During the Cold War, the United States lost 11 nuclear bombs in accidents. But one of the bombs may have finally been located, thanks to the work of a retired officer.
The lost hydrogen bomb has been missing since 1958 when a B-47 bomber collided with another plane. The pilot of the other plane bailed out safely before his aircraft crashed. The crew of the B-47 tried landing its slightly damaged plane three times at nearby Hunter Air Force Base in Georgia, but finally jettisoned the bomb into the Atlantic Ocean to avoid the risk of a detonation upon landing.
The bomb was released 7,000 feet into the ocean off the coast of Savannah, Ga. After searching for nine weeks to no avail, the Air Force declared the 7,600-pound bomb "irretrievably lost."
But in 1998, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Derek Duke, made it his mission to find it.
After stumbling across some old news stories about the bomb, Duke and his partner began collecting information about the incident. He spoke with residents who lived in the area and to members of the team that had searched for the bomb. He also looked up the pilot of the B-47 to try to get more details on where the bomb may have been dropped.
They narrowed their search to the area around Wassaw Sound, which connects the mouth of the Wilmington River to the Atlantic Ocean. Then they began trolling the area in a boat and dragging a Geiger counter behind them. This July, they believe they finally found what they've been looking for.
Duke and his partner zeroed in on a spot off of Tybee Island where radiation readings were suspiciously high. The location was only a mile offshore and in only 12 feet of water. Duke said the radiation levels here were from seven to 10 times higher than normal. Incidentally, he said, the location was "right where the pilot said they dropped it."
"Amazingly, they never looked at this spot," he said Wednesday on ABC News' Good Morning America.
If the bomb were armed with a radiation trigger, the 12-foot-long thermonuclear device could explode with a power 100 times greater than the bomb that exploded in Hiroshima, Japan. A 2001 Air Force report further found the bomb, if detonated, could poison the drinking water supply for the entire southeast coast of the United States.
But the Air Force said the bomb was not armed and concluded that it presents no threat.
Duke also doubts the bomb would ever detonate — at least naturally. But he said there has been conflicting testimony about whether or not the bomb is equipped with a radiation trigger.
"I think the possibility it could ever go off is extremely remote," said Duke. "But there's a lot of controversy about the Air Force's statement. They have sworn testimony in Congress and in secret session that it was just the opposite."
Even though it appears the bomb may have been located, it's not clear what should be done. Removing a bomb that has been submerged in a muddy ocean bottom for 46 years presents some challenges.
"You certainly don't want to detonate it," said Duke. "But you try to protect it as you investigate it. We could even build a case around it and pump the water out and make it a dry land recovery."
In 2001, the Air Force concluded it was in the public's best interest to leave the bomb in its resting place. Duke, however, would like to see it removed.
"It just shouldn't be there," he said. "Nuclear weapons have their place in this world, unfortunately, but this one doesn't belong here."
Next week the government plans to send out a team of 15 people to the site to investigate.