Plutonium Spill Neither Gone Nor Forgotten, 40 Years Later

Posted: June 01, 2000

On June 7, 1960, a nuclear-tipped missile burst into flames on its launcher at an Air Force base nestled in the heart of New Jersey's Pine Barrens, triggering sirens that shattered the afternoon stillness and sent a brief, nervous shock through the region.

Airmen poured water on the burning BOMARC missile and put the fire out within an hour.

With international tensions high over the downing of Gary Powers' U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union the month before, the incident seemed minor in comparison, and attention shifted elsewhere.

But 40 years later, an estimated 300 grams, or 10 1/2 ounces, of plutonium from the melted warhead remain in the sandy soil, entombed in asphalt and concrete - a radioactive relic of the Cold War and just one of the toxic hot spots from the era that dot the nation.

The Air Force has allocated $6 million to clean up the site on the eastern edge of the Fort Dix Military Reservation, but the plans to cart away 10,000 cubic yards of soil, concrete and steel have stalled because surrounding communities do not want radioactive waste shipped through them.

And one radiation expert wonders if it should be moved at all, saying that stirring up the site during an intrusive cleanup might pose a greater risk.

The Air Force calls the site RW-01, or Radioactive Waste-01, and its history offers a window to a time when trust in the government was high and a nuclear accident was easily forgotten.

* BOMARC stands for Boeing Michigan Aeronautical Research Center - a collaboration between Boeing and the University of Michigan, which developed the missile for the Air Force.

The first models of the weapon had a range of 230 miles and were armed with 10-kiloton warheads that were supposed to knock Soviet bombers out of the sky with a blast half as powerful as that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, said Donald Bender, a Cold War military historian. The missiles flew at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet with speeds approaching 3,000 m.p.h.

Ten BOMARC bases were set up throughout the United States and Canada. The first opened on 75 acres of Fort Dix just east of Route 539 in Plumsted Township, Ocean County, under the command of the 46th Air Defense Missile Squadron at McGuire Air Force Base.

The base had 56 missiles, each stored under its own concrete shelter with a movable roof. Each 45-foot-long rocket - called a "pilotless interceptor" - was kept on its launcher for quick firing.

On June 7, 1960, a high-pressure helium tank inside Shelter No. 204 exploded and ruptured the BOMARC's liquid-fuel tank, sparking a fire.

Sirens sounded, and emergency warnings rippled outward. In the initial confusion, the state police thought a nuclear warhead had exploded. Officials in Philadelphia ordered tests for radioactive fallout in the air or water. None was detected.

Although the flames were extinguished within an hour, airmen poured water on the smoldering rocket for 15 hours, spreading plutonium in a plume extending more than 120 yards from the missile shelter.

It was, by most accounts, one of the worst publicly acknowledged nuclear accidents up to that time.

The story generated banner headlines in The Inquirer on June 8, but in New York, the Times played it below articles on a subway fire and the defeat of two Tammany Hall politicians in a primary election.

The stories reported that a "small amount" of radioactive material "was scattered in the immediate area of the shelter," and that there was no threat to the public. There was no mention of plutonium 239, which can cause cancer if particles are ingested.

By June 10, the story had disappeared from the front pages. The 1961 Evening Bulletin Almanac did not even note the incident in its month-by-month summary of the top events of 1960.

The Air Force capped the contaminated soil with concrete and asphalt, and the fire at the base became a footnote in the history of the Cold War.

* Bertram Gratz, 62, of Evesham, still recalls June 7, 1960.

Gratz, then an Army reservist at Fort Dix for advanced infantry training, was returning from the machine-gun range with his squad when "all hell broke loose" as they hiked past the missile base.

"We were tired and all sweaty and dirty," said Gratz, a 1959 graduate of Villanova University originally from Collegeville. "We saw this puff of black smoke come up. . . . There were sirens going off all over the place."

Gratz, who was the squad leader, had read about the BOMARC missile - the Air Force had publicized the addition of the weapon to its arsenal - and feared the men were in harm's way.

"This thing, I believe, had a bursting radius of 1,000 yards. The fireball would have engulfed us if we stayed where we were. I said, 'Drop that stuff [machine guns, ammunition and tripods] and let's get the hell out of here.' "

They ran to the protection of a sand berm.

Gratz said one of the men tuned a transistor radio to WIBG-AM, a Philadelphia rock station. The station reported an alert at McGuire Air Force Base.

"And here we were looking at the smoke go up," said Gratz, now a salesman of gas-powered appliances and fireplaces.

* Katherine Sibley, associate professor of history at St. Joseph's University and author of The Cold War, said the fire occurred at a time of profound international tensions.

Not only had Gary Powers been shot down in May, but the fear of nuclear attack was real. Schools still were conducting "duck and cover" air-raid drills, and Americans could buy prefab fallout shelters for $1,195.

"People were less likely to question what their government told them," Sibley said. "People were so afraid of a Soviet attack, the last thing they were going to do was question their country's defense."

The BOMARC missile was part of that defense.

Because damage was limited and no casualties resulted from the fire, the story faded in the midst of the presidential-election campaign that pitted John F. Kennedy against Richard M. Nixon, concerns about Cuba's Fidel Castro, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's shoe-pounding performance at the United Nations.

As Sibley noted, the public distrust generated by Vietnam and Watergate, the environmental consciousness embodied in Earth Day, and the fear of domestic nuclear accidents that was realized in Three Mile Island were all in the future.

"Back then, it was no big thing," said David Gray, 52, who was 12 when the fire occurred and still lives near the base. "I never really gave it much thought."

The base closed in 1972.

* The story came alive briefly in 1985, when Gov. Tom Kean and his environmental commissioner, Robert Hughey, voiced concern after learning about the base and what had happened there.

Although the fire was no secret, the nature of the contamination had been concealed until 1973, and military reports on monitoring of the base never percolated to the upper levels of state government. Instead, Kean and Hughey learned about it when federal officials suggested using the base as a storage site for radon-contaminated soil from North Jersey.

Military reports maintained that the plutonium had been contained, and that radiation levels were safe. But one 1977 Army study - disputed in a 1981 Air Force report but acknowledged in the base cleanup plan - said some of the plutonium apparently had "migrated" on surface water across Route 539.

Of particular concern was the fact that the base sits on top of the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer, but federal officials have said tests show that the plutonium has not affected the groundwater, 50 feet below the surface in that area.

"They test our water every year to make sure it doesn't get into our wells," said George Mostrangeli, who lives two miles away on Route 539. "We don't drink the water out here anyway. We prefer the bottled stuff."

The state Department of Environmental Protection in 1985 said it wanted to check the health records of Air Force personnel who served at the base. But Lorretta O'Donnell, an agency spokeswoman, said the agency had not received anything from the Air Force.

Janice Carlson, a spokeswoman for the Air Force's Air Mobility Command, said health surveys had been done of 46th Squadron veterans, but the exact nature of the surveys was not clear. Her office was trying to gather information about the surveys, but it was not available by last night, two weeks after The Inquirer requested it.

Under the current cleanup plan, Chem-Nuclear Systems LLC of Columbia, S.C., is to put contaminated soil and other debris into containers that are to be sealed and trucked to a still-undetermined railhead.

The containers, which can hold 10 cubic yards or 12 tons of material, are then to be loaded into gondola cars and hauled to a disposal site for low-level radiation in the Utah desert 80 miles west of Salt Lake City.

If current estimates hold, about 150 gondola cars will be needed to take away the waste holding what once amounted to enough plutonium to fill a golf ball or even half a shot glass.

The biggest problem has been finding a railhead where the containers can be loaded onto the train cars.

The Air Force had hoped to use the Conrail line in Lakehurst Borough, about 10 miles away by road, but Mayor Stephen F. Childers said no in February because of concerns the plutonium could become airborne.

A closer, but older, rail line at the Heritage Mineral tract in Manchester Township also was considered, but Mayor Michael Fressola rejected the plan last month.

Carlson said no start date had been set for the work while military officials consider options that might meet the approval of local officials.

But Fressola said he believed it was safer to leave the plutonium alone.

That view was shared by Andrew Karmar, the radiation safety officer at the University of Rochester in New York, who said that there are other toxic substances more dangerous than plutonium, and that removing it posed a greater risk than leaving it where it is.

"It's probably as safe as it's going to be," said Karmar, a recognized radiation expert.

He said the money for the project would provide a greater social benefit if used for immunizations or highway-safety measures.

Joseph Gambardello's e-mail address is jgambardello@phillynews.com

* Inquirer suburban writer Marc Levy contributed to this story.

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