Lost Something? – how the US dropped 4 Nuclear bombs on Spain
The threat of nuclear war and mutual annihilation has been credited with the prevention of further global conflicts. The fear of nuclear holocaust was part of daily discourse in both the East and West during the Cold War. Although the number of nuclear weapons have declined considerably since the end of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear destruction still hangs over our heads.
You’d think that the immense destructive potential of these weapons would warrant tight monitoring of where those weapons are. In fact, the US has ‘lost’ nuclear weapons on multiple occasions, a bit like losing your TV remote down the back of the sofa. The lost nukes are known as “Broken Arrows”, and since 1950 there have been 32 Broken Arrow incidents, six of which were never recovered.
Worse still, many of these incidents took place outside of the US. On the morning of January 17, 1966, a B-52 bomber was flying over Spain when it collided with a KC-135 jet tanker as it tried to refuel.
The collision resulted in three 70-kilo hydrogen bombs falling near the town of Palomares, with a further bomb falling in the sea. There were only four survivors from either aircraft. The bombs were not armed and therefore did not wipe out part of Southern Spain, but that is not to say that the incident has had no long term effects.
Two of the bombs’ parachutes failed to deploy, resulting in the bombs disintegrating on impact and scattering radioactive material. A further bomb fell in the Mediterranean sea.
Palomares is a small agricultural and fishing town with somewhere around 1,600 inhabitants. They were soon outnumbered by the 2,000 or so US personnel and Spanish Guardia Civil who were sent to clean up the debris and radiation.
Meanwhile, at sea 33 US vessels were involved in the search for the missing bomb. A local fisherman who witnessed the incident managed to guide the search, and the bomb was recovered from the sea mostly intact on the 15th of March.
While the US personnel took precautions when dealing with the radioactive soil limiting overexposure, the same cannot be said about the Spanish counterparts. The US and Spanish were quick to set out and convince the world that there was no danger.
The US Ambassador at the time, Biddle Duke even travelled south from the capital for a swim in the sea off of Palomares in front of the cameras. An agreement was made to fund yearly check-ups for residents, the soil, water and air. The US Government also paid out over $700,000 to settle the 536 Spanish claims.
Although the US argues that the clean up was a success because nobody fell ill, some argue that Palomares is still a sleeping dragon. While it is hard to determine how much plutonium is still out there as the United States never disclosed how much was originally carried, Spanish investigator Carlos Sancho estimates that between 7-11kg material ended up still in the soil. A large fenced-off area still remains untouched as disturbing the soil could lead to the plutonium being dispersed.
While the authorities may be happy to ignore the issue and leave the issue untouched, the locals have a different opinion. They state that the event and fenced off area gives a negative image of the town, limiting its tourist industry. The US only agreed to clean up the remaining contamination in the area in 2015. 40 veterans involved in the search for the missing bomb were identified by The Times back in 2016 – 21 had cancer.