WASHINGTON (CNN) — Government experts are investigating a claim that an unarmed nuclear bomb, lost off the Georgia coast at the height of the Cold War, might have been found, an Air Force spokesman said Monday.
The hydrogen bomb was lost in the Atlantic Ocean in 1958 following a collision of a B-47 bomber and an F-86 fighter.
A group led by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Derek Duke of Statesboro, Georgia, said in July that it had found a large object underwater near Savannah that was emitting high levels of radioactivity, according to an Associated Press report.
The group said it used radiation and metal detection equipment to search an area in Wassaw Sound off Tybee Island where the bomb reportedly was dropped, the AP reported.
Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Frank Smolinsky said Monday that it’s “only prudent to completely evaluate the evidence” from the group’s search.
Smolinsky said experts from the Air Force, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy were examining the information and may decide soon to conduct their own tests with more sophisticated equipment on the scene.
Smolinsky said if the bomb were found, a decision would have to be made about whether to try to recover it or leave it where it is.
An Air Force investigation concluded in 2001 that the bomb is probably harmless if left where it is. It also said a recovery operation could set off the conventional explosives in the bomb that would put the recovery crew at risk and do serious environmental damage.
The 7,600-pound, 12-foot-long thermonuclear bomb contained 400 pounds of high explosives as well as uranium.
The Air Force insists the bomb was being used for practice and did not contain the plutonium trigger needed for a nuclear explosion.
The accident took place the morning of February 5, 1958, over the coast of Georgia.
According to the 2001 Air Force investigation, a B-47 carrying a Mark 15, Mod 0, nuclear bomb on a simulated combat mission from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida collided with an F-86.
The pilot of the F-86 bailed out safely and his plane crashed. The B-47 was damaged but flyable.
The B-47 crew tried landing three times at Hunter Air Force Base in Georgia with the nuclear weapon onboard.
But because of the damage and the risk that the conventional explosives could be detonated, the crew was granted permission to jettison the nuclear bomb into the Atlantic Ocean off Savannah.
The bomb was dropped from an altitude of about 7,200 feet at an air speed of about 200 knots. The B-47 crew did not see an explosion when the bomb hit the ocean. The plane later landed safely at Hunter.
For the next nine weeks, the Air Force conducted a search of a 3-square-mile area in Wassaw Sound where the bomb was dropped. On April 16, 1958, the Air Force declared that the bomb was irretrievably lost.
Wassaw Sound was the site of the 1996 Summer Olympics yachting competition.
The Air Force investigation in 2001 estimated that the bomb landed nose first in the seabed and is now buried in 5 to 15 feet of mud.
For years the lost bomb story has prompted interest and stories in the area around Savannah.
The 2001 investigation was in response to a request in August 2000 by Republican Rep. Jack Kingston, who represents the Georgia coastal area in Congress, to reopen the case and determine if the lost bomb posed a threat.
The Air Force report, released in April 2001, said it “concurs with expert conclusions that it is in the best interest of the public and the environment to leave the bomb in its resting place and [that it] remain categorized as irretrievably lost.”
The report also estimated it would take as long as five years and cost $5 million to $11 million to recover the bomb.
The United States lost 11 nuclear bombs in accidents during the Cold War that were never recovered, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
An estimated 50 nuclear warheads, most of them from the former Soviet Union, still lie on the bottom of the world’s oceans, according to the environmental group Greenpeace.
One of the most celebrated accidents took place over Palomares, Spain, in January 1966 when a U.S. B-52 collided with a KC-135 tanker during midair refueling and released all four of its hydrogen bombs in the ensuing explosion. Seven of the 11 crewmen aboard both planes were killed.
The high explosive igniters on two bombs detonated on impact, spreading radioactive material, including plutonium, over a wide area of the Spanish countryside. A third bomb landed relatively intact and was recovered.
The fourth bomb landed in the Mediterranean Sea, and U.S. military searchers took nearly three months to find and recover the device intact.
According to the Brookings Institution, the United States spent $182 million on the recovery effort, nuclear waste disposal and settlement claims.