Palomares - A Moronic Bomb Accident
17 January 1966
The Palomares catastrophe happened as a result of a failure in in-flight
refuelling of a US Air force B-52 nuclear bomber, code named TEA 16,
by a US Air Force KC-135 tanker over southern Spain. The tanker from
the US Air Force base at Moron in the South-West of Spain collided at
30,000 feet with TEA 16; both planes broke up and seven aircrew were
killed instantly. TEA 16 was carrying four B-28 H-bombs with plutonium
warheads. One crashed down into the sea, damaged but not ruptured; another
landed in a dry riverbed relatively intact: both were eventually safely
recovered. The one that fell into the Mediterranean Sea took 81 days
and 33 naval vessels to recover it, and was given more attention initially
than the bombs that hit the land. The other two bombs were destroyed
on impact with the ground, as the conventional explosive detonated near
the small village of Palomares, in Almer’a province, the second poorest
in Spain. About 10 pounds of plutonium were dispersed in the explosion.
About 650 acres of land were contaminated. It was not possible to cover
up the fact of the accident; but the military authorities kept a tight
reign on information release to the media.
This resulted in a massive plutonium clean-up and decontamination effort
over the next three months, involving some 1,700 US servicemen and Spanish
Civil Guards. The Americans apparently received far better precautionary
protection with special clothing than did the Spanish guards.
JEN was involved with the US Defense Nuclear Agency in co-ordinating
the crisis management: clean up and radiation monitoring of crops and
housing areas. Around 1,750 tonnes of plutonium-contaminated soil was
removed to the US for disposal. A post accident monitoring agreement
was signed between JEN and the US authorities.
The authors of the US Atomic Energy Commission Los Alamos Laboratories
summary report of 1975, on the implications of the Palomares accident,
said "Palomares is one of the few locations in the world that offers
an on-going experimental laboratory, probably the only one offering
a look at an agricultural area."
The summary report also said that as the prevailing winds churned up
plutonium dust and "the total extent of the spread will never be known."
To be continued