Palomares cleanup depends on “political decision”

THE clean-up in Palomares depends on a decision from the USA to remove the soil, according to the Energy, Environment and Technology Research Centre (Ciemat). The General Manager of Ciemat, Cayetano Lopez, said this week that the decontamination of the area, is pending a “political decision” as to how the soil will be removed and where it will go once it has been taken to the US.

In 1966, two US aircraft collided during a mid-air refuelling operation over the Mediterranean. Of the four Mk28 type hydrogen bombs one of the planes was carrying, three were found on land, near Palomares. Two detonated on impact, resulting in the contamination of a two square kilometre area by radioactive plutonium. The fourth, which fell into the sea, was recovered intact after a two and a half month-long search.

For three days after the accident, the US Government denied that the warplanes had been carrying nuclear weapons. But they sent 30 ships, 3,500 soldiers, 130 divers and four submersibles, along with four tonnes of specialist equipment to recover the bomb.

A total of 2.2 hectares of contaminated soil was placed in 6,000 250-litre drums and shipped to the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina. Seventeen hectares of land with lower levels of contamination was mixed to a depth of 30 cm by harrowing and plowing. Since then, the US government had been paying for Plutonium contamination checks and blood tests for residents in the area, and in 2004, a study revealed significant traces of contamination.

In October 2006, the Spanish and United States governments agreed to decontaminate the remaining areas and share the workload and costs, estimated at some €25m. In April 2008, CIEMAT announced they had found two trenches where the US Army stored contaminated earth.

However, according to a report in El Pais last year, under the Obama administration, the US stopped paying the €314,000 per year, saying that their financial obligation to Spain ended in 2009. Spain then requested help under the premise that the US should remove the land, a project which would take an estimated two years.

No answer was received until last November, in the form of a note in which the US claimed they needed to carry out more studies before making a decision. Seven months on, Palomares is still waiting for an answer.

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