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Story on lost hydrogen bomb presents no threat to national security

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  Story on lost hydrogen bomb presents no threat to national security
Public Editor
Story last updated at 6:42 a.m. Sunday, February 15, 2004

In 1958, a damaged U.S. Air Force bomber dropped a hydrogen bomb in a sound about 20 miles from downtown Savannah after the bomber collided with a fighter plane.

The Air Force searched for the unexploded bomb for a few months and declared it lost.

Now, two men believe they have located the bomb under the mud in shallow waters near Tybee Island and are anxious lest terrorists might also find it, also. They have raised the question of whether the government should try to retrieve the bomb.

Reporter Tony Bartelme told the nuclear mystery story in a front-page feature last Sunday. Two readers criticized The Post and Courier for publishing a story that they feared could lead terrorists to a ready stash of weapons-grade uranium or worse.

One reader said, "I would think this would be a very secretive matter -- if not for CIA, certainly for Homeland Security."

"That's one point of doing the story," Bartelme said. As did the reader, the story raised the question about whether and how the government should be involved in this situation -- a situation that is not a secret at all. Bartelme reported on the scholarly debate about whether the bomb offers a threat of a nuclear explosion. He reported that the Air Force says it is safe and that others question why, if it is safe, it is not dug up.

He quoted some who want the bomb retrieved and others who want it left alone. The reason Bartelme decided to write about the bomb was that it was a good tale which had been reported locally but not very well. Some recent stories in national publications were a disappointment to him.

Over the course of about three weeks, Bartelme checked public records; interviewed respected investigators who had researched the Tybee Island bomb; tracked down the pilots who were involved in the incident back in 1958; sought out the perspective of the Air Force; and questioned scientists.

Bartelme said he was careful not to sensationalize the story and he is confident that his story did not compromise national security.

First, all the information he found was available to anyone who asked for it, he said. He did not get information from classified sources. A terrorist would be able to find the same information he did -- much of it on-line.

Second, it is highly unlikely that a terrorist could conduct a search and retrieve uranium from the bomb without being detected. The alleged site is very close to the beach. People are watching the area. Bartelme also said that, as with the search for the Hunley off the coast of Sullivan's Island, searchers have to expect to spend lots of time. Finding it requires the researchers be exactly on it -- not even 10 feet away.

The story only reported the facts. The course of action is really up to the Air Force. If the bomb is a dud, there would be no need to worry about it being retrieved by terrorists. If the Air Force has doubts about whether it is a dud, it is up to the government to proceed with keeping it out of the hands of terrorists.


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Revised: May 23, 2003 .