June 20, 2015

Biggs AFB Weapons Storage Area - Radiological Contamination Found (June/July 2013)

While researching what makes a Weapons Storage Area architecturally unique, I came across a news item about an earth covered magazine at Fort Bliss, at the Biggs Army Airfield (formerly Biggs Air Force Base), which was found to have low level radiological contamination.  From the official report, we know the radiation is Alpha and Beta particles, not Gamma (so it's not good, but it could be worse.)  

News articles from the US Army, Fort Bliss Bugle, CBS News, and RT.com all report about the same story, each with their own spin.  The media coverage missed some important questions.  Why was there radioactive paint on the floor, and why this hadn't this been noticed before?  Where else, nationally or internationally, could this have happened? 

"The Snake Pit" - Biggs Army Airfield

This is the report made by the Air Force after their inspection of the site. Please note that they wrote on page one they manage "numerous" similar sites, which is why they are sharing their experience, even though they have no authority of the US Army base.  "Numerous" makes sense to me, but they haven't disclosed that in any other document that I can find.  In fact, I can't find any evidence of more than Fort Bliss having nuclear contamination from legacy "open pit" weapons of the 1950s.

There's a lot in that letter to absorb, but with careful eye, a few bits of information can be teased out, such as; I can try and request, from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a list of what nuclear weapons were stored at Goose Air Base between 1950 and 1971.  The DTRA is the department with that sort of information; it's their job to know.  I'm not very confident that they will provide me with that information, but I can ask.  While I'd like the information myself, even if they deny me, I can pass on the location of the information to the appropriate people at CFB Goose Bay and DND for follow-up, if they're interested in pursuing it.

Circling back to my question, how did the floor paint get radioactive?  Here's how, with an explanation from the Stony Brook Weapons Storage Area

...At most of the Atomic Energy Commission storage sites, the nuclear capsules were stored in bank type vaults with two combination locks.  These vaults were located either in separate parts of the Plant or in special buildings in the Plant area.  In order to enter these storage areas, two persons had to be present at all times.  Personnel would remove the “bird cages” from their storage compartments in the "A" Structures and deliver them under tight security to the "C" Structure.   The "C" Structure on Stony Brook provided equipment and space to perform all required maintenance operations on the nuclear capsules used in the earlier nuclear weapons, such as the MK6, MK15, MK17, MK21 and MK36.  These early weapons also used polonium-beryllium initiators to generate neutrons during the implosion sequence. Polonium-210 has a half-life of approximately 138 days, so the initiators had to be replaced periodically.  These devices were maintained according to precise quality control methods. Between 1954 and 1957 the initiators were replaced with a newer type which were sealed and did not require routine replacement.
The nuclear capsule maintenance activities were then conducted in the “C” Structures on Stony Brook.  Before opening the bird cage, the specialists put on protective gear - a rubberized apron, respirator and latex gloves. The inspection and maintenance steps followed were:  
1.       The bird cage would be depressurized and the top removed.
2.       A handling tool was then screwed into the base of the capsule support.
3.       Capsule was removed from the bird cage and placed on a support ring.
4.       The capsule and support were visually inspected and cleaned using
             Kimwipes and trichlor.
5.       After the inspection and cleaning, the capsule was returned to the bird cage.
6.       A bag of dessicant was placed on top of the support, and the top was replaced.
7.       The bird cage was then pressurized, and re-sealed.

After the maintenance, cleaning and testing of the capsules was completed, the capsules would then be transported back to the "A" Structure. All personnel were checked for traces of radiation after this process had been completed.
Another aspect of the 332X0's duties and responsibilities involved dealing with "spalling".  As the nuclear capsules aged and went through temperature cycles, they would begin to "spall".  Spalling was a physical reaction that resulted in small particles popping off the surface of the capsule, sometimes as far as two feet.  If the capsule was spalling, a transparent plastic covering with two hand holds was placed over it.  Even with this precaution, radioactive particles would end up on the table or floor.  The cleanup of these particles was accomplished by wiping the area, or sometimes even painting the affected area.
By the late 1950s, most of the capsules were enclosed in a cadmium "can", and therefore did not require a complete inspection, just verification of the pressurization within the bird cage.
By about 1960, the nuclear capsules had been phased out of the stockpile and the requirement for maintenance activities at the "C" Structure was terminated.  This phase-out was occasioned by the increased stockpiling of the sealed-pit thermonuclear weapons, such as the MK28, the MK15 Mod 2, and others.
Inspection and cleaning of the "pit" areas of the weapons were done in the Mechanical Bay (M-Bay) using latex gloves, a flashlight, a mirror, Kimwipes and trichlor.  A visual inspection was conducted first with the flashlight and mirror by looking through the IFI (In-flight Insertion) tube.  The pit was then wiped down with Kimwipes and trichlor.  The most difficult part of this procedure was trying to reach the back part of the pit.  With the MK6, the entire arm of the specialist was inside the pit, and the specialist's head was pressed against the High Explosive (HE) sphere and a detonator.  In the MK15, MK17, MK21 and MK36, it was necessary to reach through the IFI tube and clean the back of the pit using a toilet brush wrapped with a Kimwipe.
While the precise dates vary regarding when and what types of nuclear weapons would have been stored and maintained at each Weapons Storage Areas around the globe, the procedures being performed on those nuclear weapons would have been the same for any weapon of the "open pit" type.  In the case of the Biggs AFB WSA, according to the July 2013 report, between 1955 and 1959 open pit nuclear bombs were stored and maintained there, and other nuclear weapons continued to be stored there until 1966.  It's quite possible some of those weapons would have used polonium-beryllium initiators discussed in the Sandy Brook WSA write up above; with a halflife of 138 days (under four months), the maintenance on the open pit bombs must have been taking place every few months on a rotating schedule.  I don't know how many detonators would have been stored in their C Structures at Biggs, but if we grab a round number of 100, every 3 months, for 4 years... that's 1600 cleanings of the pit, and a lot of contaminated Kimwipes buried in the back yard.

My point is, the radioactive contamination that was "discovered" at Biggs in 2013 is a result of standard operating procedures in handling and maintaining the nuclear weapons of the 1950s that the DoD doesn't discuss.  It was not contamination from an "accident" that was a one-off.  I suspect that the Florida veteran who brought up the issue didn't do so quietly, and the US Army was forced to talk about nuclear weapons that existed there, or did so accidentally before talking to another department.  I'm going to further speculate that not only is this not a surprise to the DoD, it's likely known at a Secret or above level commonly, in the right circles.  The ramification of this information getting out is that world governments will know everywhere there was a US Strategic Air Command base in the 1950s, there were nuclear weapons (regardless if the host country allowed them), and every base  that had nuclear weapons with open pits (all of them in the 1950s), was left with painted over radioactive dust in concrete igloos that to this day emit Alpha particles and Beta particles.  Also, the report above shows the Alpha particles are stopped by the paint, but, the Beta radiation goes right through the paint, losing only a little power.

Didn't the United States Strategic Air Command build a Weapons Storage Area at Goose Air Base around the same time?

Why yes, yes they did.

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