B52 KC-135A

The Day The US Accidentally 'Nuked' Spain

B52 KC-135A

It sounds like something dreamed up by Hollywood or conspiracy theorists, but it's completely true.

Like a hybrid of the 1947 UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico, and the plot of the film 'Broken Arrow', the Palomares Incident features an obscure desert village and missing nuclear weapons.

Unlike the John Travolta movie, however, the missing nukes at Palomares were not the result of foul play.

In the 1960s, with the US and NATO focused on the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons were carried aboard B-52s, frequently over Europe. 

It was one of these that crashed on January 17, 1966, colliding with a KC-135 tanker while in the process of mid-air refuelling over southern Spain.

Dr. Strangelove featured a renegade general sparking nuclear war, but Palomares shows accidents were as serious a concern

The resulting explosion killed all four men aboard the tanker, and three of the seven on the bomber, leaving the remaining four to parachute to safety.

As the plane broke apart, one of the four hydrogen bombs aboard plunged into the Mediterranean and the other three plummeted to earth near the isolated village of Palomares.

Lyndon B. Johnson's White House did damage control by focusing media attention on the search for the weapon in the Med. It was eventually recovered in April that year, the international press following the story there all that time.

Meanwhile, the bigger story had got lost. 

The conventional explosives of two of the three weapons that hit the ground had set off on impact.

Palomares incident hydrogen bombs on display
Two of the bombs on display at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in New Mexico

While not causing an actual nuclear detonation, the conventional explosion had scattered nuclear material from the bombs over a 2km² area.

Professor John Howard, a researcher of the incident, released a book of photographs last year as part of efforts to show the lasting impact of the bombs, by photographing Palomares as it looks today.

The images in 'White Sepulchres' show deserted and empty buildings and a gay nudist site which has emerged as agriculture in the area has declined.

Palomares incident
Gay clubs and nudists have become prevalent. Pictures: John Howard

According to Vice magazine:

"It tells the story of the cover-up and impact of the bombs through its eerie, desolate imagery, which stands in contrast to the visceral and violent images we might have seen of Chernobyl or Fukushima."

Howard, meanwhile, told the publication that people with landholdings and agricultural interests in the area have worked to keep the issue quiet:

"They don't want their migrant farm workers to know they are harvesting soil that contains plutonium. Nowadays, there's also a tourism industry, and the proprietors of those venues don't want visitors to know that thousands of barrels of hot soil were filled and then shipped away for burial... [or] left there and buried; a literal cover-up."

Palomares incident
Farming and grazing continue to this day. Pictures: John Howard

The dispersal of the original population in the years that followed the incident, and the impossibility of tracking those who pass through, means that it's been difficult to quantify the long-term health effects on those in Spain.

Palomares incident aftermath - contaminated soil
Barrels of contaminated soil ready for removal

Howard points out that at the time, Spain's dictatorial regime did a poor job of monitoring the area, as did the US, leading him to believe that an international body is needed.

While produce is still farmed and exported from the area, Howard states in the interview that he is more concerned about the risk to locals than consumers:

"I'm worried about those migrant workers, hands in the soil, kicking up dirt. They have the greatest likelihood of inhaling plutonium. And five years down the line, if they get cancer, we don't necessarily know where they are going to be. So attribution becomes very difficult".

American service personnel serving in Spain at the time have also become concerned about the effects of the radiation on them.

Last year, the New York Times reported on a number of USAF veterans chasing the government for compensation and recognition that they were exposed to dangerous contamination at Palomares.

Palomares incident - unsold apartments
Unsold apartments in the town. Picture: John Howard

Retired Technical Sergeant John Garmen says that authorities "had no record of [him] being exposed to any radiation" despite saying "none of [them] were issued any protective clothing, [and they] had no respiratory equipment" while searching for the missing bombs in Spanish fields.

The Times, though, says men like Sergeant Garmen were likely deliberately ignored and marginalised:    

"In 1967, the Atomic Energy Commission issued a classified memo. It detailed the military's refusal to continue monitoring the Palomares responders. It was known as the 'sleeping-dog policy'".

But Palomares is ultimately just one of many "broken arrow" incidents - accidents involving nuclear weapons, warheads or components which do not create the risk of nuclear war - of which the public is largely unaware.

While the US admit to 32 "broken arrows" in total, investigative journalist Eric Schlosser puts the figure at 100 for just the 1950s:

"The template for US defence in the case of a "broken arrow" is to deny, and if people find out, to minimise. This means they forever belittle the event of Palomares in their reports - "tiny little village", "sleepy". Journalists were using these demeaning trivialising discourses, too."

Fortunately, awareness of this formerly neglected side of Cold War history is growing.

Errol Morris' 2003 film The Fog of War highlighted former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's attempts to raise awareness about the very real dangers of a nuclear war triggered by political or military miscalculation.

Meanwhile, Schlosser's 2013 book "Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and Illusion of Safety" trawls through the long list of US nuclear accidents and near misses, and has since been turned into a documentary.

In an article for the Guardian called "Nuclear weapons: an accident waiting to happen", Schlosser gives a chilling snapshot into his research.

American weapon designers of the Cold War didn't, he says, fully understand just how vulnerable to accident their bombs were:

"A plane crash, a fire, a missile explosion, lightning, human error, even dropping a weapon from an aircraft parked on a runway were found to be potential causes of a nuclear explosion".

One example he lists is the Damascus, Arkansas incident of his book's title, in which a maintenance part on a nuclear warhead went awry and could have produced an explosion that destroyed the entire state.

It is pure luck that the rocket explosion that did occur did not trigger the nuclear warhead as well.

Palomares incident hydrogen bomb recovered from Mediterranean
The Palomares bomb recovered from the Mediterranean

Similarly, just three days before that, North Dakota was also very nearly wiped off the map when a B-52 carrying 12 nuclear weapons caught fire on a runway.

On that occasion, strong winds that blew the flames away from the nukes and a brave firefighter who subsequently put out the blaze saved the day.

And near misses occurred in Britain too.

Just one example involved a B-47 that veered off a runway at RAF Lakenheath in 1956 and ploughed into a storage igloo that held several atomic bombs.

The accident was witnessed by an American officer, who described it in a telegram:

"The B-47 tore apart the igloo and knocked about 3 Mark Sixes. A/C [aircraft] then exploded showering burning fuel overall. Crew perished. Most of A/C wreckage pivoted on igloo and came to rest with A/C nose just beyond igloo bank which kept main fuel fire outside smashed igloo. Preliminary exam by bomb disposal officers says a miracle that one Mark Six with exposed detonators sheared didn't go. Firefighters extinguished fire around Mark Sixes fast."

Fortunately, the plane did not smash into the igloo that stored the nuclear cores of these weapons. Had it done so, Schlosser says, "a large cloud of plutonium could have floated across the Suffolk countryside." He added:

"Plutonium dust can be lethal when inhaled. Once dispersed, it is extremely difficult to clean up, and it remains dangerous for about 24,000 years."

Work like Schlosser's and Howard's are an important reminder of the dangers of nuclear technology, at a time when debates over its use seem to have become commonplace.

If you'd like to find out more about the Palomares incident and its consequences, you can purchase John Howard's book by clicking here (US) or here (UK).

More: 'The Most Powerful Nuclear Weapon In History' 

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