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The Bomarc Missile Plutonium Spill Crisis: Exercises in Propaganda and Containment in 1960 and Beyond

Posted on 04/26/2011

According to the Boeing Corporation’s history of its Bomarc missile,


"...the supersonic Bomarc missiles (IM-99A and IM-99B) were the world's first long-range anti-aircraft missiles, and the first missiles that Boeing mass produced. The program also represented the first time Boeing designed and built launch facilities. It used analog computers, some of which were built by Boeing and had been developed for GAPA [Ground-to-Air Pilotless Aircraft] experiments during World War II. Authorized by the Air Force in 1949, the F-99 Bomarc prototype was the result of coordinated research between Boeing (Bo) and the University of Michigan Aeronautical Research Center (marc) [hence the portmanteau name ‘Bomarc’].  "The missiles were housed on a constant combat-ready basis in individual launch shelters in remote areas. The alert signal could fire the missiles around the country in 30 seconds. The Model A had a range of 200 miles, and the B, which followed, could fly 400 miles. The production IM-99A first flew on Feb. 24, 1955. Boeing built 700 Bomarc missiles between 1957 and 1964, as well as 420 launch systems. Bomarc was retired from active service during the early 1970s."

And here is how the Wikipedia article continues the Bomarc story leading to one near nuclear catastrophe:

"The operational IM-99A missiles were based horizontally in semi-hardened shelters (‘coffins’). After the launch order, the shelter's roof would slide open, and the missile raised to the vertical. After the missile was supplied with fuel for the booster rocket, it would be launched by the Aerojet General LR59-AJ-13 booster. After supersonic speed was reached, the Marquardt RJ43-MA-3 ramjets would ignite and propel the missile to its cruise speed and altitude of Mach 2.8 at 20000 m (65000 ft). Within a year of becoming operational, a Bomarc-A with a nuclear warhead caught fire at McGuire AFB on 7 June 1960 following the explosive rupture of its onboard helium tank. While the missile's explosives didn't detonate, the heat melted the warhead, releasing plutonium which the fire crews then spread around. The Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission cleaned up the site and covered it with concrete."

News of the Bomarc fire spread like wildfire around the United States and around the world. First, here is an account from the June 8, 1960 issue of the Trenton Evening Times, Trenton being only 18 miles south of McGuire Air Force Base, the site of the melting warhead.


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As far away as Washington state, the Seattle Daily Times on that same day reported New York was calm despite the radiation fear.

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Also on June 8, the Springfield (Massachussetts) Union printed a number of stories about the Bomarc incident, including the following one meant to reassure the public. It surely represents the Air Force’s official view that there was no danger of further radioactive contamination at that time.

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The next day, June 9, the Dallas Morning News claimed the cause of the fire was not announced, if it was even known.

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Also on June 9, however, the East German radio transmission Deutschlandsender tried to turn the late-breaking Bomarc story to its own advantage in its cold war against its rival, the Federal Republic of Germany, by focusing on the inherent risks posed by atomic weapons. Only the facts?


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The Soviet propaganda machine also moved quickly on June 9 to capitalize on the Bomarc story with a response to it by commentator Leonid Vetrov:

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And on June 11, 1960 the Soviets claimed a New York City evacuation had occurred or at least many inhabitants had fled the city!


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The New Orleans Times Picayune for its June 13, 1960 edition picked up an item from Izvestia, an open letter by long-standing Soviet commentator V. Kudryatsev  to America on the explosion at the Bomarc site. It is perhaps interesting to wonder why this item was not picked up by FBIS, or was it not printed in the FBIS Daily Report because it was an AP story?


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The Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle of June 24, 1960 printed an Associated Press story from Washington, D.C., which attributed the cause of the fire to a bursting helium gas bottle.

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Nor was that the end of the Bomarc fiasco. After 40 years the contamination, though perhaps contained, had not vanished away. Here from the year 2000 is an investigative account published almost eleven years ago on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer (source: NewsBank):


Plutonium Spill Neither Gone Nor Forgotten, 40 Years Later

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 101/2 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.

And finally, this June 8, 2010 article from New Jersey’s Burlington County Times reports that the Bomarc cleanup was almost finished some 50 years after the fact (source: NewsBank):


Environmental 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.

Fifty years ago, a missile base located deep in the Pine Barrens on Fort Dix was considered a key part of the nation's defense against a Soviet nuclear strike.

The base was called the Boeing Michigan Aeronautical Research Center (BOMARC), but research was not its primary mission. In the event of a Soviet attack, the base was expected to launch dozens of nuclear-tipped missiles that would travel at supersonic speed to destroy whole squadrons of enemy bombers before they reached U.S. shores.

But disaster struck on the afternoon of June 7, 1960, when, just a few months after the base opened, a fire started in one of the missile launchers, melting the missile's warhead and releasing plutonium into the air and across much of the 75-acre site.

At first the world believed a nuclear firestorm had erupted in the Pine Barrens, not far from the border between Burlington and Ocean counties.

The panic subsided quickly as the military insisted the radioactive release was contained and of no danger to the surrounding populace.

Five decades later, the fire is little more than a footnote in the region's history and the base a mere reminder of the bygone Cold War era when nuclear attack seemed possible.

The missiles are long gone, and the shelters and buildings that made up the base are rust-covered and vacant since the site closed in 1972.

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 (TCE) 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 for several years and is considering its options for a possible cleanup, according to Mike Tamn, a Pemberton Township resident who chairs the Restoration Advisory Board that acts as a liaison between what is now the Joint Base McGuire -Dix-Lakehurst and surrounding communities.

"The TCE has spread considerably. There's a process under consideration that could possibly stop it (from spreading further), but it's not exactly cheap," Tamn said.

By comparison, he said the military's initial response to the 1960 incident was simply to pour cement over the area where the missile fire occurred.

"The standards and theory concerning radiation were a lot different then. At the time, the established theory was that you could wash it away," he said.

Tamn, who began working as a civilian employee on McGuire Air Force Base about a week after the fire, recalled a lot of secrecy about the missile base.

"You couldn't worry about it because you couldn't discuss it," he said. "It was still the Cold War, which was very hot at the time. There were parts of the base that were closed and you couldn't even ask about them."

Newspaper reports at the time described the initial panic when word spread that a nuclear missile had detonated in the Pines.

The June 9 edition of the Mount Holly Herald described how residents in Burlington and Ocean counties were alarmed by reports of "an atomic warhead explosion with scattered radioactive debris" in the area of the BOMARC base, which is about 8 miles east of the border in Plumsted Township, Ocean County.

The paper described "a deluge of Civil Defense, Health Department and military officials and reporters" descending on the evacuated base as state police tried to set up roadblocks in an 8-mile radius around the site.

"Geiger counters clicked and air filtering devices whirred as calls from as far away as London, England, swamped the McGuire Information Services Office requesting information on the atomic explosion," the paper reported.

But the fear and interest in the story quickly died down and the fire largely was forgotten until 1985, when Gov. Tom Kean called for a cleanup after learning about a proposal to ship radon-contaminated soil from North Jersey communities to the BOMARC site.

Tamn said the restoration board continued the push through May 2002, when the cleanup began. About 22,000 cubic yards of radioactive soil were removed, costing $23.2 million. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is expected to declare the cleanup complete and adequate later this year, according to public affairs officials at the joint base.

Tamn said the restoration advisory board largely was pleased with the cleanup, noting that it would be impossible to remove all the contamination from the fire.

Richard Bizub, director of water programs for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said the advocacy group is still concerned about the groundwater contamination.

"It is a threat because the plume is moving toward the Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area (in Ocean County)," Bizub said. "We would have liked that cleaned up in a more efficient manner."

Public affairs officials at the joint base said the TCE plume is expected to be addressed in a feasibility study being developed by the base and state DEP. The study is expected to offer "various remedial alternatives." The proposed remedy will be made available for public review and comment.

Bizub said the fire was one of the largest environmental disasters in the environmentally sensitive Pinelands, which did not become federally protected until 1978.

"The whole program predated the Pinelands process by about 19 years," he said.

Tamn agreed that the fire was unprecedented.

"That was the only situation I know of like it, which is probably one reason why there was so much confusion. It had never occurred before, so nobody knew how to handle it," he said.

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