by Gordon Corera
page last updated 10 November 2008
BBC News Security Correspondent, Northern Greenland
The United States abandoned a nuclear
weapon beneath the ice in northern Greenland following a crash in
1968, a BBC investigation has found.
Its unique vantage point - perched at the top of the world - has
meant that Thule Air Base has been of immense strategic importance
to the US since it was built in the early 1950s, allowing a radar to
scan the skies for missiles coming over the North Pole.
The Pentagon believed the Soviet Union would take out the base as a
prelude to a nuclear strike against the US and so in 1960 began
flying "Chrome Dome" missions. Nuclear-armed B52 bombers
continuously circled over Thule - and could head straight to Moscow
if they witnessed its destruction.
Greenland is a self-governing province of Denmark but the carrying
of nuclear weapons over Danish territory was kept secret.
But on 21 January 1968, one of those missions went wrong.
We reunited two of the pilots, John Haug and Joe D'Amario, 40 years
on to tell the story of how their plane ended up crashing on the ice
a few miles out from the base.
In the aftermath, military personnel, local Greenlanders and Danish
workers rushed to the scene to help.
Eventually, a remarkable operation would unfold over the coming
months to recover thousands of tiny pieces of debris scattered
across the frozen bay, as well as to collect some 500 million
gallons of ice, some of it containing radioactive debris.
A declassified US government video, obtained by the BBC, documents
the clear-up and gives some ideas of the scale of the operation.
The high explosives surrounding the four nuclear weapons had
detonated but without setting off the actual nuclear devices, which
had not been armed by the crew.
The Pentagon maintained that all four weapons had been "destroyed".
This may be technically true, since the bombs were no longer
complete, but declassified documents obtained by the BBC under the
US Freedom of Information Act, parts of which remain classified,
reveal a much darker story, which has been confirmed by individuals
involved in the clear-up and those who have had access to details
The documents make clear that within
weeks of the incident, investigators piecing together the fragments
realized that only three of the weapons could be accounted for.
Even by the end of January, one document talks of a blackened
section of ice which had re-frozen with shroud lines from a weapon
"Speculate something melted through ice such as burning
primary or secondary," the document reads, the primary or secondary
referring to parts of the weapon.
By April, a decision had been taken to send a Star III submarine to
the base to look for the lost bomb, which had the serial number
78252. (A similar submarine search off the coast of Spain two years
earlier had led to another weapon being recovered.)
But the real purpose of this search was deliberately hidden from
One document from July reads:
"Fact that this operation includes
search for object or missing weapon part is to be treated as
confidential NOFORN", the last word meaning not to be disclosed
to any foreign country.
"For discussion with Danes, this operation should be referred to
as a survey repeat survey of bottom under impact point," it
But the underwater search was beset by technical problems and, as
winter encroached and the ice began to freeze over, the documents
recount something approaching panic setting in.
As well as the fact they contained uranium and plutonium, the
abandoned weapons parts were highly sensitive because of the way in
which the design, shape and amount of uranium revealed classified
elements of nuclear warhead design.
But eventually, the search was abandoned. Diagrams and notes
included in the declassified documents make clear it was not
possible to search the entire area where debris from the crash had
We tracked down a number of officials who were involved in dealing
with the aftermath of the incident.
One was William H. Chambers, a former nuclear weapons designer at the
Los Alamos nuclear laboratory who once ran a team dealing with
accidents, including the Thule crash.
"There was disappointment in what
you might call a failure to return all of the components," he
told the BBC, explaining the logic behind the decision to
abandon the search.
The US was flying so-called Chrome Dome missions over Greenland
"It would be very difficult for
anyone else to recover classified pieces if we couldn't find
The view was that no-one else would be
able covertly to acquire the sensitive pieces and that the
radioactive material would dissolve in such a large body of water,
making it harmless.
Other officials who have seen classified files on the accident
confirmed the abandonment of a weapon.
The Pentagon declined to comment on the investigation, referring
back to previous official studies of the incident.
But the crash, clear-up and mystery of the lost bomb have continued
to haunt those involved at the time - and those who live in the
region now - with continued concerns over the environmental and
health impact of the events of that day in 1968.
The Story of America's Missing Nuclear Bomb
The Case of The "Missing" Nukes
12 January 2008
A Minot-assigned bomber inadvertently carried five nuclear warheads
during a cross-country flight to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana on August
30th 2007, raising concerns about weapons safety and accountability.
There's something a bit strange about this Drudge-trumpeted story,
concerning the Air Force's "temporary loss" of five nuclear
warheads. As reported by the Military Times papers, the warheads
were mounted on advanced cruise missiles being flown by a B-52
bomber from Minot AFB, North Dakota to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.
Both Minot and Barksdale are B-52 bases; the movement is part of an
effort to decommission 400 of the cruise missiles.
The warheads were
supposed to be removed before the missiles left Minot, but the error
wasn't discovered until the "Buff" touched down in Louisiana last
According to the Times, that left the weapons "unaccounted for"
during the 3 1/2 hour flight from North Dakota to Louisiana.
However, that's a specious claim, at best. As Air Force spokesman Lt
Col Ed Henry noted, the weapons were in the service's custody and
control at all times. He also reported that all other nuclear
weapons at Minot have been accounted for.
What's more disconcerting is the (apparent) break-down in the
nuclear chain of custody. Readers of my profile know that I spent
portions of my career around nukes, both as an operational
intelligence officer and a targeteer. My duties didn't involve the
actual handling or loading of those weapons, but you learned quickly
that nukes are governed by a completely different set of rules, for
Those regulations are strictly enforced, with "no
tolerance" for mistakes.
First, nuclear weapons are segregated from "ordinary" munitions,
with additional layers of security and access control. All personnel
involved in the protection, storage, handling and loading of the
weapons are carefully vetted through the military's Personnel
Reliability Program (PRP). Anyone whose loyalty, judgment or
stability comes into question loses their PRP certification, and
they're no longer allowed to work around nuclear weapons.
Other safeguards are built into the system as well.
There's a very
tight chain of control; the device is literally "signed for" at
every step of the journey from the weapons storage area to the
aircraft, and the two-man "rule" is strictly enforced. An individual
pilot or load crew member is never allowed to "control" the weapon
on the ground.
In combat, the pilot of a single-seat fighter would
be permitted to launch with a nuclear weapon - and use it in
combat - but only if the pilot was certified for the mission, and the
"tasking" had been properly authenticated through the chain of
command, beginning with the President, or in tactical scenarios, the
theater commander - under authority granted by the POTUS.
MSNBC is now reporting that a B-52 squadron commander at Minot has
been relived of his duties, because the service has "lost
confidence" in his ability to handle nuclear weapons.
That move is
hardly surprising, given the obvious emphasis that the Pentagon
places on nuclear safety and control. And, it's likely that other
heads will roll as the Air Force continues its investigation. As we
noted in the preceding paragraphs, the movement, loading and
protection of nuclear weapons is a carefully regulated process,
involving a number of specialists.
All could be found culpable in
But that still doesn't explain how nuclear-tipped cruise missiles
were loaded onto a B-52, flown 1450 miles across the United States,
and the mistake wasn't discovered until the bomber reached its
destination in Louisiana.
With most of the Advanced Cruise Missile
fleet (AGM-129) is being retired from operational service, we can
assume that Minot crews had been through this drill before. Remove
the warhead from the missile, then fly the inert weapon to Barksdale
for decommissioning. Retiring the warhead - if that's part of the
plan - entails a separate (and completely different) process which
does not require a B-52 flight.
Given the elaborate safeguards, security procedures and
chain-of-control associated with nuclear weapons, it's difficult to
fathom how five warheads made their way onto that Buff and they
weren't noticed until it arrived at Barksdale.
It would be interesting to know how the
5th Bomb Wing (Minot's B-52 unit) fared on its last Nuclear Surety
Inspection (NSI), which evaluates unit procedures for controlling,
handling and safeguarding those weapons.
Other related reports:
The Case of the "Missing" Nukes
January 12, 2008