By J. R. Roseberry
The Tybee News
How much is relieving the anxiety of thousands of people worth?
How about preservation of the Floridan Aquifer which supplies drinking water for Tybee, southeastern Georgia and northern Florida?
And what kind of monetary value should be placed on a life...or thousands of lives?
One jury fixed the figure for one person suffering from lung cancer caused by cigarette smoking at over a billion dollars, while judgments of mega millions are routinely rendered for injuries or deaths from causes where it was deemed those responsible were aware, or should have been aware, of the danger they caused...particularly if they could have eliminated it before injuries or deaths occurred.
Well, the number for eliminating the cause of a possible catastrophe here is substantially south of $23 million, according to the U.S. Air Force, which admits it is responsible for the thing which might cause the disaster and can apparently eliminate it.
The brass in this service, charged with protecting us all from danger posed by foreign powers (and doing a very good job of that in far off Afghanistan, we might add), doesn't think eliminating its own error to protect our lives and water supply is worth its time or money...even a relatively measly million bucks...or far less than it spends annually flying officers and congressmen on junkets or repurchasing aircraft parts sold earlier for pennies on the dollar as surplus junk.
That $23 million is what the Air Force claims it would cost to recover the hydrogen bomb it ordered jettisoned from a B-47 bomber over waters near Tybee in 1958 just after a jet fighter collided with the bomber during a night time training exercise.
Before listing that price tag for a search it calculates would cover 20 square miles and take up to 5 years, the Air Force disdained an offer by a private salvage firm which said it could locate the weapon within about a month for a cost of about $1 million.
Despite being urged for months by a U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston , State Rep. Burke Day and the City of Tybee Island to find and remove the missing four megaton nuclear bomb (described as dozens of times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima in World War II), the Air Force has refused to undertake any effort to find and remove it.
Both the Air Force and ASSURE, the private company organized more than a year ago for the express purpose of finding the weapon, believe the 7,600 pound Mark 15 bomb is only a stone's throw from Tybee, buried beneath as little as five feet of muck on the floor of shallow Wassaw Sound.
After considering search requests for almost a year and perusing a Department of Energy study addressing possible dangers posed by the bomb for six months, Air Force officials concluded that the project was not worth the possible danger, time or money such a search would cost.
Months before it announced this conclusion in mid-July, it rejected a ASSURE proposal to locate the missing bomb, which the group said it could accomplish quickly since it had narrowed the location where the weapon was dropped to a small area by studying the bomber's speed, altitude, direction and other factors at the time it was jettisoned.
When that proposal was first made it was derided as a scheme for ASSURE officials--including a former Air Force pilot, CIA agent and a professional fisherman familiar with area waters, among others--to make a lot of money.
Given the Air Force's millions higher estimate for conducting its own search, ASSURE's proposal now seems dirt cheap and its leaders appear to have been exonerated by the Air Force itself, although no mention was made of the rejected proposal in the recently released report.
In his initial proposal, incidentally, ASSURE leader Derek Duke said his group pledged to conduct a "low profile" search, in order to eliminate any possibility of panic, loss of face by the Air Force, or the possibility of drawing the attention of anyone unfriendly to the U.S.
Some speculate that the Air Force does not want to search for the so called "Tybee Bomb" and has underestimated its danger because it is reluctant to admit a mistake it has, literally, left covered up for almost a half century.
Duke and other members of his group claim the weapon poses a real and present danger to the public, citing a previously secret 1966 report from the assistant to the secretary of defense stipulating that the missing weapon was a fully armed Mark 15 nuclear bomb.
Duke said Maj. Howard Richardson, the B-47 pilot who was ordered to jettison the bomb before attempting to land his damaged plane at Hunter Airfield, told him he dropped the weapon within 6,000 feet of Tybee's city hall.
Bert Soleau, the chemist and former CIA agent working with ASSURE, has warned that if the bomb is not retrieved by the U.S. it would be an attractive target for recovery by terrorists because of the weapons grade nuclear material it contains.
While pretty much pooh-poohed by many when they were first issued, Soleau's ominous warnings have taken on a whole new aura of deadly seriousness in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The Air Force report said these radioactive materials pose little threat to the environment from leakage since the bomb is buried 5 to 15 feet below the bottom of the sound. But at the same time it said if the bomb is disturbed during a recovery effort it could explode, endangering both the salvage team and the Floridan Aquifer.
Pam O'Brien of Douglassville, Ga., an activist on nuclear issues who has been a vocal critic of alleged nuclear contamination from the Augusta atomic energy plant for years, says the Air Force is covering up the real facts.
She claims leakage from the weapon could enter the food chain, endangering both the environment and the entire population of the East Coast.
In response to the government's decision to leave the bomb undisturbed, claiming its "principal risk is localized heavy metal contamination" and, even in the event of an explosion "dispersed uranium concentrations would be so low that health effects would be negligible," O'Brien said:
"That statement is absolutely ludicrous...it's a nightmare and their own people know it! "Plutonium is a nightmare...a catastrophe. 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!"
She says it would be foolish to accept the Air Force's statements at face value, given the military's track record for secrecy about all things nuclear.
"The fact that they've got a nuclear bomb stuck out in Wassaw Sound is absolutely immoral apart from anything else," she said. "I can't believe they're not moving heaven and earth to remove this."
A scientist speaking at a public hearing on the lost bomb last February said the plutonium aboard the bomb "would be the oldest now in existence" and "it would be the most radioactive ever and should be pretty easy to find" after all these years since plutonium becomes more radioactive with age.
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston said Air Force and other government officials told him the government has no exotic new technology..."nothing like a super Geiger Counter" with which to easily locate the weapon but would have to use virtually the same methods utilized (principally drag lines and dredges) in the initial search for the bomb almost a half century ago.
Duke says this is poppycock, since a specialist with his recovery team--who also serves as a consultant for the U.S. Navy--has equipment which can spot the bomb at some distance below the water and bottom of the sound.
Meanwhile, though admitting the missing bomb contains nuclear material, the Air Force continues to claim it was not armed with a triggering mechanism which would enable a nuclear detonation and that the 1966 report stipulating it was fully armed was erroneous.
Duke and others think it is unreasonable to believe a top assistant to then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara--given the eight years authorities had to study all aspects of the missing bomb prior to issuing the report to the chairman of the joint congressional committee on atomic energy--would say the bomb contained the plutonium triggering mechanism if it did not.
"McNamara would have hung that guy out to dry if he'd made a mistake like that," says Duke.
The fact that no effort was apparently made immediately to retract or correct the 1966 Department of Defense report seems to lend credence to its accuracy.
Howard H. Dixon, a former crew chief charged with supervising the loading of nuclear weapons on planes at Hunter Airfield from 1957 to 1959, has also disputed the claim that the bomb was unarmed saying:
"Never in my Air Force career did I install a Mark 15 weapon without installing the plutonium capsule."
Duke says the former Navy commander who headed an unsuccessful six week search for the bomb just after it was dropped in 1958 has joined ASSURE in urging a new search for the weapon using what he suggests are the sophisticated underwater search equipment and techniques which have been developed during the 43 years since his initial search.
The Air Force appears to be pulling the wool over Kingston's eyes when it says it has no new technology with which to conduct a search, according to information disclosed by Mickey Youmans, a documentary filmmaker
A Savannah publication quoted Youmans as saying the U.S. military has established a Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) which responds to nuclear incidents and specializes in disarming nuclear weapons which it locates with special sensors which can detect even small amounts of radioactive material anywhere on the planet.
But Kingston--to whom the Air Force presented its report at a special meeting in Washington, D.C. after he spearheaded efforts calling for an investigation of possible dangers posed by the bomb--said, in the absence of other facts, he accepts the Air Force position since he cannot believe officials would lie to him or the public.
Kingston said if anyone has any tangible facts to substantiate that the bomb poses a danger and is, in fact, armed with a plutonium triggering mechanism, "it is time for them to step forward and let me know...they should come out of the closet now if they know something."
Many are affraid to speak about our government in other than lauditory terms these days for fear of accusations that they are being unpatriotic, regardless of how well meaning their intent.
But some--given the government's proven capacity to play fast and loose with the truth for its own purposes--say it seems a bit naive for a U.S. Representative to believe relatively low ranking Air Force officers lack the capacity to indulge in a cover-up if ordered to do so by their superiors.
Anyone old enough to remember Watergate--when Attorney General John Mitchell, the highest law enforcement official in our nation, was joined, among others, by White House Chief of Staff H. R. "Bob" Haldeman and even the President of the United States in lying to not only congress but everyone in the country--has no problem believing covering up a little matter like danger from a lost nuclear bomb would be a piece of cake for some folks on the government payroll.
Kingston should also recall that none of the scores of people who knew about those lies "stepped forward...out of the closet" to provide that information with the exception of "Deep Throat", who did so surreptitiously, in the dark of night, with the guarantee he would not be identified.
We are not suggesting that Watergate proves every level of government is lying, but we do think it should encourage those in positions of power to examine its conclusions in cases such as this...where the lives and security of thousands of citizens may be in jeopardy.
We believe its time for Kingston and our other elected representatives to screw up their courage and demand a congressional investigation to determine, once and for all, what the real facts are.
Ignoring the bomb is simply not worth the gamble if there is even a remote possibility that the Air Force has misjudged its danger...and the possibility in this case seems substantially more than remote.
A cost of $1 million or even $23 million seems cheap at the price...even if it only eliminates the fear and stress to which area residents have been subjected for so long.