Valley City Times-Record
North Dakota’s (Almost) Chernobyl – 1980
Monday, April 26, 2021 will mark the 36th Anniversary of the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, which remains the worst disaster of its kind. Its impacts are still unfolding, and damages are far too great to comprehend. With the anniversary quickly approaching, the public reflects on Chernobyl. The events of Chernobyl were brought up in a 1988 hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, but he wasn’t talking about the significance of the 1986 disaster—he was comparing it to a nearmiss that occurred at Grand Forks Air force Base in 1980. September 15, 1980
Grand Forks Air Force Base
Four or five B-52 crews, along with their fuel tanker crews, were in a building positioned at the end of the runway, the alert quarters. The 50 airmen were pulling an alert, which meant they were prepared to run the short distance to their B-52 planes on the alert pad (which were loaded with nuclear weapons), run through their checklists and get off the ground in the event they needed to respond to a Soviet nuclear at
tack. Strategic Air Command (SAC) Air Force bases had personnel on constant alert during the Cold War, ready to respond to or initiate a nuclear strike.
For the crews on ground alert to maintain efficiency, Air Force bases like the one at Grand Forks would conduct emergency drills once every week. During the drill, the Klaxon would sound, crews on alert would run to their planes and receive messages from SAC headquarters, go through their checklists, do engine starts and sometimes taxi to the end of the runway before turning around and coming back to the alert pad. One of those drills happened around 9 p.m. on September 15, 1980, at Grand Forks AFB.
As the klaxon sounded, the B-52 and tanker crews on alert ran to their planes and began their operations. SAC headquarters would dictate coded “orders” for the B-52’s crew to interpret, and the plane’s engines would be started up one at a time. Inside the aircraft, unbeknownst to the crew, a fuel strainer was missing a nut about the size of a penny—someone had forgotten to screw it on when reassembling it. Though it was a small piece of machinery, it capable of causing really big problems.
Jeffrey A. Zink, a 25-year-old navigator on a B-52 crew at Grand Forks Air Force Base, was decoding the message coming from SAC headquarters in one of the B-52s on alert when his pilot’s voice came over the intercom. The pilot was repeating one word: “terminate.” In the moments that followed, there was a loud bang, and the lights in the B-52 went out. Zink and the rest of the crew evacuated. Once they stepped out onto the tarmac, they instinctively looked to see what the issue was. When they saw the right wing on fire, they turned and sprinted away from the plane.
Their reaction was to get as far away from the burning B-52 as they could, as quickly as they could. Why? The B-52, per ground alert procedure, was fully fueled. Fuel and flames were never a good thing, which had been proven time and again. In fact, a crew at another SAC base, Warner Robins AFB in Georgia, had recently experienced such a situation when a B-52 had exploded on the runway just minutes after catching fire. But the situation at Grand Forks that night had the potential to be worse: the exploding B-52 in Georgia had been serious, but that aircraft hadn’t been loaded with nuclear weapons at the time; the one burning at Grand Forks AFB was. In its bomb bay, the plane held eight Short Range Attack Missiles (SRAMs) and four Mark 28 bombs, the latter whose explosive power could range from 70 kilotons to 1,500 kilotons (1.5 megatons) each. For comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 16 kilotons, the one on Nagasaki 20 kilotons. So there was a lot of nuclear firepower in the bomb bays of the B-52 on fire in September 1980.
Though the plane’s power had been cut by the evacuating pilots and crew, gravity meant that jet fuel was still streaming into the fiery number 5 engine. The pilot and copilot checklist for fire emergencies had two important steps: pull the fire suppression handle for whichever engine was on fire, and then turn the emergency battery switch off to cut the power. Performed in that order, those steps would stop fuel from flowing into the engine and make it easier for the firefighters to put the blaze out. That night, the copilot admitted to personnel on site, he may have done the steps out of order, having switched the battery off before pulling the suppression handle. The fire suppression system was not functional without power, so the mixup meant that fuel could still flow freely into engine 5.
Firefighters fought the fire, but it was impossible to put it out or even control it. Twice, firemen attempted to get into the cockpit to redo the checklist steps in the proper order to stop the flow of fuel, but they’d been unsuccessful both times.
The only relatively “good” part of the situation was that the plane was parked facing southeast, and a gusty SE wind blew the flames away from the other fuel tanks in the plane’s wings and the bomb bay. Even so, as the fire burned, both the tanks and weapons were increasingly at risk.
SAC leaders and officials at Boeing, the B-52’s manufacturer, were on the phone with one another to try to determine the best course of action. Boeing recommended that the firefighters and personnel in the area abandon the site and just let the plane burn. It would keep firefighters from the dangers of a fuel tank explosion and the nuclear weapons the B-52 carried were supposed to be armed with safety mechanisms to prevent them from detonating in situations like that— SAC officials had repeated for decades. Still, SAC rejected Boeing’s recommendation for the fire at Grand Forks AFB for reasons they didn’t express. SAC wanted firefighters to make every effort to put out the fire.
It later came to light that researchers at Sandia National Laboratory had discovered a problem with the Mark 28 hydrogen bomb’s electrical system sometime before Sept. 15, 1980. One of its internal cables was positioned too close to the weapon’s “skin.” If exposed to prolonged heat, the cable’s insulation would degrade causing the wires inside to short circuit. The wires connected to the weapons ready/safe switch and the weapons battery of the Mark 28. In short, the cable issue meant the bomb was at risk for accidental detonation in a fire, which could cause a short circuit capable of 1) arming the bomb and 2) charging its thermal battery. Though the researchers pushed for immediate action to fix the problem, officials in Washington D.C. ordered another study to examine the problem, rather than address it.
SAC knew about the problem as the B-52 was burning on the tarmac at Grand Forks. That’s why they didn’t like Boeing’s “abandon ship” recommendation.
As midnight approached, the heat of the fire was causing the right wing and the bomb bay doors to blister. It wouldn’t take long for the fuel tank inside the wing to get hot enough to ignite and explode.
Tim Griffis, a civilian fire inspector on the Grand Forks AFB, had responded to the scene and as a last-ditch effort to put out the fire, he and Gene Rausch, another fire inspector, decided to attempt to engage the fire suppression one last time. Dressed in hooded firefighting suits, the two men climbed into the cockpit of the burning plane through its open hatch. One of them saw the fire suppression handle: it had been pulled, but the emergency battery, switched to off, was disabling it. The inspector switched the battery on and the fire went out, “like the burner of a gas cooktop that had just been turned off.”
The plane’s crew was taken to the hospital, adhering to incident protocol. Three of the firemen were treated and released, and two men—one crew member and one fireman—were hospitalized for “smoke inhalation and minor respiratory problems” (US Armed Services Center for Research of Unit Records, January 1997).
In the days after the fire, local newspapers hounded the Air Force to find out what had happened at the base, and though they informed the press and public about the B-52 fire, they wouldn’t confirm or deny if nuclear weapons had been aboard the plane. The excitement faded quickly, and the Air Force continued their investigation into the problem. Their “Mishap” report was finished on September 29, 1980, and stated the issue had been a missing nut in the fuel strainer. After that, the incident was largely forgotten.
Then in 1988, Dr. Roger Batzel testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense in closed session. Batzel, who was then the director of Livermore National Laboratory in California, spoke about what occurred—and what was avoided—at the Grand Forks AFB in September 1980. A redacted transcript of his testimony was later released to the public, and his words began to trickle into the mainstream media.
The Chicago Tribune published staff writer Reed Karaim’s article “Fire on Bomber in 1980 Posed Nuclear Risk,” which was based on Batzel’s testimony.
“Although a thermonuclear blast would not have occurred,” Karaim wrote, “the explosion would have blown the plutonium [in the devices] into microscopic bits and thrown it into the atmosphere to drift downwind.”
Such a release of plutonium, Batzel said, would have been disastrous.
“You are talking about something that in one respect could be probably worse than Chernobyl,” he testified.
The explosion of Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in Ukraine occurred two years before the hearing, on April 26, 1986. The radiation released in the blast killed at least 28 firefighters and plant operators and sent a cloud of radioactive material into the air and across the continent.
Had an explosion occurred, radioactive plutonium would have been blown over a 60-squaremile area of North Dakota and Minnesota. Many of the 75,000 people living within 20 miles of the base in 1980 could have been exposed to plutonium, which when breathed or ingested can lead to death, tissue damage or cancer, depending on the dosage.
In addition, the plutonium spread over and into the soil would have remained radioactive for tens of thousands of years. That’s the main reason the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station remains at the center of an exclusion zone.
What Batzel described would have been bad, but he was either unaware the incident could have been much worse or knew but failed to mention it. The explosion he was talking about was limited to the conventional explosives that acted as detonators for the nuclear cores of the bombs. But a full-scale thermonuclear that night was firmly in the realm of possibility. If one of the Mark 28 bombs had detonated, Eric Schlosser writes in his book Command & Control. “It would have destroyed Grand Forks and deposited lethal fallout on Duluth, Minnesota, or Minneapolis-Saint Paul, depending on the highaltitude winds.”
One of two main reasons a fuel tank explosion and/or nuclear detonation hadn’t occurred at the AFB in September 1980 was a factor of pure circumstance—you might call it luck: If the B-52 which had caught fire had been parked facing a different direction, Batzel testified, the strong winds would have blown the flames toward the fuel tanks and bomb bay instead of away from it.
The second main reason was the heroic actions of the firefighters and other personnel who risked their lives to extinguish the fire in three hours. Had it burned longer, the impacts of any kind of detonation or explosion would have impacted hundreds of thousands of people may have occurred. That night, while no one knew it, those men were risking their lives to save others’. Depending on where you were at the time, one of the lives saved might even have been yours.