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Postscript : A Diplomatic Fallout : Twenty-seven years later, Denmark reopens the file on Danes who helped clean up the crash of an American B-52 carrying nuclear bombs. Plutonium may also be missing.

March 07, 1995|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COPENHAGEN — When President Clinton announced plans in January to declassify hundreds of millions of secret Cold War-era documents held by federal agencies, Denmark and its sensitivities were probably far from his mind.

But a trove of newly released U.S. documents, spirited to Copenhagen over the Internet, has reawakened a 27-year-old diplomatic quarrel involving the 1968 crash near Thule, Greenland, of a nuclear bomb-laden B-52, the dispersal of plutonium and other toxic materials over what is in fact Danish soil and the health of more than 1,000 Danes.

"The government now believes that earlier investigations didn't look into all the possible damage," said Lars Tybjerg, the Danish prime minister's chief adviser on economic and domestic policy.

Having reviewed the newly public documents, the Danish government now wants to know whether as much as two kilograms of plutonium are unaccounted for, and what the United States can do to find traces of the highly toxic element and clean them up.

The release of the files has also prompted Denmark to design a new study of people who were working near the crash site in 1968, some of whom have been saying for years that they suffer from premature aging, extreme fatigue, undiagnosed skin diseases, immune system deficiencies and other problems.

The Greenlanders, Danish citizens, have been examined several times already, and most of the previous tests have failed to establish a link between their health complaints and their possible exposure to nuclear and chemical contaminants in the wake of the bomber crash. One test suggested they might have a higher rate of cancer, but it was not conclusive.

In any case, Danish families affected by the crash remain deeply suspicious. They argue that their country is small and has no nuclear power plants or weapons installations and, consequently, lacks the experience to properly evaluate the health consequences of a nuclear accident.

"If you go to your family doctor and say, 'I think I'm sick because I've been exposed to radiation,' they don't take you seriously," said Sally Schnell, the widow of a onetime transportation personnel manager near the crash site.

Schnell said she has become "a kind of mother for the Thule workers" since her husband died in 1991, having made it her life's work to bring the men who claim to have been affected together informally and pool information about their symptoms.

In Copenhagen, the government wants to allay these suspicions, taking the new information and carrying out "a thorough investigation, one which can be carried out without any possible complaint that the researchers were biased," said Tybjerg, the prime minister's adviser. "If this new investigation demonstrates that these poor people have been damaged, or have a higher-than-normal mortality, then of course they would have to be compensated. And 75% of the bill would be shipped across the ocean" to the United States.

It was January, 1968, when a B-52 bomber with four 1.1-megaton hydrogen bombs on board crashed on the sea ice just off the coast of Greenland--a huge arctic island and a county of Denmark. The bomber was part of "Operation Chrome Dome," the United States' Cold War program to keep a fleet of nuclear bombers in the air 24 hours a day, close enough to Soviet airspace to make clear to the Soviets that the United States would strike back if Moscow initiated a nuclear attack.

The Chrome Dome airplanes were cruising three routes in those years, one over the Mediterranean, one over Alaska and one from the northeastern United States up to Greenland. It was the seven-member crew of a B-52 on this last route that found it too cold in the cockpit one January day, turned up the heat full blast and accidentally started an electrical fire in the heater's wiring.

With smoke filling the cockpit and electrical power shutting down, the crew tried to make an emergency landing at Thule, the United States' air base in coastal Greenland. But the pilots lost control of the plane and ordered the crewmen to eject at 8,000 feet. Six of them parachuted safely onto the snow and ice, but the seventh never got out of the plane and was killed as the B-52 crashed in a huge fireball.

"The plane had just been re-tanked in the air and contained 124,000 pounds of fuel," said Lars Melgard, a Copenhagen librarian who operates a public archive on nuclear power and nuclear weapons. "People inside the barracks at Thule lost their footing from the shock wave."

The huge fire consumed all four of the bombs aboard the plane without detonating them.

There were also political shock waves. News of the crash--and the bombs--outraged the Danes, who happened to be holding an election the day after the crash. The foreign minister reminded Washington that by treaty, the United States had the right to operate a base in Greenland but not to ferry nuclear bombs over Danish territory.

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