Spain gets close-up look at the Palomares disaster

In a sunny corner of the world where nothing much ever happened, Martin Moreno climbed atop a leaking American hydrogen bomb and smiled as he tried to pry loose a souvenir.

Oblivious to the danger, the fruit wholesaler poked a screwdriver in a crack in the weapon as it released plutonium, working unsuccessfully to secure his prize. “I’ve never regretted that, nor have I been afraid,” Moreno, an engaging, healthy-looking man of 68, said in recounting that winter morning in 1966.

But his bird’s-eye view of those 1,5-megatons of destructive power—Hiroshima 75 times over—didn’t last long.

US troops and Spanish police, sent to find that H-bomb and three others that plummeted from a B-52 in a mid-air refueling accident, swarmed around the three-metre-long weapon and carted if off.

Most people in this sleepy farming hamlet on Spain’s southeast tip never saw the weapons, one of which ended up in the Mediterranean. Nor did they get a peek inside the tent city thrown up to house the 800 American troops who searched for the bombs and cleaned up the radioactive mess.

But now the camp and much of Spain’s worst-ever nuclear scare are on display for the first time in this country at a photo exhibit based on 16-mm footage from the National Archives in Washington.

Another B-52 carrying four H-bombs crashed off Thule, Greenland, in 1968 but the plutonium contamination occurred at sea.
Palomares was the first case of nukes lost in a populated area. In 1966, Spain was under the thumb of General Francisco Franco, and about the only image most Spaniards remember from the disaster is a chirpy newsreel in which Information Minister Manuel Fraga and US.

Ambassador Angier Duke took a swim at a Palomares beach to show it was safe to go back in the water.

In the exhibit, the photos show charred wreckage of the B-52 and the tanker plane, soldiers hauling thousands of barrels of contaminated soil onto ships bound for a nuclear cemetery, doctors sticking swabs up people’s noses to extract samples for radiation checks, and military divers and mini-subs looking for the bomb that fell into the sea and eluded recovery for 75 days.

The exhibit titled Operation Broken Arrow: Nuclear Accident in Palomares opened in May in the provincial capital Almeria and will make a tour of Spain.

It is the work of Spanish film producer Antonio Sanchez Picon and photographer Jose Herrera, who has been researching the Palomares incident for nearly 20 years.

Assuming US forces would have filmed themselves in Palomares—as they had in World War II—Sanchez Picon searched the National Archives website under the word Palomares.

“Eureka! Eight hours of film,” he said.

The exhibit features 60 frames selected from 36 reels—700 000 frames altogether—of declassified US military footage.

With the Cold War then in full swing, US policy was to keep nuclear-armed warplanes in the air constantly near the Soviet border. Under an accord with the Franco regime, American B-52s had permission to fly over Spain on the mission and rendezvous in Spanish airspace with KC-135 tanker refueling planes.

On the morning of January 17, 1966, a routine refueling operation turned disastrous. It is believed the B-52 flew too fast as it approached the tanker from below. The planes collided, killing seven of 11 crew members and raining 90 tons of flaming wreckage over a 38 square-kilometre area.

And down came the four H-bombs aboard the B-52.

While one bomb splashed into the sea, the other three hit the ground. None exploded—layers of safeguards made that virtually impossible—but 3 kilos of plutonium 239 were released when two bomb detonators did go off. The three bombs on the ground were found in the first 24 hours.

The villagers of Palomares—population 600 then, 1 400 today—went days without knowing they were at ground zero of an unprecedented nuclear accident. “H-bomb, butane gas canister, what difference would it have made?” said Mayor Juan Jose Perez. “This is a rural area. What did people know about bombs?”

But some people caught on when doctors speaking a strange language came around asking for urine samples and waving gadgets that ticked, as seen in the exhibit.

Crops were dug up and burned—a mistake, it turns out, that only served to disperse radioactive particles—and contaminated land was scooped up with tractors.

The mayor says Palomares today has the same cancer rate as the rest of Spain, although the government still tests people at random. Late last year, the government warned against construction where the two semi-detonated bombs fell, saying it wasn’t a good idea to stir up that land.

Eduardo Rodriguez Farre, a Barcelona toxicologist who studied the Palomares accident, said that given the level of sophistication in 1966, the Americans handled the crisis adequately from a technical standpoint.

But while the United States cleaned up its soldiers and monitored them for the rest of their lives, it neglected people in Palomares. “Whatever happened to the Spaniards was their business,” Farre said.

Planes tend not to carry nuclear bombs now, so the main lesson from the crisis was what to do with tainted land. One photo shows row after row of black barrels of tainted earth—labeled in English as poison—waiting to be rolled onto US vessels headed for South Carolina where they were buried.

At the time, the danger of contamination was largely overshadowed by the frantic search for the bomb lurking on the seabed.

A crisis flotilla was assembled: 34 ships, 2 200 sailors, 130 navy divers and four mini-subs. A Spanish fishermen had come forward quickly to say he’d seen something fall that looked like a bomb, but experts ignored him.

A supercomputer calculated where the bomb might be from its possible trajectory, but after weeks only chunks of airplane had been found.

Media around the world expressed stupefaction. Newsweek magazine couldn’t help but rib the Pentagon: “Where, oh, where has our H-bomb gone? Oh where, oh where can it be?”

The fisherman, a garrulous man named Francisco Simo, was summoned back and shown a flawed sketch of the bomb. He sent searchers in the right direction, having memorized the site with visual triangulation, a mariner’s trick used since the time of the Phoenicians. A two-man sub called Alvin finally located the errant nuke under 655 metres of water on March 1, 1966.

But the nightmare was not over. The sub surfaced to recharge its batteries and went back down for the bomb, only to find it had vanished, tumbling 120 metres down an undersea slope.

Several attempts to grab it with mechanical arms failed. The bomb rolled farther down the hill, and when Alvin finally secured the weapon it was perched near a 1 500 metre abyss.

“If they hadn’t got it then, they might never have,” Mayor Perez said. - Sapa-AP

Client Media Releases

Teraco achieves global top 3 data centre ranking
PhD graduate tackles strike participation at Transnet port terminals