Update on Plutonium Remedial Actions on BOMARC Missile Site, McGuire AFB, N.J.
Restoration Advisory Board Meeting - May 20, 2009
The military calls an unintended nuclear accident a "broken arrow" event, which is what happened when an explosion ignited a fire that led to the melt-down of a nuclear tipped missile, releasing nuclear chemicals into the environment in my community.
As we approach the 40th anniversary of this Broken-Arrow event at the McGuire BOMARC Missile Site, it appears that the military would like to rap this whole thing up and sign off on a release that the land is no longer contaminated by the plutonium, uranium and depleated uranium that has polluted the area since it happened - 7 June, 1960, thirty-nine years ago.
The May 20, 2009 meeting at the Cookstown Senior Citizens Center was one of a series of meetings between the military and local community leaders meant to explain the status of the clean up operations.
Originally deployed to counter Soviet bombers, construction began in 1958 and the remote, rural site at the far end of the sprawing base became operational in 1960.
The idea was to explode a nuclear missile warhead in the air, taking out the incoming Soviet bombers before they got to their targets.
They really never figured out exactly what it was that sparked the fire, but chaulk it off to a helium tank explosion, which ignited the fuel of the liquid rocket propellant and melted the nuclear warhead.
Today the base has a specially trained unit that responds to nuclear or chemical attacks or accidents, but in 1960 the first responders were the members of the local volunteer fire squad, who put out the fire with high pressure water, just like they were trained.
Except that exasperated the problem, spreading the nuclear dust beyond ground zero, into the drainage ditch, into the sewer, into the water table, who knows where it went?
As the military report puts it: "Fire suppression-related water caused migration of weapons-grade plutonium, weapons-grade uranium, and depleated uranium."
For those who know something about chemestry and physics, they tell you, "Estimated 300 g plutonium not recovered (-22 Ci, a-emitters).
They explained that the amount of uranium we are talking about would just about fill a shot glass, and the particles are heavy and don't dissolve in water.
It's such a small amount that the radiation would not harm you, what is dangerous is the inhailation of it. The best way to clean it up, they discovered, was with a broom, or in the case of a single particle, with sandpaper and a brush.
This wasn't known back in 1960, so they followed standard operational procedures and poured concrete and asphalt covers over the contaminated area, and sealed it with paint.
Then they went back to work, ready to fight Soviet bombers that, thankfully, never came, until 1972, when that was no longer considered a threat, the mission ceased, and the site closed. From 1972 until 1989 they kept up periodic monitoring to ensure the limit and security of the contamination.
A Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RI/FS) ran from 1989 to 1991, recommending the contaminated materials be removed if a disposal site was available and cost effective, but nothing was done for over a decade, until 2000.
Why did it take so long? Well, the answer is they couldn't find an acceptable disposal site for the contaminated soil and debree until they got the people in the desert down in Youka Flats where they exploded experimental nukes, to take it. A drop in the bucket in the desert waste, but then there was the problem of getting it there.
Local municipalities balked at having convoys of trucks loaded with contaminated nuclear waste passing through their communities, so they firgured out a path to truck the waste to a rail bed on the base, near Lakehurst Naval Air Station, but in the years before the Mega-Base, the Navy balked and said it wasn't their problem.
Then in 2002 the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Environment and Safety said, "This is a DoD problem, the Navy will help the Air Force solve this problem."
So they built and extension of a rail line to the where the trucks unloaded them and train hauled the 21,998 yards of contaminated top soil and rubble to a new home in the glowing desert.
After the most contaminated material was removed, they took surveys looking for radiation hot spots and soil samples almost ever few feet, finding bits and pieces of contamination, usually one micro-element at a time, with one particular hot spot being just outside the only bathroom they used.
Besides being flushed by the water used to douse the fire, and burning up in plumes of smoke, they found that the contaminents were spread primarily by truck tires and worker's boots as they moved around the area, leaving hot footprints behind them. Or as their latest report puts it, "Contamination identified outside primary (water) transport route...associateed with vehicle and foot traffic."
In the course of the remediation (2002-2004), they discovered the Drainage Ditch was a primary contaminated area, and the flood of contaminated water bled into the ditch and through a large sewage pipe that ran under the highway (Rt. #557), a two lane blacktop mainly used by locals, hunters and campers. Also contaminated was a stream that ran through a state forest park across the highway.
"The contaminant is not distributed uniformally over the site, but occurs in discrete 'hot spots' which in several instances have been found to be a single particle."
That's when Dr. Steven Rademacher, AFSC/SEWN, who gave the power point presentation during the meeting, said that "We found the best way to clean up the contimanation was with a broom, sandpaper and a paintbrush."
And one hot particle at a time, they put the uranium and plutonium back into the shot glass, which is still either half empty or half full.
And now, they turn on the geiger counters and no beeps, and the area is clean. By the end of the summer they hope to have a final report and sign off on the cleanup mission, certifying the area is clean and can once again be inhabited and used.
What will become of the old, nuke missile base, that sits like a ghost town off the side of a back country road?
The military has no further use for it, they said, but nor are their any plans for residential development, ala Love Canal, or to open a day care center.
And just when you thought the military had everything under control, and answered every question, an older man at the end of the table, sitting next to Col. Gina Grosso, Commander, 87 ABW/CC, Dr. William Walker of Wrightstown, asked about the pipes.
"What happened to the pipes?" he asked, and Dr. Rademacher looked at Mr. King Mak, Restoration Project Manager, who shrugged, and said, simply, "We don't know."
It was then explained that sometime between 1961 and 2000, when they began the remediation, the sewage pipe that ran from the drainage ditch under the highway, was removed and replaced, probably by the Ocean County Department of Public Works, but there is no record of when they removed it and what became of it.
And in the end, they still don't know what sparked the original explosion forty years ago, or if the ground water is contaminated, if the contimination has effected the local enviroment, or caused the white deer herd that lives in the area, and nor do they know what happened to the contimanted sewage pipe, hauled off somewhere in Ocean County, N.J.
Welcome to my neighborhood.
Link to McGuire Internet Site with Official Reports from 1970s to today.