PALOMARES, Spain (WHTM) — It was called Operation Chrome Dome. On January 17, 1966, a USAF B-52G bomber, which flew from Seymour Air Force Base in North Carolina to somewhere near the Soviet Union’s border with Europe, was preparing to perform its second mid-air refueling of the mission with a KC-135 tanker over the Mediterranean Sea. Then, as the B-52 pilot later put it, “All hell seemed to break loose.”
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The two planes collided, and the fuel load on the tanker plane exploded. All four crewmembers of the tanker were killed, as well as three of the seven men on the B-52. The other four were able to parachute to safety.
And from the destroyed B-52 fell four thermonuclear bombs-H bombs, as they are often called. One of them splashed into the Mediterranean. The other three crashed into the land around Palomares, an agricultural and fishing community in the Almería province of Spain. One of them landed relatively intact, but the non-nuclear explosives in the other two detonated on impact. The nuclear explosives, uranium and plutonium, did not go off, but in a classic demonstration of the “dirty bomb” scenario, the conventional explosives scattered about seven pounds of Plutonium 239 across a large swath of land.
US Air Force personnel from Torrejón Air Base near Madrid were sent to Palomares to access the situation and begin cleanup. The U.S. Navy sent ships to search for the bomb which fell into the water. Included in the fleet was the DSV Alvin, a research submarine operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. (If the name of the sub rings a bell with you, it’s probably because twenty years later, in 1986, she would be the first manned submersible to explore the R.M.S. Titanic.)
It took 80 days of looking, with scuba divers, hardhat divers, and submersibles, until Alvin finally located the bomb on March 15, in 2,550 feet of water. The first attempt to recover the bomb failed; it slipped loose while trying to attach lift lines and slid into deeper water. Alvin found it again on April 2 at a depth of 2,900 feet. On April 7 CURV-1, an unmanned, cable-controlled torpedo recovery craft, attempted to attach a line to the bomb but got entangled in the weapon’s parachute. The bomb and sub were winched up together to a depth of 100 feet, where divers attached cables. The nuclear weapon was brought to the surface, put on a ship, and taken to the United States.
Meanwhile ground cleanup continued around Palomares. 1,600 people, mostly Air Force personnel, spent months digging up soil, loading it into barrels, and shipping it off to a nuclear waste facility. In all about 10,000 cubic meters of soil were removed at a cost of about $80 million dollars.
Before long, people who worked on the cleanup started getting sick. Cancers, blood diseases, skin diseases, and a whole plethora of health issues began cropping up among veterans who moved the soil around Palomares. But many were denied disability benefits from the Veteran’s Administration based on Air Force radiation exposure estimates.
Then in 2016, the 50th anniversary of the accident, the New York Times published a scathing article detailing the sufferings of the veterans, and how they’d been stonewalled in their efforts to get help.
In 2017 one of the veterans, Victor Skaar, sued the Department of Veterans Affairs in the specialized Court of Appeals for Veterans Affairs, requesting, among other things, that the Palomares veterans be given class-action status. The court granted that status in 2019, and in 2020 ordered the VA to review the Palomares veteran’s eligibility for benefits. Then on August 10, 2022, President Biden signed the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, which seeks to ensure compensation and benefits to military personnel exposed to toxins-including the radioactive material at Palomares.
In Palomares itself, the people are still dealing with the aftermath of the event more than half a century later. While no official estimates have been published, there is still plutonium in the area. (In 2008 two trenches of radioactive soil were discovered, apparently buried by the Americans late in the cleanup.) Some areas are fenced off, and residents of the area are tested annually by Spanish and American research groups. Plankton and snails in the area show unusually high levels of radiation.
(To read the New York Times article click here.)
The half-life of Plutonium is 24,000 years.