a Department of Energy report to news media and U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, who has supported a search for the bomb, just before the Feb. 15 meeting on Tybee.
That report suggested any attempt to recover the bomb, which it said contains uranium and explosives but lacks the plutonium triggering device needed to set it off, would be hazardous to those involved.
It said the Tybee Bomb is likely buried 5 to 15 feet below the ocean floor and, if left undisturbed, "the principal risk is localized heavy metal contamination."
Explosives contained in the weapon should not explode spontaneously but in the event the bomb does detonate the shock waves would not exceed a thousand feet and "dispersed uranium concentration would be so low that health effects would be negligible," according to the report.
While most studies indicate the bomb was dropped over Wassaw Sound, one Defense Department document says it was lost at the mouth of the Savannah River, which could place it a lot closer to Tybee.
Duke said the pilot who dropped the bomb told him it fell "within 6,000 feet of where we are now (in City Hall), just off the beach," but added that he and other members of ASSURE are convinced that the weapon was jettisoned over the sound.
He says he is convinced the bomb was fully armed with a triggering device and that "sea water corrosion and the presence of 400 pounds of aged, sensitive high explosives" near the highly enriched uranium in the bomb "poses a substantial threat to Savannah--both the city and river."
Bert Soleau, a chemical engineer and former C.I.A. agent who is now working with ASSURE, says that, aside from any possible danger from an explosion, he is concerned that terrorists might recover the weapon and utilize the highly enriched uranium, lithium and beryllium it contains to build nuclear devices and threaten U.S. interests.
Pam O'Brien--a Douglassville, Ga. expert on nuclear issues and vocal critic of alleged nuclear contamination from the plant in Augusta who has spearheaded a number of world wide efforts to protect the environment--has warned that leakage from the lost bomb could easily enter the food chain and endanger both the environment and population along the entire East Coast.
"Plutonium is a nightmare...a catastrophe," she said just before the Tybee meeting. "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!"
O'Brien said "it's absolutely ludicrous" for the Department of Energy to say the biggest risk is heavy metal contamination, then indicate it's no big deal since it won't contaminate drinking water.
"It's a nightmare and their own people know it!" she said.
One scientist who, like O'Brien, is not associated with ASSURE, warned that if plutonium is aboard the bomb "it would be the oldest now in existence" and since plutonium becomes more radioactive with age "it would be the most radioactive ever and should be pretty easy to find."
Fred Nadleman, a member of "Citizens for Clean Water", said "I hold the Air Force totally responsible for this" and they should pay the entire bill for locating and disposing of the bomb.
"What the hell were they doing over a major city anyway" with a nuclear bomb aboard? he asked.
Tybee resident Ken Wade said there was no question that the lost bomb should be found and removed to ensure the safety of the area and its fishing industry.
He said the most practical way to find the Tybee Bomb is to have all of the island's boat owners participate in a concerted search.
Another islander said he had just moved here and was shocked by the information divulged during the meeting concerning the possible danger of the bomb. He said he felt it was unconscionable that information about the lost bomb had not been made public until now; was going to have a doctor check him out for radiation immediately, and if he had known about the nearby lost bomb he would not have moved to Tybee.
Harris Parker, a member of ASSURE who has fished in area waters for years, said he has caught a number of deformed fish and crabs near Wassaw Sound and believes they were mutations caused by radiation from the nuclear weapon.
He passed a deformed claw around for members of city council to inspect.
One spokesman at the session demanded to know what Tybee is going to do about the missing nuclear bomb.
"Well we expect this resolution will stir up a hornet's nest...we hope it will anyway," responded Mayor Parker.
Not every member of Tybee's city council supported the resolution, however.
Councilman Jack Youmans said he was voting against it because he has lived here for years and has never heard anyone express concern about the bomb until recently, when members of the ASSURE group stirred everyone up because they want "to make a movie" about the search.
Councilman Jimmy Burke joined Youmans in voting against the resolution.
Given the resurgence in media attention--made obvious by its large presence at the City Hall session--it appears the government may be forced to lift the informational rug beneath which it has buried the Tybee Bomb for 43 years.
Atlanta TV stations have recently carried sizeable news segments on the bomb and Duke says major media representatives in Europe have indicated they are about to weigh in on the subject.
Representatives of the nationally distributed alternative publication "Mother Jones Magazine" have contacted this newspaper, indicating they plan to publish a story based on the one we printed in last month's issue.
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston and State Rep. Burke Day have called for an investigation of the missing bomb, disclosure of any possible danger it may pose and a renewed effort to find and dispose of it.
After the Air Force disdained requests to conduct such a search, Kingston expressed support for ASSURE's proposal to undertake one.
A spokesman for Kingston who was present at the Feb. 15 meeting indicated that he is disappointed with the sparse information just released by the Department of Energy, which was apparently gleaned from a recent Air Force investigation of the Tybee Bomb incident.
The D.O.E. reportedly said it did not have time to thoroughly analyze the Air Force report, although it was said to have received the information three weeks earlier.
Duke, who has sought government funding to search for the bomb, claims his group has assembled a unique array of sophisticated equipment and water craft for a shallow water expedition which will enable them to rapidly locate the missing weapon and determine any radioactive leakage.
Once found, he says ASSURE would provide its location to the government which could then remove and dispose of it.
In the absence of government funding, Duke and other ASSURE officials say they have been approached by business and private sources offering to finance the search.
Critics, including some government officials, say the money issue makes the continuing pressure from ASSURE for a search somewhat questionable.
Early news stories about the bomb quoted Duke as saying that the bomb search could cost as much as a million dollars because of the expensive equipment and manpower it would require and the critics say acquiring that million bucks is the group's main motivation.
Duke's response is that the million dollars was an outside estimate, but that he expects to locate it immediately at far less cost.
A former military officer involved in previous searches for nuclear weapons which were accidentally lost told the council session that one of those searches cost an estimated $200 million, indicating ASSURE can conduct such a search for far less than the government.
Duke says his group is motivated by concern for the area's people and environment and they want to find it "because it's the right thing to do."
Mayor Parker has suggested that having the federal government conduct the search and remove the weapon may be the proper solution to the controversy and that the sooner this is done the better.
One resident who did not want to be identified put the bomb issue even more succinctly following the special Feb. 15 session.
"It's about damned time we stopped talking about it and did something," he said.
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