Palomares: whoops, lost a few bombs

Manuel Fraga and Angier Biddle Duke (the American ambassador to Spain) taking a cool bath to show there’s no radioactive contamination in the area. Angier reportedly did not pass a fitness plan on to Manuel.

I happened to read in the paper yesterday about Spain asking the USA to do a little nuclear waste cleanup on a beach near Palomares where the Brits hang out. This piqued my curiosity. I read more. It turns out that in 1966, the USA accidentally dropped 4 atomic bombs on Spain (each of course more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb). By good fortune, the bombs didn’t wipe that part of Spain off the map. As I understand it, a nuclear bomb has a conventional explosion, which will generate enough heat for the nuclear reaction to take place. in this case, the nuclear parts didn’t blow up, but on two of the bombs, the conventional part blew up, which caused some plutonium goo to ooze out.

The bombs got dropped because a B-52 carrying the bombs was being refueled in the air. Now one might say that refueling a jet plane from another plane in mid-air is a tad risky, so it would be advisable not to have in-flight atomic bombs. But there was a reason: the USA was afraid the USSR would destroy most of their on-the-ground bombs, so they developed a program to have atomic bombs flying in the air 24/7. You’d think that with a few planes in circulation, they could take turns refueling on the ground when the pilots get sleepy, but the only book written about Palomares (with a bonus section of 34 other nuclear accidents) is out of print, so my questions will remain unanswered.

After the accident, the USA and Spain put the nuclear dirt in barrels, and shipped the barrels back to the USA. But the real problem was that one bomb was missing. The Air Force was 100% sure that there were 4 nuclear bombs, but only 3 were found. The mystery remained until a fisherman named Paco Orts said, “yeah, I saw something drop out of the sky when I was out fishing”. With that clue plus 80 days of searching, the Navy finally found the bomb. They tried to bring it up out of the water but dropped it — probably kinda slimy by that time. So it took another 16 days before they found it again, and brought it back home.

Now according to maritime law, if you identify the location of a ship that’s sunk, you have a right to 1% of the value of what’s been saved. At an estimated value of $2 billion for an atomic bomb, 1% is $20 million. Paco was nobody’s fool. He took a trip to New York with his lawyer. The Air Force settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Once the nuclear dirt was cleaned up (at a cost of $60 million), the Spanish Minister of Tourism and the US ambassador to Spain both put on their swimsuits at a nearby resort and frolicked in the ocean to show it was all safe — wikipedia neglected to say who had the better figure. Hollywood made a 1966 movie about the incident called “Finders Keepers”, starring Cliff Richard (the movie’s tagline: “The beat is the wildest! The blast is the craziest!”). Then in 2004, a study showed there were contaminated snails in the area. After 11 years of discussion, the USA agreed with Spain yesterday to send in their cleanup crews again.

And there you have it, the wild wooly days of tottering on the edge of mass destruction.

 

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