Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Winter's Tale

“Heck, I reckon you wouldn’t even be human beings if ya didn’t have some pretty strong feelings about nuclear combat.But I want ya to remember one thing, tha folks back home is a countin’ on ya, and by golly, we ain’t about to let ‘em down” Major Kong (Slim Pickens) to his B-52 aircrew when told to attack the Soviet Union. From the movie Doctor Strangelove.

In January 1968 the fears of a catastrophic nuclear accident that had haunted the scientists working on the wartime Manhattan Project were almost realised when an American B-52 bomber carrying four thermonuclear weapons with a reported combined yield of 4.4 megatons of TNT crashed in Greenland. The US Air Force base at Thule in Greenland was a strategically important early-warning station monitoring Soviet missile activity. Because of its importance and location the US government decided in the late '60s that the base was too vulnerable to Russian attack. So at least one US bomber armed with nuclear weapons was kept in the air all the time within radio range of the base. If Thule was attacked this bomber would be able to strike back against Russia, and the picture below shows one of the bombers, armed with nuclear weapons, at the base.


On 21st January 1968 a B-52 Stratofortress carrying seven crew members and four nuclear weapons was circling near Thule on such a mission when a fire started in the cabin heater. The captain tried to land the crippled bomber at the base, but the fire cut all power and the landing was abandoned. Six crew members baled out safely using their ejector seats, and the stricken bomber with one crew member on board (he could not escape as he did not have an ejector seat) flew over the base and crashed onto the sea ice seven miles west of the base. The bomber exploded on impact killing the remaining crew member, and the force of the explosion scattered the burning wreckage over a wide area. The crashing plane is reported to have severed the hot line telecommunications link from the base, triggering a false nuclear attack alert, and causing the Strategic Air Command to think for a short time that the Thule base had been attacked.

A complex sequence of actions was required to set off the nuclear bombs, and these safeguards thankfully meant that there was not a full nuclear explosion. But the deadly weapons are triggered by high explosives, and these did explode in all four bombs. The resulting explosion spread uranium, tritium and plutonium over a 700 meter radius. The heat from the burning plane caused the ice to melt, and debris, including the thermonuclear assembly from one of the bombs, fell through to the seabed.

The ensuing clean-up operation involved 3000 personnel, 38 naval ships, and the removal of 10,000 tons of snow and ice. But controversy continues as to how successful it was. A U.S. State Department document dated August 1968 said all the nuclear weapons had been ‘accounted for’, but failed to spell-out whether this actually meant they had been recovered. The Danish media claims that one of the thermonuclear weapons (picture right) was never recovered, and still lies on the seabed. A Pentagon spokesman is reputed to have made the following statement about the missing weapon, “I don’t know of any missing bomb, but we have not positively identified what I think you are looking for”.

A study in 1987 by a Danish medical institute showed that workers at the Thule base were 50% more likely to develop cancers than other Danish military personnel. 200 of the workers subsequently unsuccessfully sued the U.S. government, but the discovery process for the court case identified anomalies in health monitoring procedures.

Missing bomb, or no missing bomb, the Thule B-52 crash graphically confirmed the stanza from the Bhagavad Gita quoted by ‘Doctor Atomic’ Robert Oppenheimer before the very first atomic test, and quoted in my article about the Manhattan Project.

If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky,
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One...
I am become Death,
The shatterer of Worlds


Eighteen years after the Thule accident fears of a full nuclear disaster were realised at Chernobyl in the former USSR (now Ukraine). Important safety procedures were disregarded while testing one of the reactors in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant located 80 miles north of Kiev. In the early morning of 25th April 1986 the chain reaction in one reactor escalated out of control. The subsequent explosion blew off the reactor's heavy steel and concrete lid (right), releasing a fireball with 'the radiance of a thousand suns'. As well as those killed in the blast 28 people died within four months from radiation burns. 19 more died subsequently, and there have been a further nine deaths from thyroid cancer apparently due to the accident, bringing the total fatalities to 56. As a result of the high radiation levels in the surrounding area 135,00 people had to be evacuated

Nuclear energy is never far from the headlines. On the day I wrote this article Russia cut Ukraine's gas supplies, and triggered a knock-on gas shortage in other European countries. Concern over the stability of energy supplies triggered new calls for the development of further nuclear power stations. Among those who worked with the victims of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant were International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), a non-partisan international grouping of medical organisations dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons. They work with the long-term victims of nuclear explosions and accidents in locations ranging from Hiroshima to Chernobyl, and their work has been recognised with the 1984 UNESCO Peace Prize, and 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. For the last 21 years IPPNW-Concerts has been working from its Berlin office with top musicians world-wide to raise funds for their work.

As well as being a fantastic cause there is some music well worth exploring available on
IPPNW-Concerts' own CD label, and in co-productions with Swedish label BIS. These are all live recordings of concerts promoted by IPPNW over the years. There are forty-nine CDs in the catalogue with composers ranging from Monteverdi to Elliot Carter. The nuggets worth mining include Furtwängler's Te Deum (right) coupled with Brahms and Hindemith (CD40).

Wort und Musik - 60 Jahre nach Hiroshima is a live recording made at the March 2005 'Nuclear Weapons Inheritance Project' which mixes readings in German from a range of authors including Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein and Sadako Kurihara with relevent music including the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Shostakovich's String Quartet No 8 and Schubert’s Quartettsatz. On the lighter side there are also a number of jazz recordings worth exploring, including the Berlin Philharmonic Jazz Group playing live in 2004 in the Philharmonie in Berlin with the world-famous baritone Thomas Quasthoff.

IPPNW co-productions with BIS also contain some real gems. My own favourite is a live Missa Solemnis from the Philharmonie in Berlin with Antal Doráti conducting the European Symphony Orchestra, University of Maryland Chorus, and a distinguished group of soloists. Another BIS co-production recorded at the Philharmonie with the New Berlin Chamber Orchestra and members of the Czech Philharmonic and HdK-Chamber Choir conducted by Martin Fischer-Dieskau includes two of Doráti’s own compositions (his Pater Noster, Prayer for Mixed Choir and Jesus oder Barabbas? a melodrama after a story by Karinthy Frigyes for Speaker, Orchestra and Choir) alongside works from Bartok and Martinu. Finally among the BIS co-productions a live Mahler Symphony No 9 with Rudolf Barshai conducting the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra is a rarity well worth investigating. All proceeds from the sale of these CDs benefit those in dire need as a result of war, industrial and natural catastrophe. Need I say more?

Picture credits: Header - Amazon, B-52 and nuclear bomb - Thule Forum, Chernobyl - BBC News, Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed.
Report broken links, missing images, and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to The radiance of a thousand suns

8 comments:

James Aach said...

If you wish to understand more about how American nuclear plants operate, and what went wrong at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, see "Rad Decision", the first insider novel of nuclear power. This new techno-thriller, written by a longtime nuclear engineer, is available at no cost on the web at RadDecision.blogspot.com.

"I'd like to see Rad Decision widely read." - Stewart Brand, founder, The Whole Earth Catalog.

Alex Ross said...

Excellent post, Pliable. But note that there is no record of Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita at the Trinity Test. Several years after the event he claimed to have thought of those lines after the bomb went off, but not to have spoken them aloud. Jack Hubbard's diary entry about the test has him saying, “My faith in the human mind is somewhat restored.”

Pliable said...

Thanks Alex, appreciated.

I based my account on the following section (P308) from Jennet Conant's recently published book 109 East Palace which I reviewed in my article The radiance of a thousand suns.

Oppenheimer walked out of the shelter and stood on the sand. Gazing out at the twisted column of smoke, he solemnly quoted a line from sacred Hindu writings that his assistant, Priscilla Greene, had no doubt he had prepared in advance for the occasion.

Anonymous said...

It is good to start the new year in remembrance of the forthcoming 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophy - just now when politicians and businessmen start to promote the "Renaissance" of Nuclear Power Plants.
Who remembers the days of the beginning of May 1986 when the radioactive cloud approached all European countries and we all became from one day to another more or less radioactive? Only if you read newspapers of theses days you can feel how deep the shock was. Childrens playgrounds were closed, it was forbidden to drink fresh milk, garden vegatable had to be seperated, pregnant women were full of fear, not knowing what will happen with their baby - and TV-news showed us pictures from the borders where travelers and cars coming from eastern Europe had to be decontaminated.

And who is thinking about the hundreds of thousands people who had to leave their homes, houses and gardens for ever - and the app. 800.000 young men and women who where involved as life-saving helpers. How many of them are suffering of low- or highdose radiation?
How many of them are still alive?

Pliable said...

... and of course the media is currently full of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Alex Ross said...

According to Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, authors of the big recent Oppenheimer biography, the "destroyer of worlds" quotation didn't appear in any eyewitness accounts of the test. It began to crop up in interviews with Oppenheimer starting in 1948; he delivered the definitive version on a 1965 NBC documentary. There he didn't claim to have uttered the words, only thought them. I'm not sure where Jennet Conant derived her version, but Priscilla Greene wasn't present at the test; no women were allowed on the site. I think it's important to emphasize that at the time of the test Oppenheimer had no critical distance on what he had helped unleash. That came later.

Pliable said...

Thx again Alex. I've contacted the publishers of 109 East Palace, Simon & Schuster NY, to tell them that some of the facts in the book are being queried.

I'll post any reply I receive.

Pliable said...

Good to see the US's Department of Defence Iraq centre for military communications arriving at this article this morning from a Google search for Missing bomb in Thule, Greenland, hope On An Overgrown Path helps them find it.

Here is the search string ...

host199-114.iraq.centcom.mil (Dod Network Information Center)
Virginia, Mechanicsville, United States, 0 returning visits
Date Time WebPage
10th January 2006 10:24:14 theovergrownpath.blogspot.com/2006/01/winters-tale.html
www.google.com/search?ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=THE MISSING BOMB AT THULE GREENLAND&btnG=Search