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A recent AP investigation uncovered the presence of toxins in nuclear missile capsules.
Science & Health

A recent AP investigation uncovered the presence of toxins in nuclear missile capsules.

A sizable amount of murky liquid accumulating on the ground. Stale atmosphere. Monitors that could become too hot and release a pungent gel, making the team feel sick. Levels of asbestos that surpass the safety regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency by 50 times.

Since the 1960s, Air Force nuclear missile crews have been exposed to toxic risks while working in underground capsules and silos. As a result, numerous service members are now battling cancer.

Hundreds of pages of documents from the 1980s that were obtained by The Associated Press through Freedom of Information Act requests reveal the presence of toxins. This information contradicts what the Air Force told the nuclear missile community years ago, when initial reports of cancer among service members emerged.

An Air Force investigation on Dec. 30, 2001, determined that the workplace is devoid of any potential health hazards.

A 2005 Air Force review concluded that illnesses can sometimes arise randomly.

The capsules are once again being closely examined.

In January, the Associated Press released a report stating that nine individuals who were either currently or previously nuclear missile officers, also known as missileers, had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Following this, hundreds more came forward to report their own cancer diagnoses. As a result, the Air Force conducted a thorough review and tested numerous samples of air, water, soil, and surfaces from all facilities where these service members were stationed. So far, four samples have shown high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a known cancer-causing substance commonly used in electrical wiring.

By the beginning of 2024, there will be additional information available and the Air Force is currently in the process of determining the exact number of cancer cases among active or retired members of the missile community.

Several missile operators who spoke to the AP expressed unease about the latest findings, but trust that the Air Force is being forthcoming in its efforts to identify and remove harmful substances. Like their predecessors, many of these operators follow traditional safety measures, including wearing “capsule clothes” – civilian clothing that they change into upon entering the capsule for their 24-hour shift. The clothes are promptly laundered after each shift due to a tendency to absorb metallic odors.

“When the word ‘cancer’ is mentioned, it can be a cause for concern,” stated 23-year-old Lieutenant Joy Hawkins, who serves as a missileer at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. Lieutenant Hawkins, along with her colleague Lieutenant Samantha McGlinchey, shared their thoughts with a visiting AP reporter after completing an underground shift at launch control capsule Charlie. Both women acknowledged the need for regular medical checkups due to the recent news. “There will be additional testing and cleanup efforts,” explained Lieutenant McGlinchey, age 28. “As young professionals, it’s important to catch any issues early on.”

Some people are concerned that the risks will once again be downplayed.

After the most recent tests were published, the Air Force failed to disclose that some samples had significantly higher levels of PCB contamination than what is considered acceptable by EPA standards. Steven Mayne, a former supervisor at Minot Air Force Base and current administrator of a Facebook group focused on Air Force updates and internal communications, stated that several other tested areas were just under the EPA’s allowed limit.

Mayne stated that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and senators from North Dakota and Montana should investigate this issue.

In December of 2022, Jackie Perdue and Monte Watts, former missile operators at Malmstrom, requested the Defense Department’s inspector general to look into their cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“I have reason to believe that health and safety regulations were not followed or taken into consideration, and I believe an investigation should be conducted,” stated Perdue in a complaint to the inspector general. Perdue was previously a nuclear missile combat crew commander at Malmstrom from 1999 to 2006. The AP obtained a copy of the complaint.

This image provided by the U.S. Air Force shows the original underground launch capsules where missileers still spend 24 to 48 hours sitting alert duty.

The U.S. Air Force has shared an image of the initial subterranean launch capsules where missileers continue to fulfill their 24 to 48 hour alert duties.

Past exposures

At present, there are three nuclear missile bases located in the United States: F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, Minot and Malmstrom. These bases contain 15 underground launch control capsules each, which serve as central points for 10 silos holding Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles. The capsules are staffed continuously, every day of the year, and missileers work shifts of 24 hours or longer, stationed underground in the capsules to oversee the ICBMs and prepare them for launch if instructed by the president.

The Air Force recognizes that the current investigation may not be able to fully determine the extent of exposure of former missile officers, but the information gathered will create a health profile that can assist them in applying for benefits for veterans.

Nevertheless, the AP has acquired documents containing numerous indications of previous hazardous dangers.

“Please contact immediately for information on the type and content of asbestos,” states a handwritten memo dated November 9, 1992. Although all names have been redacted in the documents received by the AP, the sense of urgency is clear. The handwritten note emphasizes this urgency by writing “PRIORITY” in all capital letters.

The environmental team at Malmstrom’s Hotel and Juliet discovered concerning levels of asbestos beneath a generator in the equipment rooms. These rooms are located underground and are sealed off. The EPA’s safety standard for asbestos exposure is 1% during an eight-hour workday, but workers at this site were often confined for 24 hours or more. In extreme cases, they could be stuck underground for up to 72 hours if the weather prevented the replacement crew from arriving. Samples taken at Hotel and Juliet showed high levels of chrysotile asbestos, a type that can be inhaled, ranging from 15% to 30%.

The official report, published only a week later, minimized the risks.

“Asbestos presents a health hazard only when it is crushed (able to be crushed or pulverized by hand pressure.) All suspect (asbestos) was found to be in good condition,” the annual review on Hotel said.

In 1989, at Quebec-12 missile silo, high levels of amosite asbestos (a type of brown asbestos commonly used in cement and insulation) were discovered. The team examining the Malmstrom Bravo capsule also raised concerns about potential danger, noting that even if left undisturbed, the presence of asbestos in the diesel room could pose a risk due to leaks.

According to his report to the inspector general, ex-Malmstrom missileer Watts claimed that the floor tiles contained asbestos and that the missileers were regularly responsible for removing, handling, and replacing them as part of mandatory survival equipment checks.

The records also disclose numerous incidents of PCB spills over several decades. In a report from 1987, a missile operator contacted their superior to report experiencing a severe headache and feeling lightheaded. Upon investigation, the crew discovered a clear, sticky liquid leaking from under the power panel of the capsule. A bioenvironmental engineer documented suggesting that the blast door be opened for better ventilation and for the team to avoid contact with the substance. It was determined that simply opening the blast door and staying away from the spill was sufficient, and there was no need to close the capsule.

Doreen Jenness, whose husband Jason Jenness was a Malmstrom missileer who passed away from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2001 at 31 years old, expresses frustration and anger at the fact that this issue was already known back then. She finds it frustrating and upsetting that the military continues to deny any findings, despite evidence dating back to the early 2000s.

Capsule Sierra

Doreen and Jason Jenness first crossed paths when he was stationed at Malmstrom. They tied the knot and resided on the base during the mid-1990s. Their fellow missileer companions would playfully mock them for owning a golden Labrador named Sierra, which also happened to be the name of one of the capsules in Jason’s squadron.

According to the environmental reports from Malmstrom during Jason’s assignment, Sierra was found to have a significant number of hazards. In 1996, a medical team reported that there was an excess of 25 gallons of fluid on Sierra’s capsule floor, which was contaminated with biological growth. The team also observed that an intake, which collected outside air for Sierra, was located near the parking lot and that a running car was idling near it for 20 minutes. Furthermore, the team noted that the fan responsible for bringing clean air into Sierra had been broken for at least six months, leaving the crew with no option but to leave the steel vault door open for fresh air.

The team reported that the air quality in the other capsules was “subpar, but not likely to result in severe health issues.” Sierra was deemed hazardous. In March of 1996, the medical team recorded a carbon dioxide level of 1,700 parts per million in the air. “At this concentration, it is probable that most of the occupants will experience symptoms such as headaches, drowsiness, fatigue, and/or difficulty concentrating. It is recommended to remove workers from this environment.”

There were no alterations. During May, the medical team once again documented exposure levels of 1,800 ppm and reiterated their recommendation to remove the missileers.

Portions of Air Force Capt. Jason Jenness' uniform are displayed on a table during an interview with the Associated Press in Missoula, Mont., on Aug., 26, 2023.

During an interview with the Associated Press on August 26, 2023, portions of the uniform belonging to Air Force Captain Jason Jenness were showcased on a table in Missoula, Montana.

Leaking computer consoles

In the mid-1990s, a replacement for the missile targeting system was necessary. Each capsule underwent a renovation to install a large computer console known as REACT, which stood for Rapid Execution and Combat Targeting System. This upgraded system would enable the United States to quickly reprogram and redirect its nuclear missiles in the event of a war. The old computer was demolished and construction of REACT was initiated in each of the 15 Malmstrom capsules.

The workers operating the missiles are concerned that the REACT refurbishment may have caused more disturbance to the asbestos and PCBs that were present in the capsules. However, upon installation, the new console also exposed them to a different harmful substance.

According to a report from May 1995 about an incident at Malmstrom’s Bravo capsule, crew members experienced a problem with the video display. This issue was identified by a clicking noise and the display subsequently shutting down, leaving only a white line visible to the crew.

A transparent liquid started to seep out, accompanied by a strong smell resembling fish and ammonia. The crew members started to experience headaches and nausea, and the capsule was evacuated two hours later.

Malmstrom’s team learned that the liquid was dimethylformamide, an electrolyte used in REACT’s video display unit capacitors, because F.E. Warren, the Wyoming base, had recently reported similar leaks.

In 1996, a memo discovered after a second dimethylformamide leak at Bravo stated that the capacitors become overheated and release into the capsule instead of experiencing a catastrophic failure. As of now, there is no knowledge of the amount of this substance in the capsules or the potential risk it poses to missile crews and maintenance personnel who may encounter it.

There is conflicting evidence in medical research about the potential connection between dimethylformamide and cancer, specifically liver cancer. While some studies suggest a definite link, others suggest that further investigation is necessary.

Changes coming

In a few years, all of the capsules will be shut down due to the introduction of the military’s new ICBM, the Sentinel. To modernize, the old capsules will be destroyed and a new, advanced underground control center will be constructed on the same site. Maj. Gen. John Newberry, commander of the Air Force’s nuclear weapons center, stated that the teams designing the new center are aware of the previous reports of cancer and are implementing current environmental health standards, which were not in place when the Minuteman capsules were initially built.

Newberry stated that we are actively gaining knowledge and comprehending the situation involving Minuteman III. If there is anything that needs to be addressed from the perspective of Sentinel, we will investigate it.

According to Doreen Jenness, the Air Force must be transparent with its missileers now, as the old capsules will continue to be utilized until the new ones are implemented.

Due to their youth, both she and Jason did not suspect cancer when he began to experience fatigue in the autumn of 2000. They also did not consider it when his hip started to feel sore in December.

In February 2001, he eventually sought medical help and was immediately hospitalized. By March, it was clear to Jason and Doreen that his lymphoma was incurable. He passed away in July.

Doreen Jenness stated that it is challenging to acknowledge and address an issue. It becomes even more difficult to take action. After 23 years since Jason’s passing, there are now many young individuals facing the same struggles we experienced. They must endure similar experiences and potentially have a future similar to mine, which is disheartening.