US to finish cleaning up Spanish site we turned radioactive 49 years ago


Nearly 50 years after a US air force B-52 bomber carrying nuclear weapons crashed in Palomares in south-east Spain, Washington has finally agreed to clean up the radioactive contamination that resulted from the crash.

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, and the Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, signed an agreement in Madrid on Monday to clean up the site and “store the contaminated earth at a suitable location in the United States”…

The Palomares crash was the worst nuclear accident of its time. On 17 January 1966, at the height of the cold war, the B-52 bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker plane during mid-air refuelling off the coast of Almería, Spain, killing seven of the 11 crew members.

The B-52 was carrying four hydrogen bombs more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two were recovered intact from the sea but the others leaked radiation into the surrounding countryside when their plutonium-filled detonators went off, strewing 3kg of highly radioactive plutonium 239 around Palomares.

Shortly after the accident, the US shipped 1,700 tonnes of contaminated earth to South Carolina, after which the incident was largely forgotten. Worries that it would destroy the budding Spanish tourist industry led the minister of tourism under the dictator Gen Franco, Manuel Fraga, to take a much-photographed swim in the sea with the American ambassador to prove that the waters were safe…

Concern over the site was reawakened in the 1990s when tests revealed high levels of americium, an isotope of plutonium, and further tests showed that 50,000 cubic metres of earth were still contaminated. The Spanish government appropriated the land in 2003 to prevent it being used.

Meanwhile, our government made it clear to the people of Spain how much of a priority we assign to cleaning up after the messes made by our military. Actually, we already have a pretty consistent record around the world.

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