The Palomares Atomic Bomb Disaster
In the event of a nuclear war between NATO and Russia, one of the Russian missiles would be directed at the Rota military naval base in Cádiz, as it is a permanent NATO base.
In Spain, this situation brings to mind one of the atomic accidents that could have meant one of the biggest nuclear catastrophes since Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the bombings in Palomares, Almería.
Despite the fact that Spanish soil does not have nuclear weapons storage, it has suffered the effects of the radioactivity typical of these war devices. In Palomares, people live with the largest artificial radioactivity field in the world.
The Palomares atomic bomb disaster of 1966 was a major nuclear accident that occurred in the small agricultural and fishing town of Palomares, located in the Southeastern region of Spain known as Almería.
The event involved the accidental release of nuclear material from a B-52 bomber that collided in mid-air with a KC-135 tanker during an in-flight refuelling operation.
The accident caused widespread concern about the safety of nuclear weapons and their transportation, as well as the potential risks associated with the use of nuclear energy.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a nuclear arms race. The United States had developed a large arsenal of nuclear weapons and was constantly testing them. One of the testing grounds for nuclear weapons was the Nevada Test Site, located in the desert of Nevada. The testing of nuclear weapons was necessary to ensure that they were functioning correctly and to evaluate their effectiveness. The United States also had a large fleet of B-52 bombers that were capable of carrying nuclear weapons. These bombers were stationed at various airbases around the world and were ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.
In addition to the B-52 bombers, the United States also had a fleet of KC-135 tankers. These tankers were used to refuel the B-52 bombers during long-range missions. The tankers would fly alongside the bombers and transfer fuel through a long hose that would extend from the tanker to the bomber. This in-flight refuelling allowed the bombers to travel long distances without having to land and refuel.
During those years, before 1966, the Strategic Air Command of the United States Air Force had been constantly flying bombers to the areas located on the edge of the Iron Curtain within ‘Operation Chrome Dome‘. The idea was to have American nuclear bombers in the air virtually constantly so that in the case of a Soviet attack on American nuclear sites, the U.S. could still respond.
In the midst of the Cold War, Spain, under the leadership of Dictator Francisco Franco, had ceded the airspace to US military planes and, as a consequence, a disaster occurred on January 17, 1966. Two planes collided, two of them with four thermonuclear bombs. Three fell on land and one into the sea, causing the radioactive elements of two of them to spread throughout the municipality.
The Palomares B-52 Crash
On January 17, 1966, at around 9,300 meters of altitude, an American B-52 strategic bomber collided in flight at 400 kilometres per hour with the KC-135 type mother plane that supplied it with fuel, over the town of Palomares. At least a dozen B-52s were patrolling the skies over the European Atlantic that day. Each of these aircraft carried an active load of hydrogen bombs located in its belly.
This manoeuvre was necessary for the context of the Cold War to maintain the mutually assured destruction (MAD) capability. These planes remained flying uninterruptedly to be able to respond to a hypothetical pre-emptive attack by the USSR with enough nuclear bombardment to destroy the country. In this way, a deterrent capacity was maintained. It can therefore be said that the contamination of Palomares is a residue of the Cold War.
At around 10:20 a.m. that day, a B-52 commanded by Captain Charles Wendorf was flying over the Soviet-Turkish border, and sought an air resupply over the southern coast of Spain, in the Mediterranean.
The co-pilot, Major Larry Messinger, was at the controls as the bomber manoeuvred under a KC-135 Stratotanker resupply. The B-52 went in too hard and collided with the KC-135 causing a huge explosion. The refuelling operation was routine and had been completed successfully many times before.
Both Commander Messinger and Major Wendorf, along with two other men, managed to parachute out before the explosion, but three other crew members were killed. The four KC-135 airmen also died after their aircraft caught fire.
The B-52 plane carried four thermonuclear bombs of 1.1 to 1.5 megatons each (a destructive power equivalent to about 70 times that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
These bombs fell to the ground unarmed, so there was no nuclear explosion, fortunately. But the conventional high explosives on two of the bombs did detonate, essentially turning those weapons into dirty bombs that blasted plutonium radiation across the countryside.
That day was coined then as the day “the hand of God protected Palomares“. If the payloads had exploded, most of South Spain would have been oblitarated.
Washington activated all its protocols in the event of a nuclear accident and pledged to bear any responsibility for the consequences of the disaster, according to declassified documents. The reality was not as ideal as it appeared on paper. In El Pardo, Franco was stunned by the news. A highly secretive search for the four atomic bombs was launched.
The Payload and Clean-up
One of the bombs fell into the sea, some 8 kilometres from the coast, another saw its fall stopped by the parachute, but the other two hit the ground. After the impact, its conventional explosive exploded, scattering the plutonium it contained on the ground in the form of an aerosol, which also ended up settling on the ground, even far from the impact zones.
Within hours of search, the Spanish and American military officials who raced to the scene found the first bomb, which had landed totally intact thanks to the parachute just off the beach. There was no explosion and no radiation had leaked from this one.
The second bomb was found the next morning but it had been “substantially damaged upon impact” and some of the weapon’s high explosives had detonated. The primary concern with bomb Number 2 was the plutonium contamination that must have been released by the high explosive detonation. Radiation detection equipment indicated the presence of significant alpha contamination in the area. However, The US military was more concerned with recovering the bombs intact than with decontamination. The third bomb was luckily found an hour later. It had suffered a similar fate as the second bomb.
Soldiers and volunteers spent their time walking at arms-length from each other in straight lines, scouring the arid Spanish countryside looking for the fourth bomb as American officials quickly grew anxious. Soon, it became clear that the bomb had not fallen on land, but had splashed down somewhere in the Mediterranean.
1,600 US Army soldiers landed in Palomares to dispose of the radioactive material scattered by two of the bombs, before the astonished gaze of the locals of that district of just over 1,000 inhabitants, with hardly any electricity or running water.
The contaminated land was about 50,000 square meters. The incident severely damaged the Spanish-American relations, with Anti-American sentiment growing within the Spanish population. The Spanish authorities ruled out evacuating the town, as it would damage the image of a country that lives on tourism.
In the decontamination operations, the US military took 1,500 tons of soil, which was shipped and deposited in Aiken, in Southern Carolina. The decontamination was not complete, far from it. There were at least two trenches where they deposited contaminated materials that were left in Palomares.
There is a rumour in the area that there is a third burial somewhere nearby. The North American authorities issued documents for the neighbours to sign, stating that they renounce any compensation claims. Though the United States claims to have provided approximately $250,000 in technical equipment and $25,000 a year in operating funds.
The Spanish Nuclear Energy Board placed radioactivity meters and signed a contract with the US to monitor the contamination and its effects: it was known as Project Indalo, which continued until 2009 and whose results were kept secret.
The search for the bomb dropped in the sea involved some 12,000 men for almost three months. They finally found the bomb 80 days later in the Mediterranean Sea, thanks to the help of one Francisco Simó, now known as “Paco el de la Bomba,” a resident from a nearby town who had seen it fall into the sea.
The Spanish Government
Despite early public reports that no nuclear devices had been lost, the US government and the regime of dictator Francisco Franco remained adamant about the search operations.
Finally, on March 2, 1966, without any sign of the missing bomb, the United States admitted to the world that it was looking for a hydrogen weapon in Spain. Franco’s authorities vehemently denied Soviet claims that the missing weapon threatened to pollute the sea.
The problems that exist in the area today had already been detected in 1966 when the Spanish and the Americans agreed on the levels of cleanliness of radioactive elements.
In the zones known as two and three, they found decontamination problems and left them uncleaned. At the same time, they handed out certificates to landowners assuring them that they had been fully decontaminated and were safe.
In 1985, the Mayor of Palomares asked that the locals receive the reports of the medical examinations that they had been undergoing (because they examined them but did not give them the results).
The authorities replied that everything was in order and that there is no danger of radioactivity for the local population.
However, at the same time, Spanish scientists at international conferences demonstrated and tested the resuspension of plutonium. Radioactive material was returning to the atmosphere. According to the Spanish scientists themselves abroad, at least one hundred residents of Palomares had tested positive for radioactive contamination.
There appears to be no compensation for the inhabitants of Palomares. It appears that there has been an effort of the Spanish Government to compensate the neighbours for their expropriated land, but when looking into data to evaluate the compensations, the data is missing and the Spanish authorities refuse to speak about it.
Manuel Fraga’s Swim
First, Muñoz Grandes, chief of the General Staff, orders complete censorship. The crisis drags on, the Americans want to avoid rumours and force a change of attitude.
It was then that the ambassador’s wife for the US, who had been in public relations for Pepsi, suggested the swimming gesture. Manuel Fraga, then a young politician with a promising career and Minister of Propaganda (officially Minister of Information and tourism), accepted the idea and thus, the legend began.
They must have known that the dangerous thing was not to bathe in the sea, which was not polluted then, but to wallow in the sand of Palomares. The Franco regime took advantage of the folkloric note of Fraga and ‘Paco el de la Bomba’ to wrap up in a smoke screen the problems that the event entailed for the population and the environment: the population was not evacuated or notified of the danger despite the radioactivity, they were not compensated or instructed on how they should behave in the future.
Nobody is exactly sure as to where the famous swim occurred. The US ambassador, Angier Biddle Duke arrived first at the hostel area and, since Fraga did not appear, he bathed.
He then came out, changed clothes and then they told him that Fraga was further along. He went there, but he no longer had a bathing suit and had to ask an American Seal diver for one. Fraga ordered everyone to smile despite the cold weather. They swam. They came out again.
Fraga orders everyone to smile despite the cold weather. They bathed. They go out. And then the Lieutenant General of the Air Zone of the strait arrives, Antonio Llop Lamarca, and they have to bathe again for a third time.
One week after the photographic trick, Manuel Fraga bathed on a beach other than Palomares to show the world that there was no danger.
The Alvin submarine finally located the fourth bomb several meters deep. Getting it back was a difficult task. A cable snapped during an attempt to remove it on March 26, and the bomb was lost as a result. It was on April 2 when the Alvin found her for the second time and was able to get hold of her.
From that moment until 2004, the successive Spanish governments did nothing to decontaminate the area, more concerned about not disturbing the American friend than about the health of the inhabitants of Palomares and its development.
Decades later, sickness is rampant among the airmen and cleanup crew of the thermonuclear bombs of Palomares. It was one of the biggest nuclear accidents in history, and the United States wanted it cleaned up quickly and quietly.
There was no talk about radiation or plutonium or anything else. The men were told it was safe and not to worry about it.
The radiation close to the bombs was so intense that it caused the military’s monitoring equipment to malfunction. For months, personnel spent time shovelling toxic dust while wearing only cotton fatigues as protection. When tests taken during the cleanup indicated that the men had dangerously high plutonium contamination, the Air Force dismissed the results, referring to them as “unrealistic.”
For decades, the Air Force has refused to release the test results of radiation exposure to the men involved in the cleanup. Despite calls from one of the Air Force’s own studies to re-test the veterans, the results remain undisclosed.
Reports of illness, cancer and death among the men have been shared anecdotally, but no formal mortality study has been conducted to determine if there was an elevated risk of disease. Of 40 veterans who helped with the cleanup, 21 had cancer. Nine had died from it.
The Air Force has maintained that no damage was inflicted upon the 500 veterans who were responsible for cleaning up a similar crash in Thule, Greenland in 1968. These veterans attempted to take legal action against the Defence Department in 1995, yet their case was rejected due to federal protection for military members against negligence claims. Sadly, all of the plaintiffs named in the case have since passed away from cancer.
In October 2015, John Kerry, the Secretary of State, and Spain signed a “statement of intent” to begin negotiating a plan to complete the 50-year-old clean-up as soon as possible.
Little has been done since then. And as of 2003, there are renewed calls for US to remove soil from nuclear accident site
The Palomares atomic bomb disaster had significant consequences both for the local population and the international community. The incident caused widespread fear and panic among the local population.
Many residents of Palomares suffered from radiation exposure. The accident also had a significant impact on the local agriculture, as many of the crops were contaminated with radioactive material. The incident caused long-term health problems for many of the residents of Palomares, including an increased risk of cancer.
The B-52 crash also had significant political consequences. The Spanish government was outraged by the incident and demanded an explanation from the United States. The incident strained the relationship between the two countries and caused widespread anti-American sentiment in Spain.
The incident also raised concerns about the safety of nuclear weapons and their transportation, as well as the potential risks associated with the potential use of nuclear energy. The incident fueled international debates on nuclear safety and the need for international regulations on nuclear energy and weapons.
In response to the incident, the United States launched a massive cleanup effort in Palomares. The U.S. Air Force and other agencies were involved in the cleanup operation, which lasted for several years. The cleanup effort involved the removal of contaminated soil, the decontamination of buildings and infrastructure, and the relocation of some affected residents. The U.S. also launched an investigation into the incident to determine the cause of the accident and to identify measures to prevent similar incidents in the future.
The investigation concluded that the accident was caused by a combination of factors, including human error and technical problems. The investigation revealed that the B-52 bomber was not equipped with a collision avoidance system, and the crew was not trained to use radar to detect other aircraft. The investigation also revealed that the KC-135 tanker was not equipped with a refueling boom that would have allowed the crew to see the other aircraft during the refueling operation.
The Palomares Atomic Bomb accident highlighted the need for better training, equipment, and safety measures for nuclear weapons and their transportation.