Accident could have eclipsed Chernobyl, expert says

1980 N.D.

August 13, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

WASHINGTON -- A stiff southwest wind blowing across the Dakota prairie nearly 11 years ago apparently saved the United States from a nuclear disaster that could have been "worse than Chernobyl."

Had the wind shifted, a fire that raged for three hours on a B-52 bomber at the Air Force base near Grand Forks, N.D., would have reached the plane's thermonuclear weapons and touched off the conventional explosives inside them.

The resulting blast would have blown particles of radioactive plutonium over a 60-square-mile area of North Dakota and Minnesota, said Dr. Roger Batzel, who was head of a weapons lab when he testified before a closed Senate hearing in 1988.

"If you breathe [plutonium] in, even the tiniest speck, you get cancer," Stan Norris, an analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said recently.

The Grand Forks fire on Sept. 15, 1980, received little public attention at the time. What happened has been obscured by secrecy until now.

"You are talking about something that in one respect could be probably worse than Chernobyl," Batzel said in 1988.

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