Spain waiting 46 years for US to finish nuclear clean-up

On a sunny morning in 1966 two US Air Force planes collided and dropped four nuclear bombs near the village of Palomares in southern Spain. There was no nuclear blast, but plutonium was scattered over a wide area – and Spain is now asking the US to finish the clean-up…

Overhead, at 31,000ft, an American B-52G bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker plane during routine air-to-air refuelling and broke apart. Three of the bomber’s H-bombs landed in or around Palomares, the fourth landed about five miles offshore in the Mediterranean…

In fact, no-one on the ground was killed that morning. Local people call it the only positive part of this story.

The American airmen weren’t so lucky. All four men on the refuelling plane died and three of the seven men on the B-52 were killed (the four others managed to eject safely).

There was only one telephone in Palomares in 1966, and no running water. But the skies over that poor region of southern Spain were being criss-crossed daily by the world’s most modern war machines. The Cold War excused everything and anything.

The outcome would have been immeasurably worse if the bombs had been armed. Fortunately they weren’t, so there was no nuclear explosion.

In theory, parachutes attached to the bombs should have borne them gently down to earth, preventing any contamination – but two of the parachutes failed to open…

The two that fell to earth unsupported by parachutes blew apart on impact, scattering highly toxic, radioactive plutonium dust – a major hazard to anyone who might inhale it…

In Palomares itself, the US and Spain agreed to fund yearly health-checks on residents, and to monitor the soil, the water, the air, and local crops.

Over the years since there’s been no evidence that anyone has fallen ill as a result of the accident. The food and water remain clean…

So Palomares is like a sleeping dragon. You can’t walk in the fenced-off area, and you can’t farm it or build on it. The message from the Department of Energy is: “Let the plutonium lie and there’s no problem.” Yet local people say that in itself is a problem…

The community finds itself trapped. When residents complain, the accident makes headlines again and there’s a drop in the number of visitors, and a drop in the prices farmers get at market for their produce…

As to when an agreement might be reached – over who pays for the second clean-up, how it will be done, and where the contaminated soil will be stored – that’s still up in the air.

The Deputy Mayor Juan Jose Perez hopes to turn things into a Roswell-style tourist attraction. Never a shortage of folks curious about important disasters. Right?

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