A crippled B-47 bomber dumped the H-bomb into the Atlantic Ocean 46 years ago after the plane collided with a fighter jet during a training flight. Navy divers searched the shallow, murky waters near Tybee Island for nearly 10 weeks before declaring the bomb irretrievably lost.
Derek Duke, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who has been looking for the 7,600-pound bomb for five years, claimed recently that he found a football field-size area off the coast with higher-than-normal radiation levels. He suspects it marks the burial spot of the lost Mark-15 bomb.
The scientists from the Pentagon and the National Labs met with Duke on Wednesday and plan to examine the area on Thursday.
"Our goal is to survey this area that Mr. Duke has found and make a determination on what that source of radiation is," said Billy Mullins, a government nuclear weapons expert leading the investigation. "If we determine it is the Mark-15, we will have to determine what is the best course of action for that."
He declined to comment about what the government's options would be — from removing the bomb to leaving it alone — if his team locates it.
The investigators plan to take a boat into Wassaw Sound with an array of sophisticated equipment to measure radiation and take soil and water samples.
"If it's not there, then I'll have to end up siding with the Air Force — it may be irretrievably lost," Duke said. "We'd all like to see this weapon recovered ... if it can be done safely."
The bomb, believed buried in 10 to 15 feet of mud at the bottom of the sea, became one of 11 "Broken Arrows" — nuclear bombs lost during air or sea accidents, according to U.S. military records.
The Air Force has long insisted that there is no risk of a nuclear blast from the Georgia bomb because the plutonium capsule needed to trigger one was removed before the ill-fated flight.
"This bomb was not capable of causing a nuclear explosion in 1958 and it is not capable of an explosion today," said Lt. Col. Frank Smolinsky, an Air Force spokesman.
Duke, who lives in Statesboro, has disputed that point over the years, citing a Pentagon memo from 1966 that referred to the bomb as a "complete weapon." The Air Force has said that memo was wrong.
Duke approached Air Force officials more than three years ago, but they decided at the time not to renew the search for the bomb. The Air Force argued that it was better left undisturbed, because it contains uranium and 400 pounds of conventional explosives.