By Jennifer Popplewell •
Published: 25 Nov 2023 • 21:01
The contaminated crash
“THE hand of God protected Palomares.” That was the phrase that was uttered with relief on the fateful day of January 17, 1966.
That day of blue skies and summer sun, a day where an Almeria town that was normally quiet and peaceful was put on the world’s radar by the operation dubbed ‘Chrome Dome’.
The 1966 Palomares B-52 crash, also called ‘The Palomares Incident’, was a nuclear accident in Almeria that nearly ended in complete and utter devastation. This infamous Spanish story was recently revisited on the PBS America channel, which has sparked the event to be remembered and brought it back into conversations, especially here in Almeria.
It all occurred on 17 January 1966, when a B-52G bomber of the United States Air Force’s Strategic Air Command collided with a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refuelling at 31,000 feet over the Mediterranean Sea. The KC-135 was destroyed when its fuel load ignited, killing all four crew members. The B-52G broke apart, killing three of the seven crew members aboard.
After this, four thermonuclear bombs fell on the town of Palomares which is situated in the district Cuevas del Almanzora in Almeria. Palomares became an involuntary victim of the Cold War which was being fought between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Three of the weapons were located on land within 24 hours of the accident, the first weapon to be discovered was found nearly intact. However, the conventional explosives from the other two bombs that fell had detonated without setting off a nuclear explosion, which ignited the pyrophoric plutonium and produced a cloud that was dispersed by a 30-knot wind. A total of 2.6 square kilometres was contaminated with radioactive material. This included residential areas, farmland (especially tomato farms) and woods.
Four days after the accident, the Spanish government under Franco’s dictatorship stated that “the Palomares incident was evidence of the dangers created by NATO’s use of the Gibraltar airstrip”, announcing that NATO aircraft would no longer be permitted to fly over Spanish territory.
To defuse public alarm over contamination, on March 8 of that year the Spanish minister for information and tourism Manuel Fraga Iribarne and United States ambassador Angier Biddle Duke remarkably swam on the beaches of Mojacar and Palomares in front of the press.
In 2004, a study revealed that there was still some significant contamination present in certain areas, and the Spanish government subsequently expropriated some plots of land which would otherwise have been slated for agriculture use or housing construction.
On October 19 2015, Spain and the United States signed an agreement to further discuss the cleanup and removal of contaminated land. The two countries were to negotiate a binding agreement to further restore and clear up the Palomares site and arrange for the disposal of the contaminated soil at an appropriate site in the U.S.
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Jennifer is a proud northerner from Sheffield, England, who is currently living in Spain. She loves swimming in rivers, talking to the stars and eating luxurious chocolate.
A court found that it was not the responsibility of Spain’s Nuclear Safety Council (CSN) but failed to say whose responsibility it was. Is this still the situation? Surely common sense would say it’s the country that caused the situation in the first place!
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