Spain - Plutonium Investigation n°16

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."

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