9. Information Memorandum from the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (Leddy) to Secretary of State Rusk 1

SUBJECT

  • Background on B-52 Crash near Thule Air Force Base, Greenland

The following summary on aspects of the B-52 crash not directly related to the politico-military problem is presented for your information.

[Page 16]

Public Opinion—Public attitudes have not been a significant problem thus far. Excellent cooperation among Danish and American officials began at Thule AFB and is continuing. As a result, official statements by the Danes, and a joint statement at the end of the US/Danish scientific meetings on February 15-16 in Copenhagen2 have been very favorable to US interests. Emphasis on US/Danish cooperation and negation of the hazards to life in Northwest Greenland seem to have helped to minimize public reaction to the crash.

Contamination—The plutonium contamination in the area does not present a serious problem unless ingested or inhaled in large quantities. None of those working at the site have encountered serious contamination. The alpha particles do not penetrate through the skin, and no significant amount has been detected in the air.

The contamination has been relatively fixed in the ice and snow in the immediate area of the crash. A “gentlemen’s agreement” concluded on February 16 in Copenhagen provides that we will undertake to remove about 50 percent of the contaminated ice and snow.3 This is a massive undertaking, but we believe that General Hunziker can do the job.

Impact on Local Population—We do not yet know how many of the approximately 650 people in the Thule District were affected by the crash. They hunt seal, walrus, and small whale for a livelihood. The area of the crash, one of the best hunting grounds, is now a restricted zone. We expect that compensatory claims will be made, but the Danish Government has not yet done so.

Fisheries—Greenland’s economy is heavily dependent upon its fisheries (exports $9 million in 1965). The fisheries are located some 500 miles to the South of the crash area and should not be affected by contamination. Nevertheless, adverse psychological consumer reaction could become a problem.

Nuclear and Ecological Studies—Joint US/Danish scientific studies are underway and will be carried out at Thule for some time. We believe that this effort will help to reassure international opinion through careful precautionary monitoring. We anticipate that the results will confirm earlier conclusions that no real hazards exist. Nevertheless, we cannot discount the very minor possibility of isolated incidents of exposure to heavy contamination.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, DEF 17 US. Confidential. Drafted by Tucker (EUR/SCAN) and cleared by Fulton (G/PM).
  2. The scientists from Denmark and the United States met to discuss the issue of radioactive debris in the vicinity of the crash and, in their joint statement, “agreed that under present conditions the radioactivity spread in the area is not a hazard to people or biological species, nor is any hazard foreseen for the future.” (Telegram 3332 from Copenhagen, February 16; ibid.)
  3. The agreement was transmitted in telegram 3346 from Copenhagen, February 16. (Ibid.)