Thule Affair
It was the Cold War and the United States was on guard against the Soviets. In an operation called Chrome Dome, American B-52 bombers patrolled the skies over North America 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The B-52's were fully stocked with nuclear weapons as they patrolled key points along the borders of the Soviet Union. Along their main route, and acting as a stop-off, was the Thule Air Base in Greenland, on the country's northwest side near the magnetic North Pole. That would be where the infamous, but rarely mentioned, Thule Affair would take place in 1968.

On January 21st, 1968, an American B-52 bomber crashed off the coast of the Thule Air Base. The plane crashed into an ice sheet in North Star Bay and the nuclear material on board ruptured after some of the plane's non-nuclear explosives detonated. Most of the plane's crew, except one, were able to eject safely. The nuclear material that leaked from the plane contaminated the entire area in and around Thule. A massive clean-up operation then ensued. However, that wouldn't be the end of what is known today as the Thule Affair.

Both the United States and Denmark initiated the clean-up efforts, but after all was said and done, the "secondary stage" of one of the nuclear weapons was never located. In the weeks following the clean-up, most of the people involved fell ill to radiation poisoning and were never compensated for their illnesses. Following the crash and clean-up, Chrome Dome  was discontinued and the Thule Affair wouldn't find its way back into headlines again until 1995.

Since the crash, government agencies from Denmark and the United States have conducted studies on the water and soil around Thule and North Star Bay every few years. Some studies have shown that uranium and plutonium are leaching from contaminated particles in the bay, but that much of the radiation in the area is of minimal risk to humans and animals. The really scary revelation is that much of the plutonium and nuclear waste is resting peacefully under the seabed in North Star Bay.

Scientific studies have shown that the nuclear material is hidden underneath layers of dirt beneath Bylot Sound (within North Star Bay). Due to the area's stable environmental conditions, much of the plutonium should stay safely buried until a significant environmental event unsettles it. Other nuclear materials besides plutonium and uranium were also dispersed into the environment, including tritium and americium. Three kinds of plutonium were dispersed into North Star Bay and one kind, plutonium-239, has a half life of 24,000 years.

Studies have revealed low levels of plutonium contamination on land and in water, but plutonium levels in the soil at the abandoned village of Narsaarsuk could become dangerous to humans if dust and dirt from the area are inhaled. Much of Narsaarsuk was abandoned after the crash at Thule Air Base and residents never became keen on returning. Studies have suggested that radiation levels were much higher in the weeks following the crash. Fishing and hunting were also banned in the areas around North Star Bay for years.

Luckily, due to its location, much of the radioactive material in North Star Bay is unable to reach any other coastlines, unlike the radiation from the Fukushima disaster in 2011, which has already reached Hawaii and the West coasts of North America.

The Thule Affair became a political scandal for Denmark in 1995 when a report revealed that Denmark officials had contravened the country's own "no nukes" policy of 1957 by granting the United States permission to arm B-52s with nukes and use Greenland for Chrome Dome. By 1995, a study also linked 450 deaths, out of 1,500 Danish workers involved with the clean-up efforts, to cancer. Before that, in 1986, a study recorded a 50% higher cancer rate among employees who worked in and around the Thule Air Base, compared to the general population.

Following a lawsuit against the United States by 200 workers in 1987, newly released documents revealed that none of the American clean-up workers were ever monitored or given clinical assessments following their efforts. All of their health concerns and illnesses were ignored by US military officials. Danish workers have made the same claims. In Denmark, up to 1,500 Danish workers were compensated with only $6,000 USD each in 1995. Since then, the Danish government has consistently rejected claims suggesting that the Thule radiation had any significant impact on the workers' health.

Many of the workers who were affected have taken their battle to European courts, only to be repeatedly defeated.

The Association Of Former Thule Workers is an advocacy group dedicated to securing compensation for the workers who have suffered. The head of the organization, Jens Zieglersen, has called Denmark's handling of the Thule Affair a cover-up.

"I think it's a cover-up," he told the BBC in 2008. "We are getting older and the Danish authorities and the Danish government will wait and keep their mouths sealed for another 15, 20 years. Then there is no one left who remembers and who was a part of the accident." Zieglersen and the workers have claimed that no evidence exists for their radiation illnesses because the Danish government refused to monitor their health following the incident.

Since 1968, both the Danish and US governments have been trying to pretend that the Thule Affair never happened, or that the massive nuclear contamination that resulted had no major environmental or health impacts whatsoever. If there is a cover-up as Zieglersen suggests, it has to do with covering up the incompetence of the officials at the time and avoiding any kind of adequate compensation. If the incompetence of officials in both governments were to fully absorb the spotlight, it would be revealed that neither government bothered to do adequate health assessments on the workers or the residents of Narsaarsuk and surrounding areas. Such a revelation could incur larger sums of compensation and reparation payments, not only to workers but to the Greenland natives who became ill and were forced to leave their homes.

As the remaining workers continue to age and suffer from permanent illnesses resulting from radiation, their window of opportunity shrinks. With every passing day and failed court case, the workers of Thule lose more hope for justice. When the last surviving worker dies with their illnesses and sacrifices unaddressed, both the Danish and US governments will be off the hook forever.
        June 2016 | Commodus

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