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Last Updated: Friday, 11 May 2007, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
Denmark challenged over B52 crash
By Stephen Mulvey
EU reporter, BBC News

"Let me take you back to an Arctic night in January 1968, still the era of the Cold War," a British MEP told the European Parliament this week, promising a tale comparable to an international thriller.

"An American B-52 bomber gets into trouble, the crew scramble to safety and the plane comes down in Greenland with an enormous amount of weapons-grade plutonium on board.

B52 over Vietnam
One crew member was killed in the crash, the rest survived
"Residents of Greenland working at the American base in Thule immediately set out across the ice with husky teams to get to the downed plane, the Americans desperate to get there before anyone else."

The Stratofortress disintegrated on impact with the sea ice a few miles from Thule, and parts of it began to melt through to the fjord below.

In the dark of the polar night, US specialists hurried to remove all traces of military technology, and - together with hundreds of local civilians - to remove the contaminated snow and ice.

One of the four nuclear bombs on board may still be lying on the sea bed.

Stomach cancer

The trigger for the re-telling of the story was a petition to the parliament from former clean-up worker Jeffrey Carswell, appealing for pressure on Denmark to start monitoring the health of those exposed to contamination.

The US workers involved have been regularly examined, but the Danes and Greenlanders have not, according to a report by Diana Wallis MEP, which the parliament approved on Friday by 544 votes to 29.

Map of Greenland
"Many Thule survivors have died of radiation-related illnesses due to the lack of medical monitoring, and current survivors risk contracting such fatal illnesses," says the accompanying resolution.

It calls on the Danish government to start health checks now.

Mr Carswell himself, who represents an association of former Thule workers, was diagnosed with stomach cancer in the 1980s, and has had eight major operations.

His attorney, Ian Anderson, said the importance of the Wallis report was that it demonstrated Denmark's obligation under EU treaties to monitor the Thule workers' health - even though the B52 crash occurred before Denmark joined the EU.

By the same token, it indicated that Britain was obliged to monitor the health of people exposed to fallout from its atmospheric nuclear tests, or to contamination from the fire at the Windscale plutonium plant in 1957, he said.

Court threat

It is now time Denmark started behaving responsibly
Former clean-up worker

One member of the Thule workers' association, who asked to remain anonymous, told BBC News the parliament had paved the way for him to take Denmark to the European Court of Justice.

"I am hoping that Denmark will now understand that the games it has been playing for far too long have now ended," he said. "It is now time it started behaving responsibly."

But Kaare Ulbak, chief consultant to the Danish National Institute of Radiation Hygiene, said Denmark had studied the health of Thule workers in detail, and found no evidence of increased mortality or cancer.

A search for plutonium in the urine of 115 workers thought likely to have been most exposed to contamination had found no trace, he said.

Danish denial

"That is a strong indicator for us that they did not receive any dangerous dose," he added.

Diana Wallis, however, says statistical studies are no substitute for "proper, clinical, medical monitoring" of the workers, whose clothes were sometimes so contaminated that they had to be destroyed.

Denmark did not co-operate with the parliament's petitions committee, and is still refusing to release key environmental radiation records made of Thule at the time.

The Danish government had always denied that nuclear-armed US planes were flying over Danish-controlled Greenland - until the crash occurred.

And according to Ms Wallis, it is still trying to brush a difficult issue under the carpet.


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