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Nuclear ‘Cleanup’ Leaves Many Questions

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jul 23, 2015

In June 1960, the people of the eastern United States, especially those in Ocean County, breathed a sigh of relief after a possible nuclear accident apparently had been avoided. Earlier, a Bomarc missile, one of 56 armed with a nuclear warhead, had caught fire. According to The New York Times, it had “melted under an intense blaze fed by its 100 pound detonator of TNT. … The atomic warhead apparently dropped into the molten mass that was left of the missile, which burned for forty-five minutes. … the radiation had been caused when thoriated magnesium metal which forms part of the weapon, caught fire. … the metal, already radioactive, becomes highly radioactive when it is burned.”

On June 9, the Trenton Times editorialized, “The situation, it must be conceded, was one of potential danger. Even without an explosion, the nuclear warhead of the Bomarc could produce radiation which, if scattered profusely, would threaten life. In this instance, according to the official announcement, a ‘small amount of radioactive matter was scattered in the immediate shelter area,’ but without producing a ‘significant health hazard of contamination problem.’”

The Philadelphia Inquirer of the same day warned, “The Nation – and particularly the Delaware Valley, which is rated a No. 1 target – lives thus under a never-ending threat of a disaster with which it is not prepared to deal, even on the small scale of a single missile explosion. The truth is that the majority of Philadelphians and other Delaware Valley residents don’t even recognize the alarm signals, let alone know what to do when they sound.”

Fortunately for the world, that sound was never heard. Meanwhile, at the site in the Pinelands, the Air Force was at work on the cleanup. A Los Alamos laboratory report from 1996 described the process.

“Soon after the accident, a coating of fixative paint was applied and a 4 to 6 inch layer of concrete was poured over the most heavily contaminated portions of the asphalt apron and the floor of Shelter 204. These actions have effectively contained contaminants found in these areas through the present time. In addition, an asphalt cover was placed in the drainage ditch leading from Shelter 204 in order to prevent erosion of contaminated soils from the ditch. The site is fenced with a 6-foot chain-link fence topped by barbed wire, precluding access.”

The Bomarc incident faded as the Berlin Wall went up and missiles were discovered in Cuba. The war in Vietnam was fought, and in 1972, as ICBMs replaced bombers, the Bomarc was declared obsolete and the base was deactivated.

Still, the 56 launchers called “coffins” sat silently in the Jersey Pines. Then in the 1980s, they were in the news again.

The Oct. 2, 1988, Trenton Times uncovered, “In June 1987, traces of a radioactive substance used in nuclear warheads were found about one-half mile from the site of the 1960 Bomarc missile fire near McGuire Air Force Base, according to a state report that was never made public or shown to the military. … The amount of the radioactive ingredient found at the Colliers Mills site has been described as harmless by radiation experts contacted by the Times. The substance was identified in the documents as americium-241, which is closely associated with plutonium.”

A government spokesman tried to play down the discovery. “Only two samples (out of 40) came up with americium, Staples said. This is the sort of thing that could happen when a rabbit eats grass at the Bomarc site, then defecates in an area a half-mile away.”

Again there were promises that the site wasn’t dangerous to public health and the Air Force would monitor the situation carefully, but in a 1992 report, the Air Force did admit there was one problem.

“The missile launcher from Shelter 204 was removed from the shelter shortly after the accident. No records exist indicating the manner of disposal of the missile launcher, although standard procedure would have been to dispose of the launcher along with other radioactive wastes, such as the missile debris. However, due to the possibility that the launcher could have been disposed of on-site, a geophysical investigation was conducted, focusing on areas thought to be potential disposal sites. Two geophysical techniques, magnetic profiling, and ground-penetrating radar profiling, were used in an attempt to identify possible burial locations on-site and near the site. As a result of the surveys, a total of five anomalous areas which could represent the buried launcher were identified. These anomalies may also represent the missing Shelter 204 doors and sheet metal portion of the roof.”

A follow-up report five years later stated, “The missile launcher is believed to have been moved … shortly after the accident. However, its location remains unknown, and no verified records indicating the manner of its disposal are known to exist.”

Dave Neese, a Trentonian columnist, interviewed a witness who had been an 18-year-old airman in 1960.

“Out on the Ozarks plateau recently, Jim Fridley happened to channel surf onto a cable show about the old Bomarcs. That got him to rummaging around on the Internet. He happened on the Trentonian story about the missing missile and called the paper the other day thinking maybe he could shed a little light on the mystery.

“‘They loaded up a military flatbed with the stuff (accident debris) and trucked it off to a scrapyard, in West Trenton, I believe it was,’ he says.

“A scrapyard? ‘Like a metal salvage kind of place,’ recalls Fridley. He doesn’t recall the name of the place or other identifying details. ‘That was a long time ago,’ he adds. He says he can’t say, 100 percent, that the launcher was among all the debris piled on the flatbed. But he says he does definitely remember, ‘they gathered up whatever debris there was laying around at the accident site. They loaded it all up, whatever was there, and trucked it out on the flatbed.’ Trucked it out up toward Trenton. This he recalls, he says because he was assigned to follow behind in a military pickup. ‘I was supposed to make sure nothing fell off the flatbed,’ he adds. Fridley’s recollection is that at the scrapyard, ‘they seemed to be waiting for us, like they were expecting us.’ Nobody there or on the military detail wore protective gear, he says when asked about that. ‘What did we know about radiation back then, especially an 18 year old kid.’”

While the whereabouts of the wreckage remained a mystery, the Philadelphia Inquirer of Feb. 4, 2008, ran, “Work to clean up plutonium from a 1960 missile accident at Fort Dix will be extended after the discovery of an additional 1,300 cubic yards of contaminated soil, the Air Force said yesterday. Maj. John Dorrian, a spokesman at McGuire Air Force Base, said work would stop temporarily at the former Bomarc missile base while the Air Force lines up the $2 million needed for the additional work. The price tag for the project, which had been expected to end this summer, had already grown from $11 million to $17 million. ‘We are not as close to being finished as we had hoped,’ Dorian said. ‘Probably four to five more months of work will be needed.’ He said the work is expected to resume in August and be finished by the end of the year, barring the discovery of even more contaminated soil. The plutonium – enough to fit in a golf ball – escaped after a nuclear warhead caught fire and melted in June 1960 … at the facility.”

More years of debate followed. Finally the Burlington County Times was able to report on June 8, 2010, “Environments disaster – Fifty years ago, a fire at a missile base in the Pinelands released plutonium across the 75-acre site. The cleanup is expected to be declared complete later this year. Most of the radioactive material also has been removed, thanks to a multimillion-dollar cleanup undertaken by the military in 2002 to excavate most of the contaminated soil and debris and ship it by rail to a disposal site in Utah. Low levels of radiation still remain but pose little to no risk to the environment, according to military assessments. In fact the biggest concern about the site is no longer radiation, but trichloroethylene (TCS) and other volatile organic compounds that have seeped into the ground. The compounds are believed to have come from cleaning solvents used at the missile base during its brief period of operation. The contamination is not considered a health risk because there are no drinking water wells nearby, but the military has been monitoring the plume of several years.”

Today as you drive Route 539 and western Ocean County, you can see from the road the 56 coffins made of concrete, like the Berlin Wall. The difference is while the wall came down and was sold as souvenirs around the world, the coffins will remain a monument, known to only a few, of the Cold War and its aftermath.

Next Week: In search of the Barnegat Pirates.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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