Sunday, January 1, 2017

The day the USA dropped four hydrogen bombs on Spain

In 1966 B52 bombers, with a nuclear payload, were always in the air. They left the United States and flew towards the Soviet Union. The idea was that, should the Cold War suddenly become hot, the aeroplanes were already on their way. It was a routine procedure but on January 16th 1966 a B52 Stratofortress heading home after turning around over the Adriatic crashed, whilst involved in its third mid air refuelling operation, over Spain. The tanker aircraft exploded, killing all its crew, whilst the B52 crashed to the ground close to Palomares in Almeria killing several of its crew and injuring others. People on the ground had to dodge falling bits of the huge US aeroplanes.

The B52 was carrying four hydrogen bombs each one a hundred times more powerful than the bomb which obliterated Hiroshima. One bomb fell into the sea but the three others fell on dry land. Two of the bombs onshore exploded but, because the parachutes on the bombs failed to deploy, they had buried themselves into the ground which meant that the force of the explosion, and the amount of radioactive material kicked out, was cushioned by earth. Fortunately the bombs had not been armed so the explosion was not thermonuclear, if it had been Palomares would have been vaporised and large parts of Almeria and Murcia turned into a nuclear wasteland. Conventional explosive serves as a detonator to kick start the nuclear fission in hydrogen bombs and it was that which went off. The result was that the bombs showered some 250 hectares of Almeria with highly radioactive plutonium 239 and other radioactive isotopes.

A disaster control team was sent from the US base at Torrejon. Three of the bombs were quickly located and removed but it took over thirty American ships eighty days to find the fourth bomb which was deep in the Mediterranean. The intact bomb was finally recovered in April.

The whole affair was handled ineptly. At first both governments denied that nuclear weapons were involved, then the story changed, maybe it was nuclear, and finally the truth. Both governments denied that the residents of Palomares had been affected. They said that the amounts of plutonium breathed in were so minute that no special measures were needed. They did admit that the ground had been contaminated with nuclear particles though they played down the levels. The US removed 5,000 barrels of earth and transported it to be buried in South Carolina. They were assisted by Guardia Civil who were not equipped with hazard suits as part of the campaign to prove that all was fine and dandy. Local villagers mistrusted the official story and there is anecdotal evidence that many died of cancers though the Francoist regime suppressed, and later destroyed, contemporary medical records. Amidst fears of the contamination, the tourism Minister of the time, Manuel Fraga Iribame, took a dip, accompanied by the US Ambassador, in the sea off Palomares to prove just how safe it was.

After democracy was re-established in Spain the Palomares Incident became a bone of contention between Spanish and US Governments. In 2008 the Spanish Nuclear Authority confirmed that 4 hectares of land was still contaminated and finally, at the end of 2015, or nearly fifty years after the incident, the American Secretary of State signed a deal for a clean up project to start soon, probably this year.

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